I recently had the pleasure of spending a day with professional food stylist Rosie Reynolds, who gave me some expert food styling advice for food blog photos. Rosie and I met through work, and she was so enthusiastic about my blog, she came to see me at One-Handed HQ for a Halloween-themed baking, decorating and photo session.
We baked delicious chocolate cupcakes, which we decorated using jelly snakes to make Snake Cupcakes, and with chocolate icing and cola laces to make Spider Cupcakes, which we then had great fun setting up in a spooky Halloween tableau (above), complete with skeletons dangling down, all lit by candlelight. In the words of Miranda: such fun!
Rosie has a great eye, and one of the best tips I learnt from her was to take the photo and then look at it really carefully on-screen before deciding what to add in or what to remove to get the best possible shot. Make the change, then take another photo, and compare the two. Usually the secret is taking something away to simplify things and let the food take centre stage.
Another great tip is to try to keep the food and the styling as natural as possible – if you’re serving a casserole, for instance, don’t be afraid to dig into the food and swirl it around with the serving spoon, so it looks accessible and yummy. For cakes and puddings, a few crumbs scattered around make it look even more delicious and homemade.
For best results, shoot in natural daylight (these photos were all taken on my iPhone) and think about the background you are presenting the food on – again, natural surfaces are great for such purposes. Wood, tile and slate are good; have you got an old wooden trunk, or some tiles left over from a building project? Even an old door with peeling paint can be great for overhead shots. Sometimes the most unexpected things can work really well. Take a good look through your cookbooks or BBC Good Food and take inspiration from what they use. Pinterest is useful for ideas, too.
We had a great time styling these shots (and eating jelly snakes). I picked up some really useful tips for future posts and I hope you like them, and enjoy the cakes. Of course, they’re very sweet, so a bit of a treat for little ones. I presented them whole to the children and then cut each cake in half as I thought a whole one would be too much for one child. (I was right.) They absolutely loved them – a real Halloween hit!
Happy Halloween, folks.
Spooky Halloween Cupcakes
40g cocoa powder
3–4 tbsp boiling water
125g butter, softened
150g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
4 tbsp fat free natural yogurt
125g wholemeal flour or plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
For the icing
50g butter, softened
3 tbsp cocoa powder
3–4tbsp fat free natural yogurt
250g icing sugar, sifted
Splash of hot water if needed to make a nice smooth icing
Cola flavour laces
75g packet jelly worms
To make the cupcakes:
1. Preheat oven to 180C/160C Fan/Gas 4. Line a muffin tray with 10 paper cases, set aside.
2. Sift the cocoa into a bowl. Stir in the water to make a smooth paste. Tip in the rest of the ingredients and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth.
3. Use two dessert spoons to evenly fill your cake cases – be careful not to overfill.
4. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until your cakes are risen and a skewer inserted into the middle of a cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely on a wire rack.
To make the icing:
Cream the butter, cocoa and yogurt together until smooth. Gradually add the sifted icing sugar, beat after each addition until smooth. It might be a bit dry, but if you let the mix relax then keep beating it should come together, if not, add a splash of hot water to create a smooth icing.
Divide the icing between your cakes, spread over the surface with the back of a spoon.
Decorate yourself, or get bigger kids to do their own – depending on how good you are at coping with MESS!
Snake Cupcakes: We decided not to ice these, but of course you can if you want to. Simply cut your jelly snake in half, and make a little hole in the side of your cake, using your fingers. Make another little hole on the opposite side of the cupcake to enable your snake to ‘slither’ through the cake – stick the head in one hole and the tail in the other. It’s that easy.
Spider Cupcakes: Spread the top of the cake with icing and use a cocktail stick to prick the icing and make little bumps. Use little sugar balls for the eyes and cut-up bits of jelly snake for eyebrows. To make the dangly legs, cut cola laces in half and tie a little knot at the end for a foot. Use the cocktail stick to make a little hole for each leg.
Life has been far from perfect of late, purely in terms of how busy I am, husband is, and indeed we all are. What with a work trip, the new term and associated school admin, sorting out jobs that need doing to the house, piles of washing, getting up really early in an attempt to Get Things Done, oh, and having a cold for three weeks, sometimes it all feels a Bit Much.
But busy isn’t always bad, and I’ve managed to fit in some fun stuff, too, including a lovely session with an amazing food stylist I met through work who has given me some fantastic tips for the blog (more on that soon), plus it’s Mumsnet Blogfest next month, which I am sure will be pretty perfect. It’s a great chance to get inspired about various aspects of blogging (although I am not sure I will ever ‘change the world’ with a pasta recipe, but hey ho), swap blogging stories, have a laugh, drink some sparkling wine and get a nice goody bag. What’s not to like? I am looking forward to hearing one of my fave authors, Rachel Joyce, speak, learning how to make my blog better and, best of all, meeting fellow bloggers old and new. Whoop.
In the meantime, I have learnt how to make the *perfect* poached egg. (I know!) Eggs are wonderfully comforting, and a simple soft poached egg served with a slice of buttered toast and a mug of tea can do a lot for a busy, frazzled parent in need of some TLC. Preparing something so simple and nourishing, in (hopefully) a moment of calm while baby naps or the children are at school, or simply for breakfast, can be a very pleasant interlude. And as for that satisfying moment when the yolk spills out on to the toast, well, it can be quite therapeutic, particularly if it is soft, runny and cooked to perfection.
Free-range eggs are also a great nutritious dish for the whole family (babies should be over 1 if you are serving the yolk soft) – they’re packed with protein and B vitamins, they’re easy to prepare and cook and frankly, the perfect dish for a quick, healthy energy boost – perfect for anyone on the go. What’s more, if you can crack an egg one-handed, poached eggs and toast can easily be prepared with one hand while a) holding baby, b) filling in yet another form/cheque/reading book record for school, or c) typing an email on your phone to your boss with the other. If you have a Spork, you can even eat it one-handed too. Perfect.
Perfect Poached Egg for one
The trick with the vinegar I learnt from my food stylist friend Rosie. It works a treat!
You will need:
1 free-range egg
White wine vinegar
One slice of sourdough bread, toasted and buttered to serve (my favourite butter is this Brue Valley Butter which I get in my Riverford box every week; it is delicious)
What to do:
- Bring some water to the boil in a small saucepan (fill it about two thirds full).
- Take a teacup and pour in a centimetre or so of white wine vinegar, swill it round, then return the vinegar to the bottle. Crack the egg into the teacup.
- Once your water is boiling, create a whirlpool in the water by stirring it with a small wooden spoon. Add the egg to the centre of the whirlpool, reduce the heat slightly and cook for 2 ½ minutes for a soft yolk.
- Once cooked, remove the egg using a slotted spoon and put on a plate. Use a teaspoon to remove any of the ‘frothy’ white (it comes away easily) to ensure your poached egg has a nice regular shape.
- Place the egg on top of your toast and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Every now and then I am lucky enough to interview a mum who has some interesting insights into how she feeds her children. To date I’ve interviewed Great British Bake Off winner, Jo Wheatley, Health Editor of Red magazine, Brigid Moss and my friend – and baby-led weaning fan – Camilla. Last week I was delighted to get the chance to talk to local south-east London mum and entrepreneur, Meriel Kehoe (pictured, right).
Meriel, together with her business partner, Lucy Woodhouse (left), started Claudi & Fin, a children’s food brand, in 2012 after meeting at a playgroup. They started selling their delicious fruity Greek style yogurt ice lollies in May this year. Their lollies are absolutely delicious, beautifully packaged, and make the perfect dessert or treat suggestion for busy parents who want to give their children something refreshing that isn’t laden with sugar. (They’re also pretty good when the kids are in bed and you want a little treat as they are super-low in calories!)
Before launching Claudi & Fin, Meriel worked as a TV Producer and Director on programmes like Location, Location, Location, Gardener’s World, Gok’s Fashion Fix, Kirstie’s Homemade Home and Yottam Ottolenghi’s Meditteranean Island Feast. Meriel lives in south-east London with her husband and son, Fin, who is 3½.
Read on for some great insights into how she encourages her son to eat healthily and tips on how to launch a successful children’s food brand!
Q Meriel, you’re a busy mum who’s recently launched a business from home. How do you juggle work and family time?
Badly! I’d love to say that I move seamlessly from one role to the other but the reality is somewhat different. There are definite plusses to running your own business, and because both Lucy and I work from home, we are flexible and can be around for the children if and when we are needed. However, the flipside is because there are only two of us doing pretty much everything, work inevitably creeps into leisure or family time, try as we might to stop it!
Q What do you like to cook at home? Do you and your partner share the cooking?
I love cooking and am fortunate because my husband loves it as well. I don’t bake much, but I love cooking for other people and for the family – healthy, hearty food – anything from 80s classics like Coq au Vin, through to Stuffed Aubergines and Roasted Garlic Tart (trust me, the latter is amazing – thanks Yottam Ottolenghi).
Q What is your go-to quick meal for the family?
Omelette with tomato, onion and ham. Fin loves it!
Q What snacks and treats does Fin enjoy?
He loves yoghurt, (frozen or otherwise – he’s literally been weaned on the stuff) fruit and – given half the chance – any sort of chocolate. He’s not allowed it very often, so when he gets his hands on some, he goes wild.
Q How do you encourage Fin to eat healthily?
I try to lead by example. I firmly believe that as in all areas of life, children mimic what they see around them, so I try to make sure we eat healthily around him. I also talk to him about making healthy choices by telling him which foods will help him grow big and strong.
Q Do you worry about the amount of sugar in kids’ food?
Yes. You only need to switch on the TV or pick up a newspaper to realize that childhood obesity is a huge issue, with sugar being the biggest culprit. Because of this, we tried to make our lollies using no sugar but I’m afraid to say, they really didn’t taste good. Instead, we’ve kept sugar to an absolute minimum – less in fact than 79% of the best-selling chilled yoghurts and lollies on the market.
Q How did you come up with the idea for your frozen yogurt lollies?
Lucy came up with the idea when she was weaning her daughter, Claudia. It was the height of summer and she wanted to give her a healthy ice-lolly but quickly discovered there was nothing that fitted the bill. She started making yoghurt lollies at home and thought ‘if Claudia likes them, maybe other children will too…’ She told me about her idea and I loved it. From that point on, every spare moment we had was spent mixing and whizzing up ingredients, trying to come up with an amazing recipe. Our chief taste testers were our children, Claudi & Fin, who went crazy for the flavours we dreamt up, which is why we named our company after them.
Q Tell me about your products and future plans.
Our lollies are the UK’s first Greek-style frozen yoghurt pops for children. Packed with creamy yoghurt, full-fat milk and tons of fruit, our low-sugar, low-calorie lollies are a treat for tiny taste buds (and parents love them too!). We’ve enriched them with Vitamin D, because an astonishing one in four British children is now deficient and doctors are recommending supplementation for all under 5’s.
Claudi & Fin lollies are currently stocked in 320 Sainsburys stores nationwide and available in two flavours; strawberry and mango. We’re working on new flavours and looking into all sorts of new ideas. I can’t say anything too specific just yet, but watch this space!
Q Do you have any advice for any entrepreneurial mums (and dads) out there?
If you have a great idea, take the leap and give it a go, but make sure you do your research first! It’s not enough if your Aunty Betty thinks you’ve got a great product, you’ll need test it out on your potential consumers too. You can back this up by accessing market research data. We found out that reports from big research companies like Mintel are available for free at the Business Centre in the British Library in London, and these stats and insights proved invaluable when we were preparing for pitches to supermarket buyers.
Q What inspires you and keeps you motivated?
It might sound like a cliché but I want to give Fin the best life I possibly can and that keeps me motivated. I’m also excited by the challenges of running a business and the fact that I’m learning new skills every day in a fast-paced environment.
Q What’s your vision for the Claudi & Fin in the future?
Lucy and I want to build a brand that parents can trust. We don’t put anything in our lollies that we wouldn’t give to our own children. We take a lot of time and care thinking about what goes into our products, and we want parents to feel confident that they can trust we will deliver for them on taste, and on nutritional benefits.
Thanks very much, Meriel, for these great insights, which I am sure my readers will love, and best of luck with the business! Claudi & Fin lollies are stocked in Sainsburys, and you can check out their website here: www.claudiandfin.co.uk
If you can think ahead when it comes to preparing meals –whether for the children, to eat together as a family, or for two invariably tired parents, then you have already won half the battle in the kitchen, I find. It’s taken a while, but I have learnt that cooking ‘stage by stage’ is a great way of helping me feel like I am (kind of) on top of things. By ‘stage by stage’ I mean using little windows of opportunity when the little ones are asleep/occupied in their high chair/at school to get ahead – so, for example washing and chopping vegetables in advance and storing in the fridge, or pre-roasting root veg to stir into a salad or pasta dish – this helps make prepping supper one-handed with baby on your hip a breeze!
Being a spontaneous kind of girl, at first this notion of planning and doing meal prep in advance really went against the grain, but I have persevered, and now I find it an incredibly useful approach to cooking, especially given the hours I work, and the precious weekend time that I want to spend with the family.
If you can get into the habit of being organized, planning meals, and cooking in stages you will feel calmer and more in control in the kitchen. You will also find you spend less time trying to rustle up meals on the fly and cooking when it’s reached ‘tipping point’, i.e. when the children are hungry and whiny, which can, let’s face it, be very stressful. And no-one likes to be stressed in the kitchen!
To help you feel less stressed and more calm and in control in the kitchen, here are my top time-saving tips for busy people:
- Use the windows of opportunity available to you throughout the day to get ahead: prepare vegetables, make a white sauce, prepare the couscous – even just 5 minutes used well can help you cut down on cooking time later on.
- Keep a well-stocked store cupboard – this is one of the secrets to success in the kitchen. If you have a selection of ingredients to hand then you will always be able to prepare something quick, easy and interesting.
- Put aside some time to plan the week’s meals. Having an overview of who is eating what and when will help you plan the shopping and reduce waste.
- Don’t be afraid to take shortcuts if you are pressed for time and your week is going to be madly busy: no-one else is going to know (or likely care) if you buy ready-prepared vegetables. Don’t judge yourself either – do it and move on.
- Stock your freezer with practical things (bags of frozen veg, homemade stock for later use, prawns etc.) and also interesting bits and bobs so that even the most unexciting prospect can be transformed. A tin of tuna and some sundried tomatoes can suddenly look quite interesting served with some posh bread from the freezer and a drizzle of olive oil. (A tub of fancy ice-cream can go a long way, too…)
- Make double and freeze half for another meal. Stocks, curries, stews, pasta sauces and soups all freeze really well. Feel smug as you get it out the freezer next time :)
Let me know your time-saving tips!
Hope these help.
With special thanks to Jenny at The Gingerbread House for letting me reproduce her wonderful Playmobil clock photo to illustrate this post!
Last week while visiting the in-laws in Somerset I was given 2kg of plums by one of their neighbours who had so many Victoria plums she didn’t know what to do with them all. We’re talking plum city!
So anyway, bringing a huge box of plums back to London did rather focus the mind, and so I decided to make jam for the first time (more on that later…) and also to whip up some lovely plum muffins. I figured the slightly sourish plums would combine beautifully with white chocolate and make for a seriously gorgeous muffin – which they do. I think this is the fourth muffin recipe to appear on the blog, and quite possibly the best! The whole family loved them.
So once you’ve made them, pour yourself a coffee and enjoy – with or without the kids.
As chance would have it, Rix, the Aga fuel people, are running a competition around recipes featuring plums this month so I decided to enter these beauts in the Rix Aga Inspired Recipes competition. You can find more seasonal recipes from them here: http://www.rix.co.uk/aga-cooker-recipes/
I know, talk about timing ;)
Plum & White Chocolate Muffins
You will need:
250g plain flour
170g caster sugar
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
¼ tsp salt
1½ tsp baking powder
150ml plain or Greek yogurt (I used Greek)
2 free-range eggs
1tsp vanilla essence
12 ripe plums, stoned and flesh cut into chunks
75g white chocolate, chopped into small chunks (or use white chocolate chips)
zest of a lemon
dash of whole milk (optional)
poppy seeds to sprinkle on top
What to do:
- Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C Fan/375°F and line your muffin tin with cases. (This will make about 12 muffins.)
- Melt the butter (in a bowl over a pan of simmering water) and set it to the side to cool while you mix together all your dry ingredients in a largeish mixing bowl with a wooden spoon – flour, sugar, bicarb, salt, baking powder.
- In a separate bowl mix your wet ingredients – the yogurt, eggs and vanilla essence – then add the cooled melted butter and stir.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix together, but don’t overmix. Fold in the plums, white chocolate chunks and lemon zest. If it’s feeling a bit dry, add a dash of milk.
- Spoon the mixture into the muffin cases, filling each hole about two-thirds full, and sprinkle poppy seeds on top.
- Bake in the preheated oven for approx. 20 mins – test with a skewer – and cool on a wire rack.
These will keep for a couple of days in an airtight box. They also freeze well.
So the good old government has introduced free school lunches for all infants as of this September. Quite how some schools are going to cope with all the extra demand is unclear, but what is certain is that the packed-lunch-eaters are going to be in the minority.
Biggest (7) has always had a packed lunch and flatly refuses to eat a school dinner, which has obviously had an impact on Littlest (4) who is about to start school and, despite the offer of a free lunch, is adamant that she is having a packed lunch, too. I must confess, as much of a hassle as it sometimes is, I quite like them having a packed lunch as I a) know what they’re eating and it’s healthy b) I have to think of interesting things to put in it (this point can be good and bad) and c) I quite like all the packed lunch paraphernalia – lunchbox, cooler bag, drinks bottles etc. I think this taps into my food container obsession… (see my Twitter feed for more on this!)
I was, therefore, delighted to receive for review a Framboise Pink Yumbox from the UK distributor of these American-designed lunchboxes, which are styled on the traditional Bento box. The interior tray comprises six small compartments for different kinds of foods – grains, protein, dairy, fruit and vegetables, with an illustration and the name of each food group printed inside, as well as a small receptacle for dip, dressing or yogurt. I was quite excited to see you can pack wet foods (not liquid) in the Yumbox, as it’s leakproof, which is pretty cool.
My first impression was that is quite heavy. The plastic outer box is no heavier than your average lunchbox, but once you slot in the interior tray, and consider that it would then have food in it too, it is quite weighty in my opinion. Not off-putting, but heavier than the Sistema lunchbox I use for my son, for instance.
The next question was ‘Where does the sandwich go?’ – and this was my husband’s first question too. I can see this would be an issue for some, for whom a packed lunch equals a sandwich and few other bits. However, for my daughter, who while she is not a picky eater, doesn’t love huge sandwiches and prefers finger foods, I could actually see that this could really work for her. I like the compartments, which remind you to make the packed lunch healthy and interesting – ‘Have I added some vegetables?’ ‘What dip could I put in the little pot?’ – and the compartments are just the right size. Initially I thought they might be too small but they’re not, they’re just perfect for little ones (and big ones!) and this provides an ample lunch.
The first time we used the Yumbox was at the beginning of the summer. We went on a picnic with a group of friends, and I have to admit that it did get some ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ when I pulled it out the bag as it’s quite unlike anything else. All the other mums were very interested, and agreed that for little children in particular, eating this way i.e. a bit of this, and a bit of that, was very appealing. It looks really attractive, and filling the compartments makes you think about the visual look of the food and want to add a bit of colour from fruit or vegetables or add in different textures and interesting things because the compartments are so beguiling. Lunch becomes a visual feast and an exciting experience.
Littlest loved it – she actually ate more than she usually would – she is renowned for leaving half her roll or sandwich – and on this occasion she ate her cucumber and pepper, then her cherries and crackers and then the other bits and pieces and enjoyed dipping the vegetables into the mayonnaise.
I would say the Yumbox offers a new packed lunch or picnic experience and has its pros and cons. The interior tray is a bit of a faff to wash up, as you can’t really leave it to drain easily I found, as water gets in the nooks and crannies, so is probably best in the dishwasher (top rack). It is quite heavy, as mentioned, and it does require a different attitude to lunch, i.e. beyond the sandwich. Arguably this takes up more time, as you have to think what you’re going to put in the compartments, and some one-handed cooks (parents) may find that off-putting. But all in all, having gone on to use it several times over the summer, I think it’s great for the reasons above, not least because it makes you think about providing a balanced, healthy lunch and not just sticking a slice of ham between two slices of bread. I’ve used it myself to take lunch to work and it’s great if you are trying to reduce the amount of bread you eat, for instance.
For visual inspiration, go to the Yumbox website or look on Pinterest where there are a gazillion inspirational Yumbox photos – I am including a couple of photos of the lunches I made for Littlest over the summer, which are quite boring in comparison, but at least it shows that even with relatively ‘unexciting’ ingredients – ham, crackers, cherry tomatoes, olives, or cheese, cut-up rolls, beetroot and homemade chutney – you can create something visually appealing, healthy and portable. In short, lunch heaven.
The Yumbox retails at £24.95 and is available from the website in a variety of lovely colours.
With thanks to Yumbox www.yumbox-uk.co.uk for the chance to review this lunchbox.
More soon on my new obsession – jam-making and plums galore!
Disclaimer: I was sent a Framboise Pink Yumbox for free to review on The One-Handed Cook blog. All opinions are my own.
Ah, holidays… some see holidays as a chance to spend time together as a family, peacefully reflecting on the meaning of life, passing days quietly doing relaxing activities together… Hmm, not in this household. More like a chance to spend 24 hours a day together in a place that’s hotter than the sun (Spain), jump in swimming pools, eat far too many crisps, and cope with whining children who ‘just want to get this one thing’ from the tacky souvenir shop….
Ho ho. But seriously, Spain was great. We spent two days in Barcelona followed by eight down near Valencia, combining pool time with visits to the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias, the waterpark in Cullera (fantastic fun) and, er, the local Carrefour. Yup, one of my holiday highlights was browsing the aisles in the local hypermarket – I spotted unusual bathmats, some lovely wicker baskets, some great clothes, and as for the kitchenware – there were gadgets I’d never even seen before (I didn’t think this was possible).
Frankly, you can’t beat a European supermarket. And what did I come home with from Spain? Yup, three mini storage containers in orange, yellow and green, ‘para las frutas’ – I couldn’t resist them, as I loved the bright colours. Truly rock n roll, baby.
Hasta la vista,