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Cupcakes with buttercream icing

I’ve been complaining a lot recently. I know, I’m sorry. It’s just that things have genuinely seemed quite bleak; my whole life has felt like one long irritated thought, or one incredibly long moment holding Sam, while bent at an angle trying to do something for Kitty, one-handed (get out Playdough, cut up a pear, turn on Tom&Jerry, play “birdseed”…???…). I’ve constantly felt like it’s 2.05pm and it’s hours till bedtime and it’s raining and we’ve got no visitors and I’ve been awake since 0430 and I can feel a cold coming on. I’ve just been feeling like that all the time. I’ve felt like a weary beast of burden, or like I’m sitting in Economy on a flight to Australia, I’ve felt so far removed from my old self, my old life that I can’t even remember what I miss about it anymore.

Mothers say “I miss going out to the cinema on the spur of the moment. I miss reading a book for hours in bed,” and I think to myself, blankly “I have never done any of those things. Have I?”

But in the last few days there has been a little shift, imperceptible perhaps to anyone but me. It started with Kitty, who has been going through the day like a real trooper on no afternoon nap. Up until now, if I let her have one, she’d nut out for 45 minutes and then be awake until 9pm. But if I didn’t let her have one, the afternoons were unhappy and strained: I felt so bad watching her droop sadly against the sofa, sucking her thumb, all but dozing off. Now even if I put her in bed she doesn’t go to sleep, but rolls around for a bit and then chirrups to come out. And she is cheerful all afternoon, if a bit quiet at times.

And now Sam, who will be 6 months old on the 5th November, has started to show signs of sitting up. Not solidly – these developments are so slow – but he’s getting the hang of sitting on my hip and hooking his arm around mine to hold on. If I put him in the sacred Ikea Ektorp highchair, he can sit there for maybe five minutes, batting a rattle about while Kitty covers him in stickers, until he yaps to be picked up.

Sitting up is probably the single event that a babyhood pivots on. Sitting up brings with it new abilities to concentrate on objects, to put toys with an interesting mouthfeel in the gob, to drool, gently on the carpet and watch one’s sister caper about going “bler-ler-ler-ler-ler” for your entertainment.

So all of a sudden in the darkness there is distant beam, the sweeping swoop of a searchlight that will, inevitably, pick out my lifeboat.

Don’t wish it away, people say. And I understand that. I don’t want to be flippant about it but, really, there is little about Kitty’s early babyhood that I miss. Not now, for god’s sake! Not now that we have actual conversations and in-jokes and she can tell me what she wants and where it hurts and we can discuss the complicated relationship between Tom and Jerry. We can draw each other pictures, play hide-and-seek. Her favourite thing is to put away the Ocado order. It’s just trippy. Blissful. I thought it would take years to reach the stage that all parents get to where they prefer spending time with their child than with anyone else – but in fact here we are.

Why would I miss a time when we couldn’t really communicate? When she couldn’t tell me what was wrong or why she was sad or angry or frustrated? Why would I miss a time when it was so difficult to have fun?

It is easier to have fun with Sam because I am so much better with babies than I was. The hours with Sam just don’t feel as long as they did with Kitty – even if he is having and off day and being a bit of a jerk. I’ve just done so much time, now, with little kids that I can shrug it all off. Ach, it’s just another day in the nuthouse. If he wakes up early in the morning or from his lunchtime nap I don’t curse the world and feel crushed and ill, I just think to myself that for now I just have to hang on until bedtime and, after that, I just have to hang on until he’s walking – then we’ll be laughing.

So all of a sudden I feel incredibly positive about everything. I am planning a Christmas party at our house and I am going to go WILD and get a florist in and a kids’ entertainer and stuff. I have also slowly started to get to grips with the various horrifying areas of clutter in the kitchen and playroom and it’s quite amazing what having a good clear-out can do for your general mental well-being.

And all the baking I am doing for Kitty’s nursery bake-sales is good for the soul. You do end up making an awful lot of fairy cakes when you have kids for one reason or another and I have grown sick of looking up the recipe. But then I remembered a way of making a sponge that is terribly easy and I didn’t even need to look it up to know how to do it.

It is this – you take an egg (if you want to make 6-8 fairy cakes) or 2 eggs (if you want to make a dozen or more, or a small cake) and weigh it/them. Then you use the same weight of self-raising flour, butter and caster sugar.

Then you make the cakes in the normal way – so you cream together the butter and sugar, add the egg or eggs and then fold in the flour, decant into a baking vessel and bake for about 8-10 mins.

Once you have committed this clever short-cut to memory, you can start being creative with your toppings without it feeling too onerous. I made these for a recent bake sale at nursery and I am terribly pleased with them having, as they do, a topping of piped buttercream.

You make buttercream like this:

Take half a pat of butter (125g) and leave to come to room temperature. Then you beat it together with increasing tablespoons of SIEVED – this is important – icing sugar. The actual amount of icing sugar is really up to you. Just do it and taste as you go along until you have something that is pleasingly buttery-sugary.

Then you can dye it any colour you want, (bearing in mind that combined with the slight yellowyness of the buttercream any colour won’t be wildly vibrant, but I think that is more classy anyway), beating the colour in well – (I use Dr Oetker) – and fill a piping bag with it. Using a star-shaped nozzle, pipe the buttercream in a circle around the cupcake starting from the outside and working in. It’s much, much easier than it seems – I have never done this before and it only took me one or two goes to get something I was really pleased with.

I absolutely love all those toppings you can get in the Waitrose baking aisle – tiny butterflies and pearls and stars and all that – and I attached a selection of those to the buttercream and then chilled the cupcakes until they were needed.

Tapenade (NOT)

It is frustrating, I remember, when close friends or relatives have children when you don’t. They disappear, for days, weeks, months – years! – on end with no explanation. What can they possibly be doing, you think, that is so incompatible with replying to emails and text messages? Why do I always get the sense that they would rather do anything than come out for dinner, or go for drinks? Don’t they care about me, their friend, any more? Don’t they understand that they cannot, should not, let their children take over their lives? It’s hard not to take it personally, to write them off.

But let me tell you, please, what we are doing, (as I wipe vanilla ice cream off the buggy, the screams of newborn who does not like getting out of the bath ringing in my ears). If you have one child you are in a constant state of semi-anxiety, if not in an actual no-sleeping, neurotic dark, dark, dark meltdown, and if you have two children you are not so much anxious as spread incredibly thin, like the last scraping of butter (where the FUCK is the Ocado man???) on the last slice of toast.

If I am not with one child, I am with the other. Or I am with both. If I am not with either, I am with my husband, trying to make up for completely ignoring him most of the time. If I am on my own I am organising four peoples’ lives. I am doing Ocado orders, I am making lists, I am writing cheques, I am writing pieces for newspapers, I am frantically checking that I am on top of upcoming birthdays, thank you notes, RSVPs, two sets of medical appointments, the administration requirements of our summer holidays, the administration requirements of Kitty’s nursery, where she starts in September.

And this is all with me having desperately tried to buy my way out of trouble in advance of the birth of Sam. Let me say this: it cannot be done. I’ve got help coming out my fucking ears, it’s like Downton Abbey round my house, and I still feel like I am only just keeping a grip on my life. I feel like I spend all day every day just answering questions. Where’s my this, where’s my that, should Sam wear this? Or is it too hot today? What do you want Kitty to have for lunch? Is there any more bleach? Where is Sam’s passport application? Can I watch Peppa Pig? Can you sign here, love? Where do you want these? Where is dinner tonight? What is dinner tonight? Can I have a biscuit? What’s that noise? WAAAAAHHHHH?? Have you seen my keys?

Then there are the hormones. (At least I hope it’s hormones and therefore temporary.) Oh my god the hormones. Horrifying, massive zits and I feel like if I dared to start crying I’d never stop. After I had Kitty, there was only Kitty to really see the mess Mother Nature’s uppers and downers made on a 30-something woman – but now there are so many more people to be victim of my moods.

This has been made doubly worse by the fact that I’ve had a troll. Yes an actual internet troll, who wrote me a series of emails saying absolutely unspeakable, unrepeatable things about Kitty – the general tone of which was “if you hate Kitty so much, why don’t you kill her?” One email’s subject line was “Kitty is such a little bitch.”

I felt:

1 Horrified: why have I exposed my family to the grossness of the internet by writing this stupid pointless blog.

2 Baffled: WHY would someone bother to send emails like that?

3 Guilty: do I make out like I hate Kitty? Is that how it comes across? Because if that is the case then that is a disaster.

I mostly assume, when I am crouched down next to Kitty, holding very tightly on to her arm and saying in a not-unthreatening voice “You do NOT throw sand. We do NOT DO THAT. If you do that again we are going home” or praying hard for bedtime, that this is a pretty average experience for a parent of toddlers. Some days are delightful, some days are ghastly, surely?

And when I write about it, I write about it reckoning that no-one needs help having a good time with their children, no-one needs help loving their children, or finding them funny or delightful, or clever, or beautiful. All that is easy.

Where we all need help, where I think I help – if at all – is by describing the shit, difficult bits of life when it comes to cooking, relationships and children, in the hope that you will read it and maybe feel less alone. I just want to help you feel less lonely.

But maybe I’m not right. Maybe most people just have a brilliant time with all their kids, all the time, and never have to bite their hands to stop them from dishing out a fury-smack. Maybe I am just a fucking witch.

Anyway, where was I? Sorry, I’m just all over the place. I don’t know what I think about anything anymore. I don’t think I actually really have any thoughts about anything at the moment. I used to have all these ideas and theories about parenting but now all I do is plan, organise and make lists and wonder why there is always someone in my house who is miserable. I’m no longer able to deal in ideas, I deal only in plain facts.

I thought I had a recipe for tapenade to give you here – a great, inexpensive dip that can be whizzed up at short notice for an impromptu warm-weather gathering- but I’ve realised that the magazine feature, which I gave it to as an “exclusive” recipe (snort) keeps being delayed, so I cannot print it here yet either.

I suppose not everyone can be as organised as me.

Rice Krispie treats

So there I was again on a Thursday afternoon doing some baking for the nursery cake sale, so sleep-starved that I actually felt really awake, in the same way that you get incredibly hot and fling off all your clothes just before you die from hypothermia.

Shall I tell you what happened the night before? It’s a really funny story. Okay it’s not – but those of you with children will feel better that you are not the only one having a shit time and those of you with no kids will feel extra smart and terrific about your life choices. 
So both Kitty AND Sam are ill with the same cold – Sam is alright but Kitty’s has gone a bit nasty with a fruity cough and the occasional low-grade fever. Kitty has been falling asleep on the sofa at about 2.30pm these days and so she doesn’t go to bed until 8.30pm. Not ideal but never mind. So we dinged about until 8pm then she went to bed. She seemed happy despite her cough. 
I trotted downstairs to catch up on Bake-Off and at 9.15pm Kitty sat up in bed and started wailing. Then coughing. I went upstairs to see her and she puked down herself and down me (exlcusively, I noticed, phlegm and grossness she has been swallowing for the last fortnight) and started crying. And crying. And CRYING. 
I carried her downstairs to a little bathroom and ran a hot shower with some Olbas Oil in it and sat with her in the steam. She was still weeping and weeping, wailing that she wanted to go back to bed. Coughing and gagging. After ten minutes I took her back upstairs going “shh shh shh!’ terrified she would wake up Sam. I changed her out of her pukey stuff and put her back in her cot. But she kept on crying. She seemed to be nodding off but then something was stopping her. Snotty nose? Headache from the bang on her head she took that morning falling off her scooter?
She eventually fell asleep whimpering to herself. I wrote the rest of the evening off and went to bed myself. Then at 11pm she woke up really crying. Not coughing just crying. It’s fucking earache I thought. Must be. She’s never had earache before. Oh god – have to go to the doctor, get antibiotics – how am I going to get her to take them??
Giles then arrived back from some dinner or other. We settled her in our bed, tried to get some Calpol down her – (for-GET it) – and then just waited grimly for about 45 minutes until she eventually slipped into unconsciousness at about 1am, spreadeagled across my side of the bed. 
So off I went to sleep in Sam’s room. I passed out at about 1.30am and was then woken up by Sam at 0400 suffling and snotting around. I lay there listening to him for an hour, waiting for him to put himself back to sleep, then got up, wiped his nose and popped a dummy in (why? why do I think that is going to help?) it didn’t. He got worse, wailed harder. I took him into bed with me. WORSE. 
Fuck this, I thought. Fucking fuck this. I don’t hate my children, I don’t hate being a mother, (though some people think I do), but I hate THIS. The discombobulation, the anxiety, the not knowing what to do, the slight terror of how you are going to deal with tomorrow on no sleep.

Some parents, like Giles, love it when his kids need him in the night. He gets to cuddle them in bed, which is a rare treat as they sleep in their own rooms – and he gets to make the ultimate sacrifice for them: sleep. My husband has often sacrificed sleep for far less noble causes – so why not his children? 

I do not feel this way. I’ve got a bit of a thing about sleep. My feeling is only powerfully that I cannot stand seeing them suffer. I wish they were old enough that they could tell me where it hurts and so that I could dose them properly with decongestants – rather than fannying about with Vicks and vaporisers and humidifiers and Nurofen – so that no-one has to have an awful time.

It’s the inconsolable crying I can’t take. Puke and shit and having to sleep in the same bed as my kids and being kicked – and even having to get up in the night I don’t mind. But the wailing on and on, not responding to any sort of patting or stroking or comfort. That breaks me. 

Anyway at about 0530 completely out of ideas, I put Sam back in his bed, tucked him in, gave him his muzzy thing, turned on his tinkly music box and left the room to sit on the stairs. He was asleep in eight seconds. He was literally just waiting for me to fuck off out of his room. 
I simply couldn’t face going back into the nursery and there was no room for me in my bed so I climbed into Kitty’s cotbed, pulled the toddler-sized duvet over me and shivered there for an hour and a half until it was time to get up and feed Sam. 
Kitty slept through, luxuriously, under my Super King-sized Hungarian Goosedown duvet and woke up fine, even went off merrily to nursery, no hint of earache or a headache or anything. Sam, needless to say, grinned like a massive goon when I got him up, like always. 
During the day, even though I had a couple of chances at naps, I just couldn’t do it, couldn’t nod off. It happens a lot when you’ve been kept awake. You sort of forget how to fall asleep. I worry, you see. I worry I’m never going to sleep again. I worry that the next night will be the same as last night. It is very hard when you are tired and confused not to despair. 
So I thought I would cheer myself up by making Rice Krispie treats for Kitty’s nursery Friday bake sale. I had been looking forward to doing these for a while. They would be easy, I told myself, they would look terrific with sparkles all over them and mini smarties and tiny marshmallow and all sorts. 
In the end I did them in a classically slapdash way. I decided that actual quantities of chocolate, golden syrup and butter for the chocolate sauce thing didn’t matter. But I think they might because my sauce went all grainy and gross  (which is not, I don’t think, the same as “splitting” but looks equally unappealing). 
I lost heart slightly at this stage and ditched my plans for glitter and mini smarties. I just dumped a lot of raisins in and mini marshmallows, stirred it round while feeling a bit despondent that I literally cannot make something that primary-school aged children make. I cannot even cook something that requires almost NO cooking. I despaired. Again. 
I tipped the whole lot out into a loaf tin and shoved it in the fridge. Then I took it out two hours later and cut it up into bits and it was FUCKING AMAZING!!!!!!!
So this is how I did it:
For the sauce
1 bar Menier milk cooking chocolate 
300g Cadbury’s milk chocolate
a slab of butter – about 50g
2 tablespoons of golden syrup
3 handfuls Rice Krispies
1 handful raisins
1 handful mini marshmallows
and any extra things you might like
1 Put a heatproof bowl over a pan of cold water then put it on your smallest burner set at the lowest heat. The bottom of the bowl must not touch the water
2 Break up the chocolate and put it in the bowl, followed by the butter and the syrup. Then leave it

there to melt, give it a stir as it looks mostly melted in to help things along, but otherwise leave it alone. Do not freak out if it goes a bit grainy. 

3 Into the melted chocolate pour the Rice Krispies and raisins. Allow the chocolate to cool to lukewarm (though it should not be especially hot anyway) before adding the mini marshmallows as you don’t want the marshmallows to melt. 
4 Line a loaf tin with a double layer of cling film so you can get the stuff out later and then pour in your chocolate mixture, press down all over the top with a spatula and stick in the fridge for 2 hours. 
You can decorate these before they go into the fridge with glitter or mini Smarties, or anything you like really. Diazepam, 5mg?