Wednesday 25 January 2012

Mommy brain

Slowly I drive backwards, manoeuvring carefully to avoid pre-schoolers at large. The parking lot is small and spilling over. In the rear I pause, needing to change gear for the car and myself. Before I can accelerate I see a car in front of me slowly backing towards me. I wait. The cars pulls further back, and further. Does she not see me? Really? My hands flap around the wheel, should I honk, pull back quickly? But anything could be behind me and before I can decide I feel a thud. We collide, bumper to bumper. In the car in front of me I see a silhouette, still, bend over the wheel, cupping her face. Then, she gets out. She apologises, extensively. I smile, don’t worry about it. Nervously she studies my bumper, looking for marks. I see plenty. But not on the bumper she just grazed. She keeps apologising and I keep dismissing, keep smiling. After a while she finds a tiny crack in the number plate. She asks for a pen, paper, and whether I want her number, for damages. I smile again and point at all the scratches, bigger than hers. If it even is hers. I’ll find you, I say, if my stricter husband thinks otherwise. She nods at me, desperately. Or tell me your name, I say, to make her feel better. She is Mary, mum of Henry in the blue group.

On the way home I keep smiling. Why do mothers lose their brains in the chaos of every day? Pregnancy brain, we like to call it, but it does not leave your body when the baby does. I turn all my own incidents over in my brain. The car I brushed by at the petrol station, already late for school. The side mirror I hit on a car by the side of the road, distracted by a screaming back seat. To which I returned, blushing with shame, an hour later with a windscreen note. A birthday party for Tijm’s friend that I simply forgot. My mobile phone, of which I now have two, identical, ones, after I lost it not once, twice or even trice last year. And found again. The times I drove happily to little gym, until Tijm asked whether we should not pick up Linde from the child-minder first. And so it goes on, and on, and on. I am surprised I have not yet lost a child.

When a mother hears a child, in the supermarket, screaming, wailing and kicking, she only thinks one thought. Thankfully. It is not mine. That is exactly how I felt when Mary bumped my bumper today. Thankful. It wasn’t me. At least. Not today.

Monday 23 January 2012

Fishy little balls

It is cold and damp, the wind whistles around the house and beats the trees. Drops hang from red noses and coughing sounds everywhere. Appetites are minimal, just now when we need our vitamins most. A good thing that mama knows a trick to get vitamins, minerals and healthy fats into toddlers and pre-schoolers. We are going to hide vegetables and fish in crispy little balls. Tijm comes running as I put the ingredients down on the worktop. ‘Mama, can I help?’
Off course he can. Food made with your own hands tastes the best.

Suspiciously Tijm eyes the ingredients. What are we making?
Cheerful and precise Tijm throws fish in the blender. He likes fish. But when I put my knife in the carrot and the courgette he shouts: ‘No mama! Not green. I don’t like green.’
‘Carrot is not green,’ I comment.
‘It is,’ says Tijm and that says it all.

When I put the balls on the table he screams. ‘I do not like fishballs!’
‘Taste one,’ I insist. He refuses, I persist, and after some, or rather a lot of debate he tries, reluctantly.
‘And, do you like it?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he nods, positively. ‘I do not like them.’
He pricks another one on his fork, chews, swallows, and shakes his head.
Then, he polishes off the plate.

Fishballs with carrot and courgette

300 g mixed fish (any will do, salmon, cod, mackerel, haddock, whiting)
1 small courgette
1 carrot
1 egg
4 spoons of (glutenfree) oat flakes
handful of finely chopped herbs (parsley, dill or thyme)
breadcrumbs or polenta for coating

Chop the fish very fine or smooth it briefly in a blender. Grate the carrot and courgette and mix them through the fish, together with the egg, oatmeal and herbs. Make sure the mixture is neither too thin nor too thick, it needs to be nice and firm so you can shape it into little balls. If it is too wet add some more oat flakes. Let the mixture cool and stiffen in the fridge, preferably for about an hour. This will make it easier to shape. Roll little balls of around 3 cm and flatten them slightly. You can also make slightly larger disk shaped fish burgers than can be served in a bun. Roll the balls through the breadcrumbs or polenta to coat and shallow fry in some hot oil for a few minutes on each side. Ready rolled balls can be frozen so one portion will make several meals. Serve with tomato sauce and fried potatoes.

For variation you can add other vegetables (just make sure they are not too wet) and spices. Why not some curry powder and fresh coriander for an Indian version, and serve with mango chutney and yoghurt.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Here and now

A year ago, around this time, not far from where I am sitting, I was hunched over my birthing ball. De doorbell rang. Never have I lived as intensely in the moment. I clenched Roel’s hand. I did not let him go, not even to open the door for the midwife. Word by word, image by image, I can remember what happened next. Not so much the pain, but me running to the pool, and after, on the sofa, baby Jasmijn on my belly. Tijm and Linde with Roel next to us, smiling. Me and my family. Nothing else existed.

What I did yesterday is fuzzy and grey and what I’ll do tomorrow I do not know. Of the future I can only dream. My mind is in Malaysia, thirty years ago, in my new book. Last year exists in snapshots. A broadly smiling baby on the beach. A little girl, blonde pigtails, and a mouth purple with blackberry juice. A boy, stirring a bowl of pancake batter. Roel and me on a rock, the kids on our laps, smiling at the camera. Click. The photograph caught our happiness.

It’s is delightful when you don’t dream but just are. Are here and now. Here and now a princess and a king are playing in a tent. The princess, in a glimmering pink dress, lines up her ladies in waiting. Poppa, Pop, Nelly and Upsiedaisy. The tent is their castle. She pulls my sleeve. Hungry. She wants a sandwich with chocolate sprinkles. In an hour, I point at the clock. The king runs to the back door, wanting to see whether the beans he planted yesterday have come up yet. When spring comes, I say. Tomorrow we will see. But here and now knows no tomorrow.

Along the sofa a little creature walks, grinning. It is a year ago that she was born. The year is gone but we did not lose it. It was a rough year full of beautiful things. I put it away, in a drawer. The difficulties first, in the bottom, the better things on top to cover. The best memories I put on the wall, in a frame. There is so much to cherish and keep. Mouths dirty with apple syrup. A broad grin with only two teeth. A pondering look with which a checkers piece is moved. Two arms sticking out of a duvet demanding a nuddle. Late night, the two of us on the sofa. A skipping boy with his rug sack, on his way to nursery. A duck, clenched in little fists. Never-ending games we played. All biscuits we baked. Eggs for breakfast in the weekend. Running in the garden, around the slide and back. Filling lavender bags. Breastfeeding, on a cliff near the sea. Tijm’s garden, with it’s ice-lolly sticks. A flannel pyjama with pink roses. The fastest crawler. Muddy boots. Finding acorns in the wood. The climbing tree. Blackberries. A little body wriggling out of nappy changing.

The wall is full, overflowing. I turn my back to it and crawl into the tent to find here and now. There is cake to eat.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Hip, hip, hurray!

I remember it clearly, last year January, me and my bump. December with it’s lights and cheer was over and the only thing left to do was wait. Eleven dark days can last very long. But finally, suddenly, it happened and today we celebrate. A little party for a little girl. She is one today.

No party without cake so we debate what to make.
‘Dada,’ Jasmijn babbles.
Tijm has a think, and asks, ‘Jasmijn can’t have any milk, can she, mummy?’
I admit, he’s right. ‘And mummy can have no gluten,’ I add. Baking is no simple affair in our house.
‘Chocolate!’ Linde yells.
‘No,’ says Tijm, ‘Jasmijn can’t have chocolate either.’
‘Yes, she can,’ I respond. ‘She can have dark chocolate, without milk.’
Tijm shakes his head. ‘She wants apple pie.’
I look at the fruit bowl. ‘No, we only have two apples. Not enough.’
Tijm runs over to the kitchen and returns with a bunch of bananas. ‘Banana cake,’ he shouts. And then, before Linde objects, ‘No, I know. Banana-chocolate cake!’

And so it was decided. We made a gluten and cow’s milk free cake, with bananas and chocolate. I used my favourite brownie recipe. A very simple recipe, easily whipped together. I had never yet made it gluten free, but it was time to try. The only thing we had to do was substitute the butter with a dairy free alternative. Since there was no margarine in the house I used a mixture of cocoa butter, coconut fat and sunflower oil (50 g each). The coconut fat gave a sweet coconutty flavour to the brownies, and the mashed banana made them scrumptiously moist. Honestly, our free from version tasted better than the original!

You can easily play around with this recipe. You can make the original, by leaving out the banana and use wheat flour and butter. Alternatively, depending on what you want to leave out, substitute one or more of the ingredients. Or, even better, get creative and come up with your own version!

Banana brownies

160 g butter, margarine or alternative
160 g dark chocolate
300 g sugar
170 g flour (I use Dove’s farm gluten free)
1 dash of salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 eggs
2 mashed bananas
handful of chopped nuts (optional)

Melt the butter or substitute with the chocolate in a large saucepan. Turn off the heat. Then, one by one, add the sugar, the flour, eggs, and other ingredients in the above sequence. Stir well after each addition. Finally add the mashed banana, nut or other inclusions, and stir well. Pour the mixture into a greased baking tray and bake for around 30 minutes at 180 degrees.

Friday 6 January 2012

The Choice

Tijm pulls his green jumper out of the wardrobe. ‘Look mummy, for my new school!’
I nod, the jumper is just like the uniform of the primary school we visited yesterday. Tijm is ready.

Now we have make a choice, the incomprehensible English school system is slowly starting to unravel. Not that there is much choice. Well, there are public schools, off course. That is, if your four year old passes the entrance exam and you manage to get together over eleven thousand pounds, per child, per year. Not a choice everyone can make. Still, there are plenty, that forego holidays, get a smaller house, just to improve their child’s chance on a good university and therefore job. Even in the twenty-first century. But still. A friend, after a tour of our local public school, highly impressed, sighed, how all reception children sat, in utter silence, working at their desks. Learning to read and write at four years old. My stunned ‘No way,’ was misunderstood. ‘Yes, isn’t it great!’ was my reply. Academically these schools are more than excellent. Yet their rigid, girl-less, environment does not seem right for my lively boy.

State schools vary from outstanding, good and satisfactory to inadequate. Even though here, as well, learning starts at four, a frightening percentage leaves school without knowing how to write. Deep fried food is served. Admission is based on distance, in meters, to the school. Which means you decide when you sign the lease for your house. Something we, as foreigners, obviously did not realise. Luckily our well-off commuters town is known for it’s excellent schools. But, due to a recent babyboom, the schools are bursting at their seams. The mothers are stressed. Who lives a meter outside the catchment area is banned to an unpopular school on the outskirts of town.

The choice of school is a Very Important Matter. The mothers talk of little else. All schools are visited, reports studied, chances weighed. Good strategy is required. Which school will be number one on your list? Which second and third?
I observe, but don’t get it. Do these mothers like their illusion of choice? Do they want to make sure they show themselves to have tried everything? I have long resigned myself to the fact that I will be allocated my neighbourhood school, regardless what I put on my list. A school that has had a bad reputation, but with a new head managed to score a ‘good’. Country wise a good score, but in our town of snobs somewhat shabby, next to the other school’s ‘outstanding.’ Though not nearly as bad as the ‘satisfactory’ of that one school, the mothers nightmare.

No, our school is fine. But it is still an English school, where four year olds need to sit still and learn, as academic achievement is what the government that gives out the ranking wants. The school is at walking distance, next to the nursery school, and has a nice atmosphere. And, Tijm can go with his friend down the road, even though his mum put another school first. We are not unhappy.

Then, all of a sudden, there is a choice. A new school. A free school. Montessori. No British sternness, standing in lines, yes sir. We visit the information meetings and are impressed by the inspiring founders. And now we have to choose. But how do you judge something that does not exist? On practical grounds? We cannot walk to this school, not even cycle over our hills without cycle lanes. It is not next to the nursery school. It does not even have a building and might start in a temporary shed. Only the first three years will start. But against that there is the Montessori philosophy, which appeals to me, especially compared to the static, old-fashioned English education system.
The choice is so little tangible. ‘Which school, then?’ asks Tijm, when I say he might not go to the school with the green uniforms. I can not explain to him. I can not feel the school, smell it’s food, hear it’s sounds. I can not see it’s children, which will hopefully run noisily through reception or, even better, it’s luscious garden.

Now I finally have a choice, I can not choose.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

A real princess

Once upon a time there was a little girl. Hours she sat, flicking through pages of the toy shop catalogue. Time and time again she glanced back at that one page that glimmered and shone. There was nothing else we could have put under the Christmas tree for her. When she opened the parcel she uttered a long and resonant Ahhh. Linde’s pincess dress. Finally, a real one, pink and pearly. And a golden crown. The dress went on and never came off again. Our daughter is no longer an ordinary blonde. Linde is a princess.

With the matching attitude. Regular food, the princess does not like. Yes, peanut butter sandwiches. Warm aniseed milk. Chocolate and gingerbread. Pancakes with salmon. But baked potatoes? She shakes her pedantic little nose. Pasta bolognaise? Well, one bite, high handed, from the tip of her fork. So mama has no choice. She cooks Princess-pasta. Pink pasta, garnished with pink fish and a dash of cream. And now we hope it will gain her highness's approval.

Princess-pasta, with beetroot and salmon

4 cooked beetroot

juice of one lemon

125 ml sour cream

200 g soft goats cheese

1 teaspoon corn flour

hand of (fresh) dill

pepper and salt

smoked salmon

Cook you favourite pasta. Heat the beetroot and puree them. Stir the corn flour into the sour cream and add this mixture to the beetroot puree. Add lemon juice, pepper, and salt to your taste. The sauce should be nice and thick, so it will stick to the pasta. Stir everything together, with some finely chopped dill, hen crumble the cheese over the dish. Finish with a dash of sour cream and some dill.

A gingerbread house for all

Bells ring, lights twinkle and carols swirl gently through the room. Christmas time has arrived. Hail and wind pound the house from the outside, but as school is closed we have nowhere to go. We stay in, where it’s warm and smells of pine needles and spicy cake. The Christmas holidays last long but have a lot of things to do. Things that taste good. We will bake a gingerbread house.

Only what kind? Glutenfree, for me? Dairy free for Jasmijn? Cooking in our house is no longer easy. Can I make a solid, easy recipe for glutenfree gingerbread from which I can build a house that won’t fall apart? I like a challenge. .

But, I have promised Moodkids Magazine a recipe, with pictures, so I can take no risks. Besides, most of their readers won’t eat glutenfree. To make a long story short I ended with not one, not two, but three recipes. A simple recipe for a quick house, with gluten and butter, but no egg. A glutenfree variation that works. And finally, I baked some traditional german Lebkuchen.

Lebkuchen resembles gingerbead but is spiced with spices not so different to the Dutch speculaas spices. And, it is made with rye flour and no butter. Rye flour contains very little gluten but still builds a strong house. I used a fairly coarse rye flour, and would recommend using a finer one for a better texture.

Gingerbread (can be made glutenfree or dairyfree)

250 g cold butter, chopped *
600 g flour (wheat flour or glutenfree **)
200 g fine brown sugar
7 table spoons golden syrup
1 teaspoon dark treacle (optional)
1 egg (only when baking glutenfree)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
4 teaspoons ground ginger
1 tablespoon xanthan gum (only when baking glutenfree)
1 table spoon psyllium husk (only when baking glutenfree)

* Can be replaced by a dairy free hard margarine
** I use Dove's Farm gluten free flour

We have a lot to do so I put the kids to work. First we knead the dough. In a large bowl we mix the ingredients.Together we knead all the ingredients into supple dough. If it is too wet add some extra flour, it should not be sticky. Then we let it stiffen up in the fridge for about half an hour. When it is ready we pre-heat the oven at 200 degrees.

We dust a wooden chopping board and a rolling pin with flour and roll the dough until it is about half a centimetre. Then we cut our walls and roof. If you wish you can cut out doors and windows. To make sure you get all your measurements right you can download and print the
Moodkids template
. We bake the walls and roof around 10 to 12 minutes. When they are out of the oven we leave them to cool completely before we touch them. This is especially important with the glutenfree variant, hot biscuit will break. When they are proper cold we can assemble the house. This is best done at night, with no prying toddler fingers and daddy’s helping hands. It then has plenty of time to dry before we decorate. To glue the house together we mix 250 g icing sugar with an egg white.

If necessary, add some more icing sugar or some water. It should be liquid enough to flow but when it is runny it will take very long to set. With a piping bag, which you can easily make from a small plastic bag with the tip cut off, we kit the house together from the inside. If there are any breakages you can mend these with the icing by gluing broken bits together. You can cover this up later while decorating.

When the house is assembled it is time for the best part: decorate! You can use everything you like. Biscuits, candy, marshmallows, chocolate, candy canes, coloured sprinkles. With the same icing mixture we glue all the decorations onto the house. When you work with small children, try to put your perfectionism aside. Let them mess around, it is their house, and if you wanted a perfect one you should have done it alone. Watch out for prying fingers though, especially when you use glutenfree gingerbread

It can be a good idea to let small children not decorate the house directly. From leftover dough bake some small gingerbread man, Christmas trees, stars or even simple circles. Let the children decorate those and stick them to the house later.
Does your house still look a bit worse for wear? A good snow shower of icing sugar covers up a lot. Alternatively spoon some runny icing over the roof and let it drop down.

German Lebkuchen
600 g rye flour
350 g sugar
4 eggs
80 g honey
1 table spoon baking powder
3 to 4 tea spoons spices (ginger or speculaas)

Knead the ingredients together. Let the dough rest at room temperature for a few hours or overnight. Process as described above, but bake at 165 degrees for around 20 minutes.

And so everyone can enjoy one’s house. With or without gluten, dairy, egg or wheat. We hope you will too! Merry Christmas.

Podding peas

I put down a large, green bag. And a pot.
‘Beans,’ growls Tijm. He looks angry. He does not like green beans.
‘No, peas,’ I correct him.
Tijm shakes his head. Peas are green, but little and round. Not long and thin.
He does like peas.
I show Tijm, I crack the pod and it’s treasure rolls out.
‘Peas!’ Tijm cheers.

Linde comes running as well and soon all three of us are hard at work. Four toddler hands break open the beans and peas are rolling everywhere.
‘They are supposed to go in the pot,’ I point out.
Most of them do. The pods go in the strainer.
Baby Jasmijn comes crawling. The strainer intrigues her. She pulls, shakes it, and boom, it tumbles over. Jasmijn gets covered in a wave of pods. Surprised her blue eyes look at me from under the green. She shakes her head, shakes off the pods and grabs one from her hair. Curious she eyes it and sticks it in her mouth. She nibbles and chews the pod.
‘No,’ Tijm shouts, ‘silly Jasmijn. You can’t eat the pod. Eat the pea!’
‘Et pea,’ Linde nods.
She fiddles a pea between her fingertips and puts it in Jasmijn’s mouth.
‘No,’ Tijm shouts again, ‘we need to cook them first.’
Linde agrees and gets her little pan, she fills the saucepan and Tijm rushes to get his own, a frying pan. They cook and stir and fry, all the lovely peas, while I keep podding until the bag is empty and all the pots full. Now we are really going to cook!

We make risi e bisi, a venetian recipe. It is a mild, creamy risotto, and very easy as it does not have to be continuously stirred since that would break up the peas.

Risi e bisi

1 small onion
150 g pancetta, cubed
250 g podded peas
250 g risotto rice
about a litre of stock (vegetable or chicken)
a handful of grated parmesan cheese
olive oil

Cut the onion in little pieces and fry it in a bit of oil. When it get’s transparent add the pancetta and fry a few minutes more. Add the rice and fry this as well, stirring thoroughly to coat every grain in some oil. This will protect the grains from leaking too much starch when we add the broth. Then add the peas and ladle by ladle the hot stock. Stir after every ladle. You should add some stock and stir every few minutes, until the rice is cooked. That should last about twenty minutes. The risotto can stay fairly fluid, but should not become a soup. Creamy and runny it is at it’s best. When the risi e bisi is ready add a good handful of parmesan cheese and pepper and salt to taste.