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Thursday, 22 January 2015

Just One Thing!

Andrew was diagnosed with diabetes just before Josie was born, and since then I’ve been experimenting with various ways to make sweet recipes more diabetic-friendly.

There are a few different schools of thought on doing that. One is, don’t bother. A small amount of sugar in your diet every now and then, even for a diabetic, is not that much of a problem. That school of thought would keep on baking in the tried and tested manner. 

Another school of thought: why bother? Just cut out sweets, cakes, and more entirely and give up as a lost cause the fight to make them more diabetic-friendly. They never will be anyway.

This is not me. Ever. This is Andrew. All the time.

My school of thought? Might as well have a bash a trying to bother so Andrew can actually have his cake, and eat it. As sugar substitutes have become more widely-available, cheaper, and more like the real thing it’s become easier to try to replace sugar in recipes.

There are still some things that fake sugar never works for, prime among them being a meringue. I love meringues. If I were to list my top 5 desserts meringue would probably feature in at least 3. Pavlova for one, or Eton Mess*. Bless those ridiculously-dressed Etonians – I value them not for their political adeptness/rich Daddys who have propelled them to take the last 50 million Prime Ministerial and Cabinet posts, but for their clumsy meringue-crushing dogs who, in a most apocryphal way, smashed up a Pavlova and turned it into the Eton Mess.

I love Pavlova. A lot. So much, in fact, that I once made my Mum defrost a pavlova in the microwave because I couldn’t bear to wait for it to defrost naturally. She was taken very ill about 3 hours later, which she initially blamed on the hastily-thawed whipped cream, but thankfully once the paramedics arrived they diagnosed as acute appendicitis. Which was a relief, because I was concerned if the Pavlova turned out to be the culprit that I would never be allowed the dessert again.**

Is that a triple-layered Pavlova? Oh. Hello.

Anyway, meringue-based desserts aside (I fear they will never get the diabetic-recipe overhaul) I have learned some valuable lessons from my culinary experimentations. The first, the foremost, and the one that you must never break if you hope to create repeatable recipes is this:

Change only one variable at a time.

I probably should have learned this in Standard Grade Chemistry, but it turns out I did not. I have now. It is important. 

Without rule number one, how do you know whether that slightly bitter aftertaste in your otherwise delicious banana bread comes from the wholemeal flour (to replace the plain) or the Stevia (to replace the sugar)? Answer: You don’t. 

And so you have to bake the whole thing again, resetting one of those variables to the base recipe to understand why it just tastes so weird. At which point, you might realise that you misread the recipe the first time, and that those 4 TABLESPOONS of bicarbonate of soda should actually have been teaspoons and that neither of the aforementioned variables had any effect in making the banana bread taste so, so bitter and it was actually just your own incompetence.

But, raising agent disasters aside, the principle should still be observed. And I still break it. For instance, in a recent banana bread experiment, I used orange-juice infused sultanas and peel instead of normal, which made it just taste a bit odd. Delicious, but odd. Which meant I couldn't really assess how successful the fake sugar was in it. It’s my own fault, of course. I broke rule number one. Never mind. I'll just have to bake it again!

This is Andrew eating all the banana bread.

*For the record, in no particular order they'd probably be: Pavlova, Lemon Meringue Pie, Queen of Puddings, Chocolate Mousse, Lemon Posset.
**Obviously, she is fully recovered now and so I can talk about her misfortune with an otherwise inappropriate levity.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

A Few of my Favourite (Scottish) Things

Burn's Night isn't a very big deal in our house.

So far, Lori and Josie have had to learn a few poems, and I have cooked haggis once. That was last year, and I only did it because the girls were interested in what a Burn's Supper might taste like. I made whisky sauce to go with it, but it was a bit gross.

This year Lori has been going around singing My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose at every opportunity, which Josie is particularly displeased about.It is a truly unique rendition of the song, which doesn't mean it is good, and I am saving all your eardrums (although it might only be audible to dogs lately) by not sharing it with you. You are welcome.

However, quite by chance, and nothing to do with the approaching celebration of some random Scottish poet whose work I mostly hate, I have been making a few recipes that have a distinctively Scottish culinary twist.

The Millionaire's Shortbread one was particularly popular with everyone who tried it (me, me, me, me again, me, me for 6th helpings, tiny sliver for whining child, ME!).

Millionaire's Shortbread

I had to make this. Had to. I had some caramel in the fridge, left over from Christmas. I had some white chocolate, left over from Hallowe'en. And I had some shortbread, left over from New Year. I love shortbread. There's something quite delicious about its rich butteriness combined with sugar and a slightly salty flavour.

White Chocolate Millionaire's Shortbread

Treacle Tart

My Mum makes a lovely treacle tart. This isn't her recipe. Treacle tart usually calls for breadcrumbs, which I didn't have, but I'm always up for experimentation as a cooking technique. And that's where the Burns/Scottish reference comes in, as I substituted the breadcrumbs for porridge oats. I also didn't have treacle, but I had some molasses and it's not too dissimilar. I think this one came out very treacly, possibly because of the molasses, but it certainly was much more like a treacle toffee tart than the syrupy ones my Mum makes. It tasted better than it looked. The girls each had a slice in their packed lunch boxes, but they sneaked them out to eat at break time as a snack, and reported much enjoyment.

Treacle Tart with Porridge Oats

Friday, 9 January 2015

Happy New Year (and a folio of festive food)

What a pleasure it is to cook in my own kitchen and with all my old things that were far too long in storage. Nithsdale has been great for revivifying my culinary creativity this year. I have tried out a lot of new recipes over Christmas this year, as well as going back to some old favourites. And others…well, others were old recipes adapted into something completely new.

Plenty of visitors to Nithsdale brought their own recipes or brought gifts that were turned into ingredients or simply were the inspiration for a menu item. Oh, and as an aside, I am going to keep on referring to Nithsdale by its name at every opportunity. Indeed, I may never get over the excitement of having a house special enough to have its own name, even if they name wasn't my choice, it does sound suitably MiddleEarthish to satisfy me.

So, it was my brother James's feedback on the Salted Caramel Torte that turned my thoughts to orange in the Jaffa Torte. It was my Mum's old recipe for Mackerel Pate that I turned to on Christmas Day, although I did have to improvise by using mascarpone instead of Philadelphia cream cheese. Mascarpone doesn't work as well, by the way, although Andrew, Josie, and Lori professed not to notice, so it might do in a pinch. I haven't got a recipe online for Mackerel Pate, but my old school-friend Claire Winlow does, and it is pretty much the same as mine. You can find it here. And it was the fine gift of a panettone from Marianne and Mark that made me realise I needed to do something with the panettones that was more interesting than just slicing them up for tea with a touch of jam. Although, don't get me wrong, I am absolutely not averse to the Jamettone option.

Panettone. Not Jamettone. 

Anyway, thanks to everyone who came to see us this year, and best wishes to those who have not yet made the pilgrimage North or Southwards, or who could not, especially my bestie Emmy, whose plans fell through because of a poorly elbow. Happy New Year!

The Folio of Festive Food

Chocolate Jaffa Torte

I’ve been making a Salted Caramel Chocolate Torte for quite a few years now. When I started, Salted Caramel chocolates were impossible to get in most shops, now they’ve become ubiquitious. Every sweet or dessert with caramel in it seems to be salted. Never one to want to follow the crowd, I decided it was time for a change, and so I unveiled the Chocolate Jaffa Torte. The caramel is replaced by orange curd, the rich, dark chocolate is tempered with milk chocolate. This is a jaffa cake on steroids, and it is absolutely gorgeous.

Lori is 8. Hip Hip Hooray!

A Boozy Cranberry Sauce

For a couple of years I've been making a Cherry Brandy Cranberry Sauce. As Andrew has diabetes was trying to find a way to make cranberry sauce with a sugar substitute. After a few goes I started adding the alcohol as a way to overcome the slightly too-sweet aftertaste which I find a sugar substitute leaves. The cherry brandy lends it a very Christmassy, almost-almondy, taste. However, this year I took inspiration from a Women's Institute recipe book that I got out of the library, and used orange juice, red wine and port instead. I think I like it better, but I'm going to need to make both next year to compare. The colour certainly went very well with our Christmas table.

Boozy Cranberry Sauce in Little Heart Ramekin Dishes

Pomegranate and Festive Fruit Rice Salad

I noticed these orange and spice-infused raisins, cranberries and mixed peel in M&S when I was doing my typical Christmas Eve last-minute shop. They were reduced, and I grabbed them along with many other impulse buys. I knew they'd be perfect for a Christmas recipe, but I expected it to be Rocky Road, not rice! The rice was a leftover from a Turkey and Chorizo stew, and I was lacking inspiration on what to do with it until faced by an extremely spicy Chilli Chutney Chorizo Tart. Something cooling was definitely in order: cue this salad, a concoction of orange dressing, festive fruits, and a family favourite of ours, pomegranate seeds. I was quite pleased with the results. We don't often eat rice salad, but this one has been added to the Law family repertoire for festive feasts. 

A Little Pot of Rice

Was there more? Of course there was more...there's always more!

Friday, 4 April 2014

Sadness and Loss

It's been a very sad week for anyone involved in education in Edinburgh, or anyone who has been aware of the news at all. On Tuesday, Keane Wallis-Bennett died when a wall collapsed at her school, Liberton High. I was shocked and appalled when I heard the news, a stark message from the BBC on my phone: child dies in Edinburgh school.

I'm sure many other parents reacted in the same way I did. My heart pounded, my palms immediately prickled with sweat; I leapt to my keyboard and went as quickly as I could to the BBC website. Panic rushed through me: was it one of my daughters? And of course, as soon as I found out it wasn't their school, I felt a rush of relief. Almost immediately followed by guilt. My daughters were fine, but one family would never feel the rush of relief that I did. For them, they are now in a waking nightmare, one which will not end.

I am not sure what to do in this situation. What can I do that would help them? As the parent representative on the Education Committee I have been called upon to comment on the tragedy in a number of newspapers and also television bulletins. I have repeated the same things, "we were aware of the condition surveys, and assured by the Council that the appropriate action was being taken", "parents have an expectation that their children will be safe at school and I would urge the Council to immediately review the condition surveys to check what else might have been missed."

It feels so little. It's addressing the future, what we do next, how do we ensure this never happens again. But it can't change what has happened to Keane, and what her family are going through. I want to be able to fix that. But I can't. It's heartbreaking.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013


Although Josie and Lori have moved school, I've been keeping in contact with the parents at their old school. That's partially because the girls have friends there, partially because I have friends there among the parents, but also because of an ongoing campaign that I feel very passionately about.

That campaign was to stop planning permission being granted to turn the building next door into flats. Well, I say next door, it actually shares the playground. What that would have meant was that single-aspect studio flats would have a clear view into the playground, at ground level, which was just unacceptable for the children's privacy. That wasn't the only issue with the development, but it was a very sizeable one.

I was involved at the start of the campaign, less so latterly, but the baton was taken up admirably by other parents, with the support of local councillors, especially Nick Gardner, and our local MSP, Malcolm Chisholm.

Today those mentioned above, among others, spoke at the development committee where planning matters are decided. The result, despite the recommendations of the planning department, was a vote against permission being granted. It was by the narrowest of margins, but it was still a victory, and I am so pleased for the parents at Broughton Primary who have worked so hard for this result.

You can read more about it here.

Well done to everyone involved!

Monday, 4 November 2013

A New Adventure in Coding

Learning New Things

Games Review , the site that I edit on is going quite well, and starting to build some momentum. I'm also building up a library of articles as a writer on Weekend Notes and MyKidCraft, However, I don't want to just edit and write for other peoples' sites.

So, I've decided that if I want to start my own website, then I need to learn how to code, if only to understand what the challenges will be and how little I actually know. It's a stroke of luck, then, that my blogger interface doesn't appear to work with this version of IE and so I have to use the HTML tab to write the thing. I'm going to continue to thinking of it as a stroke of luck, as that stops it from being so annoying that the admins won't let me have a decent browser.

That's really all my chat about that. Well, not quite. I suppose I'd better illustrate that I am actually learning something, and put all this Codeacademy stuff into practice. So far, I've learned about:

  • Titles, Headers, Paragraphs
  • Image links and URL links
  • Lists
    1. Ordered Lists
    2. Unordered Lists
So far, so surprisingly easy. It still all looks rubbish though, it took me 5 minutes to work out why I had a stray bullet point in my unordered list up there, and then get rid of it. So, how do I go from that, to making a site that looks more stylistically attractive? I'm not sure yet...but watch this space to find out when I do!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Economic Barriers to Adopting Siblings

I was reading an article the other day about adoption and fostering, and I felt it missed a really important point about the economics of fostering and adopting.

The article talked about a set of three siblings. They had moved from foster carer to foster carer, and could only have got adopted if they had split up. The article talked about why it was difficult for three older children to be adopted together: emotionally hard for parents, would need extra bedrooms etc. It didn’t mention the financial issues of suddenly having three more children in the house. In fact, it didn’t mention the economic barriers to adoption at all. However, it made a pejorative statement when talking about the quality of foster parents: “some foster parents only do it for the money”.

Here’s the thing. If you foster, most local authorities will pay you around £130ish per week per child. That’s for two reasons: 1. To cover the additional costs of having another child 2. Because at least one foster parent is expected to treat the fostering as their full-time job.

It used to be the case that foster parents were simply willing volunteers, but that’s changed. Why do they need to treat it as a full-time job? Because the foster children often have complex support needs, some emotionally, some physically. You would not, for example, be expected to foster a child of under-5 and then be able send them to a day nursery and expect them to get on with it while you continue a full-time jobs.

So, the siblings are fostered, but the ideal for most children in long-term foster care is to be adopted permanently. But what happens if you’re fostering three children, with complex emotional and behavioural support needs, and you decide you’d like to adopt them?

Well, of course, you stop getting that money. The state doesn’t pay people to have children whether they’re your own, or adopted (with the exception of Child Benefit, but that’s not a huge amount). The addition of three extra people is going to be difficult to absorb into the household finances.

First – you need to give up your full-time job of fostering. Second – you can’t get another job because you’re now required to do your previously-paid full-time job for free.

It strikes me that the difficulty of placing siblings together is more of an economic issue than adoption organisations and councils have thus far admitted.

I know I couldn’t suddenly take on three more children without little financial support and at the same time need to give up a full-time job.

Despite what that article claimed, most people who foster do not do it “for the money”. I have known foster parents and they have done it for a variety of reasons. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not easy money. The foster parents I knew were not rich, but they did something they thought was right, often at great cost to their own families and even their own mental health. It is difficult to bring in a child, to form a bond, to do your very best for them and then later watch them be returned to the family that caused all the issues.

The article implied that more of these foster parents should be less money-grubbing, and simply adopt the children.

How? How would be that financially possible for the majority of people?

But what’s the alternative? Pay people to adopt children, and keep on paying them for years? I’m not sure that would solve the problem.

The problem with adoption is that the people who want to adopt siblings can’t afford it, and the people who could afford to adopt 2 or even 3 siblings don’t appear to want to adopt. Until either of those two things change, children like those three siblings will not get the permanent, loving home that they not only deserve, but that they have a right to expect.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Let Them Eat Cake

Yesterday, the Coalition government announced, with much triumph, that they would be offering free school meals for all P1-3 children in England. The Coalition are falling over each other to claim credit for this policy, with the Conservatives claiming it is all made possible by Michael Gove, and the Lib Dems claiming they got this policy through, "to ensure every child gets the chance in life they deserve" in the words of Nick Clegg.

 That's all very well, but who is really going to benefit, and why are the politicians all so impressed with themselves?

 The policy will cost £600m, and puts parents in the bizarre situation of being told they are too rich for Child Benefit, which many would have used for school dinners, but now are entitled to free school meals. It's a lot of money to spend on a theory, that school dinners are almost always more nutritious than packed lunches, which has been reported in an independent government review. Independent of the government, but of not of be food industry - two restaurant founders wrote it. It's not even as though this policy will be targeted at those with the greatest need - they already are entitled to free school meals.

 Wouldn't it be better if the government instead focused more on these children? They talk about narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor, while at the same time making life easier for richer parents, and no less hard for poor parents. £600m could have funded a lot of other things.

It could have funded breakfast and homework clubs, where children from poorer backgrounds increase engagement with school and get a nutritious hot meal in the morning and the evening. Instead, it's going straight into the pockets of the food industry (because most local authorities contract out school dinner provision) and providing a state subsidy to more private business, who deliver sub-standard food to a captive audience. The lack of choice is appalling. In theory, the dinners might be more nutritious, but this depends on children picking the nutritious options and actually eating them. I've written about this before, and I'm not hopeful at all.

I don't underestimate how helpful this would be to an average family. It would have saved so much money if we had had free school meals in P1-3, or at least meant I could spend child benefit on something else. However, when housing benefit has been cut so children aren't even allowed their own room, I just don't see how they can justify introducing another universal benefit.

What do you think? Do you really need free school meals? Will you use them?