You had one job

I’ve sometimes struggled with this blog in that I get periods of writers block and can often go weeks – even months – without being able to think of anything new to put down on screen. This lack of inspiration can also spill over into my parenting as, during periods when I’m in charge of entertaining our daughter, I sometimes draw a complete blank – spending so much time trying to think about new, fun methods of entertainment when I could be actually interacting with her instead.  Fortunately, my wife is brilliantly creative like this, so I’ve often survived Daddy-and-daughter time by basically copying her ideas. For instance, I used to love building dens when I was younger but had never even thought about it as a way of keeping M entertained until my wife built a blanket-and-garden chair construction in the garden a few Saturdays ago. The following day, I tried to replicate this concept in the living room, although my effort was not quite as good…

Bad Den

Bad Den

On another occasion, I thought I was being slightly more creative by turning a simple game of ‘Peepo’ into ‘Hide-and-seek’, using a couple of M’s toys as participants. In theory, it could have worked. In practice, it worryingly turned into ‘The Blair Witch Project’…

*Shudder*

*Shudder*

I was again stuck for inspiration a couple of Sundays ago, when my wife was due to attend a spa day. Having foregone the idea of any forward planning whatsoever, I decided to go with one of my default measures, a trip to the local park. After all, there were swings, slides and lots of ducks to be pointed at, all sure-fire winners in the eyes of my daughter. As the weather was nice and I’d decided to go over lunchtime, a decision that had everything absolutely nothing to do with my hope of M’s afternoon nap coinciding with the football, I’d gone into the kitchen to make a packed lunch, safe in the knowledge that M was quite happy playing with a jigsaw. Or so I thought. Turning around to put the lunch ingredients back into the fridge, I noticed that my fish-oil capsule pot had been knocked on the floor, opened and with its contents littered on the floor next to my daughter. That horrible sinking moment of dread kicked in as I panicked, tried to recall my first-aid training and reached over to her, lifted her up and slapped her on the back, before realising that she wasn’t actually choking.

What I hadn’t realised up until that moment was that M could now reach up to the kitchen work surface and pick up/knock off small objects, such as, oh I don’t know, a pot of fish oil capsules. But, in all honesty I’d had warning. For a while now, M has been able to reach up to the top of the freezer (which sits just below the counter for those of you who like detailed information about kitchen layouts) and has used a fair chunk of her time continually pressing and un-pressing the temperature button. It’s happened so often that I’ve now completely forgotten what this button *actually* does and whether having it either pressed or un-pressed is the default setting. My theory is that I’ll know which one is wrong when the kitchen floor gets a lot wetter. Still, at least that would mean we could finally get rid of the huge tub of ‘Fruits of the forest’ that has taken up around 1/3 of our freezer space for what seems like a decade. Anyway, it was only a matter of time before she reached even higher.

But, back to the panic: I rang my wife, despite knowing that a potential swallowing incident isn’t exactly conducive to a relaxing day at the spa. I say potential, because there was no evidence, apart from some burping/hiccupping that may have been unrelated. “It’s only been half an hour” said my wife, in part humour/part exasperation, upon being relayed the drama. “Have you looked it up? She sounds happy enough,” she continued, obviously hearing M babbling away at the other end. It was true – she did seem happy enough and in fact, was actually quite amused by her own burping. “If she seems happy, then I’m not worried”, said my wife, “but keep an eye on her”. This was then followed by the more obvious question “Does her breath smell of fish?”

It didn’t.

Having got off the phone and sat with my daughter whilst she belched over the small plastic streets of her ‘Happy Land’ set, I took the opportunity to Google (other search engines are available) what could happen if a child swallows a fish-oil capsule. I wasn’t expecting complete piece of mind because, personally, I’ve never searched for any kind of symptom on the internet without subsequently picking up on the worst possible scenario and running with it. Of course, this being the wonderful World Wide Web, various pieces of advice cropped up, mainly along these lines:

“THE CAPSULES ARE A CHOKING HAZARD” (True, but as any swallowed capsule/s appeared to have fully worked their way down, even I figured it was safe to cross that one off).

“One capsule won’t cause them any harm, other than the possibility of an upset stomach”  (I’d happily take a dose of Nappygeddon as the only side-effect of my mistake, it would be the least I’d deserve).

“It could actually be good for your child” (Hmm…the pot says ‘unsuitable for children under the age of 5’).

“EVEN IF YOU’RE NOT SURE, GET THEM SEEN BY YOUR LOCAL GP IMMEDIATELY” (This was the one that made me panic again as well as wonder what sort of magic land this person lives in – where they can just walk in and get a GP appointment straight away).

Having fretted some more, I thought the best thing to do was to take my wife’s advice and just watch her closely. So, we did go to the park, went on the swings, went on the slide, watched and pointed at a lot of ducks, ate lunch in the sunshine and had a little run around. M seemed completely fine, the burping had long since stopped and there was no sign either that day or the next of any after-effects from any capsules that may or may not have been swallowed in the first place. These were the thoughts going through my head as I kept trying to re-assure myself, as well as get rid of the horrendous guilt that follows incidents such as this. It could have been far worse, of course, and I tried to switch my mind away when I thought about the potentially more catastrophic consequences that could have ensued for my precious little girl and that I’d be solely responsible for.

But, upon reflection, and after a couple of days of no side-effects whatsoever (not even an explosive nappy incident), it has taught me not to sometimes just go with the flow and not worry too much about entertaining her, but instead to make sure that I’ve at least got the basics of child care right first. Now, I didn’t leave my Wellman tablets in the den, did I?

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It’s cheesecake, Jamie – but not as you know it.

So, in the last year or so, I’ve started cooking in an attempt to improve my overall ‘skill-set’ and feel better about myself as a modern man. On the whole, I think it’s going pretty well – although I still have flashbacks from my attempt to make monkfish with potato cakes. The monkfish was expensive (but at least edible), whereas the potato cakes came out like a dead sea-creature that had dried out on the beach. They tasted bloody awful as well.

That aside, I have been fairly pleased with the results. Despite the fact I still need to consult recipes, I can knock up a pretty tasty ‘coq au vin’, a chilli cornbread pie, duck with five spices and a jambalaya amongst others. So, my confidence was fairly high.

That was until this weekend, when I decided to tackle head-on a whole new kitchen-based experience. Yes, dear friends, I’m talking about baking.

Baking has seemed to have become very popular in the last couple of years here in Britain. Any minor celebrity who has ever sniffed a profiterole seems to be bringing out their own cookbook, whilst the reality TV show ‘The Great British Bake-Off’ has been a ratings winner. Despite the fact you can get a sugar rush just from glancing at it across the room, Mrs.D was addicted to the show last time around.

For my first attempt at joining the baking zeitgeist, I decided to tackle a New York-style cheesecake – from a recipe by Jamie Oliver. This in itself was a cause for slight alarm as, whilst I like Jamie’s recipes, they do tend to bring me out in a panic. His most recent book – ’30 Minute Meals’, was a great idea on paper as it contained a number of 3-course recipes you could ‘easily’ knock up after a hard day at work,  all within the allocated half-hour. Yet, in my household at least, that’s not quite what happened. Usually about an hour and 15 minutes later, Mrs.D and I would emerge defeated from the kitchen.  We would survey the carnage we had left behind, having usually missed out one key ingredient and being generally confused about exactly how much a ‘lug’ of olive oil is.

But, not to be deterred, I pressed ahead. The early stages went well. Digestive biscuits were crushed, butter was mixed and my tin was greased (that’s not a euphemism, by the way). I hit a slight obstacle when it came to smoothing the cream cheese – having got most of it on my hands whilst working out that I didn’t really need  it to be much smoother than it was already. Sugar was added, eggs were added, lime juice was added – all of the time making more mess than was strictly necessary. Spreading this over the biscuit base and popping in the oven, all was looking good. That was until the ‘meringue topping’.

This addition to the cheesecake was where it all went wrong. I was supposed to whisk 3 egg whites so that they made ‘soft peaks’. It became apparent that I didn’t (and still don’t) know what soft peaks are, but apparently they were VERY IMPORTANT. Mistaking soft peaks for mixture that was just hanging on my whisk, I added in the sugar and coconut. Thing is, when I thought I was being proactive, I was getting way ahead of myself as this part was due to be done when the cheesecake was out of the oven. I was suffering from premature whisking. The mixture went in the fridge whilst I waited for the cheesecake to cook.

50 minutes later, the cheesecake came out of the oven and I made both my second and third mistakes. I took the mixture out of the fridge and nonchalantly started to just mix it again with a spoon. “You’re taking the air out of it!” cried a voice from behind me. My wife had appeared and, with that, a 10-minute ‘discussion’ started whereby she interrogated me as to whether I had created soft peaks or not (no euphemism there either) and whether I had done them properly. “But I WHISKED the mixture before”, I responded time and again before somewhat unfairly telling my wife that she was ruining any enjoyment I was having. “Did they LOOK like peaks?” she said. “You’re not supposed to use a SPOON, it takes the air out of it”. By now I wished I had never bothered in the first place. Rattled, I began to spoon the mixture over the cheesecake before realising I was supposed to let the cheesecake cool down before I did this. “But it will start cooking anyway – put it back in the oven!” exclaimed my wife. At this point, there may well have been some swearing before I slammed it back in the oven.

Anyway, after a few more minutes, the cheesecake was removed to cool down before being placed in the fridge. By now, I was sick of the sight of it. I thought that if anyone has a cheesecake  addiction, then the best way to beat it is to try and make one of the damn things yourself.

Having decided that I never wanted to hear the term ‘soft peaks’ again, and that this was probably the stupidest thing my wife and I had ever argued about, my day of domesticity didn’t get much better. When mowing the front lawn, I ended up stepping in some dog shit that had kindly been left behind by a ‘forgetful’ dog owner (I may have referred to him or her in stronger language), inadvertently walking it into the house. I then broke one of our good tumblers in the dish-washer. I blamed the cheesecake for pushing my nerves to breaking point.

The only thing to do was to seek light relief – so my wife and I went out to the cinema to see ‘American Pie: The Reunion’ – a very funny film and just what I needed. Upon returning, it was time to face the cheesecake again. Taking it out of the fridge and sampling a slice, I was fairly surprised. Ok, the meringue topping was encrusted rather than white and fluffy, the sides tasted more ‘eggy’ than the rest of the cake due to my premature placing of the topping, and I had made far too much of it (one cheesecake serves 8-10 people). But, generally, it tasted pretty much ok. After all that time and swearing,  there was some salvation.

So, I will (possibly against my better judgement) return to the world of baking for another go at a different recipe. I will continue to try and master one of Jamie Oliver’s recipes and will hope that anything involving ‘soft peaks’ will not bring me out in a nervous twitch. In the meantime – and if anyone happens to be in the Surrey area – I have some slices of cheesecake going spare…

10 Things: American imports I wish we had in the UK

Following the news that Britain has successfully *cough* exported the singing embryos of ‘One Direction’ over to the US (you’re welcome, America), I thought I would kick off a semi-regular ‘lists’ feature – starting with a look at some things that our friends across the Atlantic have in their midst that I wish we had over here…

1)     More M&M’s flavours.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the chocolate ones. Mrs.D prefers the peanut ones and I think we both agree that the ‘crispy’ ones are vile. Yet in America, they also have peanut butter, almond, coconut, pretzel, wild cherry, orange chocolate, mint chocolate etc. I know you can get them over here in selected shops but that invariably involves having to pay £1.99 for the smallest bag and then needing to re-mortgage your house for the bigger sizes. Ok, ‘wild cherry’ sounds disgusting but the others (peanut butter and pretzel are my favourites) are damn tasty. But why stop at M&M’s? In the newsagent opposite my old office, there was a period of about a month when they stocked ‘peanut butter and cookie’ flavour Twix bars, direct from the US. I am not ashamed to admit that it made my week when I found that out.

2)     Good TV shows with more than 6 episodes a season. I love that, when it comes to the start of a new season of a US TV show, there are at least 13 episodes to look forward to – often even more than 20. In the UK, we get 6. It’s barely even worth it. Why is this, TV executives, why??

3)     Friendly customer service. Ok, so a huge generalisation and I am sure I will polarize opinion on this. But, despite being British, I like it when shop assistants and waiting staff in America ask me how I am and say ‘have a great day’ when our brief interaction has finished. The fact that they seem genuinely baffled when you ask how they are adds to the charm. Maybe it’s a bit cheesy or maybe I’m a bit needy (perhaps both), but I would happily choose this approach over the surly attitude that seems to prevail in the UK, where any question or attempt at conversation on my part is usually met with the same look of withering disdain as if I’d just farted.

4)     Sexy politics. Ok, so ‘sexy’ may be pushing it a bit but it’s arguably a lot more interesting than the stuffiness that runs through British politics. In the US, politicians are called Barack, Mitt and Newt. In the UK, we have David, Ed and Nick. They have rallies, banners and television debates. Hollywood makes movies around American politics.  They have primaries, senates, ‘super tuesday’ and something called a ‘tea party’. Now I have no idea what that is, but it sounds bizarrely fascinating. Even the more extreme personalities are not just eccentric but completely bat-shit crazy (yes, Sarah Palin, I’m looking at you). Even the bad guys are more emphatic. There are a number of British politicians I would quite like to punch, but if I had to choose between any one of them and Rick Santorum, I would land one on Santorum every single time.

5)     HUGE landmarks. Buckingham Palace, Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall are all impressive; I’m not denying that. But compare them to the Golden Gate Bridge, the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls, and there is really no contest. Times Square in New York is brilliantly crazy too. It’s like Piccadilly Circus on steroids.

6)     Augusta National Golf Club. Every year, I get misty-eyed as I watch the best golfers in the world head to Augusta, Georgia for the US Masters tournament.  If I had a ‘bucket list’ then playing Augusta National would be right at the top, but realistically it would be impossible due to the exclusive membership criteria. Even if that weren’t an issue, I would never be allowed anywhere near the gorgeous flower-laden surroundings and beautiful fairways for fear of hacking around and leaving massive divots in my wake like some sort of uncoordinated British tornado. So, it shall remain a dream.

7)     The legacy of Americana/Alt.Country Music. A genre I love, from all the way back to the sixties when there was Gram Parsons and the Byrds, via the Eagles in the seventies, through to the nineties revival lead by the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo – who were then followed by bands such as Whiskeytown and Drive-by Truckers. I know I sound like a music snob but, if these bands were from Blackpool or Milton Keynes, the music would not have been quite the same.

8)     Trail Mix and Diet Mountain Dew. Yes, I’m going down the sugar route again, although I’m pretty sure Diet Mountain Dew doesn’t have much, if any of it. Anyhow, the combination of this drink and a factory-sized packet of Trail Mix (a combination of peanuts, raisins, chocolate, cashew nuts plus whatever else they decide to throw in at the time) got Mrs.D and I through some very long, and occasionally scary, drives through California, Nevada and Arizona. Whether it was through the searing heat of Death Valley, down narrow roads next to some vertigo-inducing drops in Yosemite, or almost driving the wrong way down the Las Vegas strip (don’t ask), these snacks were always close to hand and mouth.

9)     Sirius Satellite Radio. I perhaps should have included this above as this was also a constant companion during our two-week stint in the west of the US.  There were a number of great stations, but my two favourites were ‘E-Street Radio’ – which was devoted entirely to the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band – and ‘Spectrum Radio’ – which played album tracks from the likes of Whiskeytown, The Wallflowers, The Black Crowes, REM, Counting Crows, Fleet Foxes, Neil Young, Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam.  Coming back to Absolute Radio was something of a disappointment.

10)  The city vibe. This is another potentially contentious one. I was fortunate enough to spend a few days in New York last April and it was magnificent. Such a vibrant, diverse city that had a vibe where anything could happen and anything could be achieved. In comparison, London feels grey and tired, with a sense of disillusionment hanging over it. New Yorkers have great pride in their city whereas Londoners seemingly walk around with apathy. Maybe it’s a generalisation and comes from the fact that New York was new and exciting to me, whilst I commute to London most days, which I guess makes me one of the apathetic.