madhouse march (it’s another GIVEAWAY!!)

I’m the first to admit that this blog is not a very useful one. I don’t teach you how to braid Afro hair, give you numerous recipes for gluten-free vegans, explain some complicated piece of computing, or provide numerous rainy-day activities for hyperactive preschoolers.

If you’re new to the blog and haven’t yet sussed the vibe, it is this: I witter on about something or other for around 800 words and people read it and sometimes comment and then get on with their lives regardless. This blog does not change lives.

But, dear friends, now I want to repay you for your loyalty and commitment to my various rants. This blog is about to change your life. Get ready for it: I am about to share with you my one biggest secret to organising your family’s meals forever. Some of you may remember that way back in the distant past of January 2015, I made a resolution to cook from a different cookbook each month. Hands-down, the best and most practical family cookbook I have ever come across is the one I was lucky enough to cook from throughout March.

Madhouse Cookbook

Madhouse Cookbook, by Jo Pratt, is a pretty apt book for me – the fact that I’m writing up what I did in March when it’s nearly May should be evidence enough that we qualify under the ‘madhouse’ moniker. I have two kids to feed, as well as a husband with an odd working schedule and a lodger with an aversion to lamb, fish and meat-on-the-bone – not to mention sundry others who pop in, sometimes planned and invited, sometimes unplanned, sometimes uninvited, but always welcome. There has to be food on the table by 6pm (or else our kids will flip) and there has to be enough to feed whoever God may bring to our door that day. Jo Pratt’s recipes are flexible, child-friendly, quick, easy and yummy. I’m telling you: buy this book. It will change your life. (Get to know Jesus first though – He will change your life more. But, after that, buy this book.)

What makes this book stand out? First, nearly every recipe is pure gold in terms of flavour. Quite outstanding. From Chinese to Mexican to Italian to Indonesian, Jo Pratt has produced a stellar selection of meals which will give your kids a hugely varied diet without them even realising, whilst the grown-ups enjoy food that is in no way ‘dumbed down’. Second, there are virtually none of those recipes that you might just throw together yourself with no need for guidance. (I always get so disheartened flicking through a recipe book and seeing titles such as ‘tomato and courgette pasta’ or ‘roast chicken with garlic’ – why pay good money for recipes you don’t need?) Those few recipes which do fit this category are briefly summarised in categories, e.g. ‘Very, Very, Very Quick Pasta Dishes’ or ‘Stir Crazy’, a collection of stir-fry sauces.

Third, the book is just so comprehensive. Section one is ‘Monday to Friday survival: the need for speed’ – and it does what it says on the tin. Quick recipes, yummy flavours, great for kids and adults alike. We loved the Very Special Fried Rice, the Chicken, Cheese and Corn Quesa-d-easies and the Mediterranean Baked Chicken and Rice – all great, none of them time-consuming. We regularly use Jo’s Risotto Primavera recipe – sometimes following to the letter, sometimes varying with whatever veg we have to hand, always scrummy. Section two is ‘The Busy Weekend’ – great (but still quick) recipes to improve your weekend, from lazy brunch ideas, to baking-with-kids projects, to relaxed family meals. The Sticky Sausages with Sweet Potatoes and Peppers is a work of genius – 15min prep, then bang in the oven for an hour. Rich Vegetable Lasagne was a winner too. (And did I mention that we found plenty of new vegetarian recipes to suit our half-vegetarian diet?) Section three is ‘Cling on to your social life’ – a selection of slightly smarter recipes for when friends come round. But of course nothing takes ages to make because Jo realises you have Kids Who Are Not Tired to put to bed and All The Chaos to clear away and Unidentifiable Hardened Food to scratch off the dining table – in addition to cooking for your guests. The Beef Rendang and South Indian Chicken Curry were amazing, and the Chocolate and Ginger Brownies were so good I made them three times in one week. (Beach-ready body? Er…)

Add to all this the accurate preparation and cooking times, guidance on how many adults/kids the meal will feed, ingredients lists which don’t require a trip to a specialist deli, and plenty of tips for leftovers or how to vary the meals for fussy eaters – and you’re left with an incredible resource, not only for family life but for anyone who likes to cook. Honestly, if you want decent recipes which don’t take long to prepare, buy this book, whether or not you have kids, a spouse, a lodger, or a dog – and prepare to weep over its sheer ease and yum factor.

But don’t buy the book just yet. Because I think it’s such an invaluable aid to anyone’s cooking repertoire, I’m going to give away a copy to a commenter picked at random this Saturday at 7pm (OK, you know that this means sometime during Sunday or Monday…). This time I’d like you to comment on the most mad thing you’ve ever cooked. I once made a Marmite, sweetcorn and squid sandwich. Fire away.

adoption: it’s not plan b

Although there was a time when I thought it was.

Back in my naive, idealistic youth, before we had kids, adoption was our Plan B. “If we can’t have children, we’ll…” and all that. Truth be told, I was bloody scared that we wouldn’t be able to have children – because then we’d have to face the messy reality of adoption, and I wasn’t sure if I could cope. When we found out we were expecting Mister, I let out a huge inward sigh of relief. Now we could continue ignoring the A word.

Back then, adoption was only a Plan B – something you considered only when all other doors had been slammed in your face. In my naivety – and I’m incredibly ashamed to write this now – I would wonder why childless couples didn’t ‘just adopt’, as if it were akin to popping to the Post Office for a book of stamps. If this is you, please know that I feel so terribly sorry for this attitude, which came from an immature, misinformed position, and not from a desire to be accusatory or hurtful. Infertility is painful enough, without idiots like me putting unrealistic expectations on you. And whilst, for many couples, infertility can be the trigger which gets them thinking about, and eventually excited about, adoption, it is not a given that just because you can’t have children naturally, you will automatically be in a mental, emotional, social and financial position to adopt. And, of course, you may just not want to – and that’s fine. Adoption is a big ask. It is certainly not Plan B.

For us, adoption has become Plan A. And I’m always expecting people to ask us why we’re not planning any more birth children, but they never do. Perhaps they think it’s too personal? Perhaps they’re worried that there’ll be some medical details which will be just a little too gross? Or perhaps they genuinely don’t care? Whatever the reason, I can’t believe people aren’t just a teeny bit curious. The truth is, I’ve been fortunate enough to have fairly easy pregnancies and labours. There have been no conception problems in the past, and no reason to believe there would be in the future. We could withdraw at any point of this adoption process, and, to the best of our knowledge, find ourselves expecting – naturally – within a few months. We are not adopted, nor do we have any adoption in the family. In short, our motivation to adopt is not based on any practical, medical or historical reasons – our motivation has, in fact, come from the sense that God is calling us to expand our family in this way. Adoption was always God’s Plan A for bringing human beings into His heavenly family – and so He calls many people to consider it as a Plan A for their earthly family too. We don’t expect this to be perfectly understandable to those without a faith, but there it is, and we can’t change it.

Let me try to explain how we feel about pursuing adoption. We feel as excited as we did when we were expecting our two birth children. We have no qualms about being able to love all of our children, birth or adopted, equally. We don’t see adoption as ‘parenting someone else’s child’. Although God hasn’t actually closed my womb (to the best of my knowledge), it wouldn’t feel right to try and conceive again. It feels like the most natural thing in the world to have a child by adoption. None of these feelings would be true if God hadn’t intervened to change our hearts and minds on the matter.

Adoption was Plan B. Now it’s Plan A.

(And, listen: for the record, I’m cool with answering your questions. Please don’t feel there’s anything you can’t ask. If you want to tell us we’re mad fools, please do it. We’re going to have to become pretty smart at talking through issues, emotions and identities with our adopted child as they grow up – so we might as well get good at it now.)

holiday hijack

My heart sank as I looked at the list we’d just created. My son’s hopeful, sometimes ambitious suggestions of what he’d like to do during the Easter holidays. My daughter’s enthusiasm for anything her big brother said. And my awareness that there was going to be precious little time to do any of these activities.

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Easter gardens, made by the kids

One of the implications of the exciting news I shared last week is the amount of annual leave my husband has had to take. This year, well over a week of his leave will be spent pursuing adoption, and more leave will be needed should we be successful at panel, as he takes time off for meeting our (at this stage) hypothetical child, as well as the statutory paternity leave. The fact that the four-day adoption training course was scheduled for these Easter holidays has meant that all Desert Dad’s days off have gone on this course, and we haven’t had much time off as a family. And I feel like the holidays – usually a time for me to spend extra-special quality time with the kids – have been rudely hijacked.

But now, looking back over the last fortnight, I’m so incredibly grateful at how the days have panned out. Trying to see things from the kids’ point of view, I really think they’ve had a lovely time, despite us abandoning them at different points to pop off to the training.

For starters, Granny and Grandpa came to look after them for the first couple of days, and their Aunt and Uncle-to-be came for the next couple of days. Our kids don’t get a lot of exclusive time with their extended family, so this was a special treat for everyone. Yes, I’d love to have been around for them, but recognise that me being forced to be elsewhere for a few days was actually a healthy thing for all of us. Everyone had a lovely time, and the kids have been spoilt for attention.

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Then there was the Easter Weekend, which we enjoyed together as a family. On Good Friday we took part in some lovely all-age celebrations at church in the morning, followed by a bunny trail around the market in the afternoon. The rain was persistent – but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. Saturday had no agenda – God knows we needed it – and, despite my lack of thinking this year about how to make Easter meaningful for the kids, this day revealed all sorts of special moments.

We watched The Miracle Maker, made an Easter garden cake, and Missy spontaneously decided to give some of her money away to ‘people who don’t have any money’. Her brother followed suit. They didn’t go to sleep for AGES that night, which was kind of annoying, but also brilliant because it meant they were so excited about Easter!

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Our Easter garden cake…

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…smashing it open…

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…to reveal an empty tomb!

Easter Sunday was great – how could it not be? – and we headed off to the in-laws after church and enjoyed some wonderful family celebrations. On Monday we went to Underwater Street, the most amazing place for young kids, and I thoroughly recommend it.

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Holding himself captive in a giant bubble. As you do.

The concept is so simple (‘get all the things that kids like to do in one room’) that I’m surprised never to have seen it done before.

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Painting a Mini. Why not?

There were craft tables, science experiments, giant bubbles, a climbing wall, sensory areas, water play, role play shops, dressing up, a construction site and a cannon firing plastic balls.

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Mallyan Spout, Goathland

Somehow, quite a few things have been knocked off the ‘Easter holidays’ list. Cinema, soft play, a trip to see some waterfalls (Mister’s special request), playdates with friends.

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Falling Foss, Whitby

There are a few things left but, under the circumstances, methinks we ain’t done badly. Just a little more affirmation that God’s called us to pursue adoption, and has our family well looked-after, even when we can’t be around so much.

What have you been up to this Easter?

adoption: our story so far

I promised there’d be a couple of surprises here on the blog for 2015, so here’s the first: I’m excited to share with you that Famille Desert are in the process of adoption! Whoop! It’s something I’m buzzing to write more about in the future but, for now, let me take you back a few years and share what’s brought us to this point.

Adoption was always something we’d had in the back of our minds. From the time we were engaged, and talking about our future together, Desert Dad and I knew that adoption would be the right route for us if we weren’t able to have kids biologically. And then, of course, we found we could – so we didn’t give adoption a second thought. Until Missy, our second child, was born. The birth of a child wouldn’t ordinarily be associated with thoughts of adopting another, but it was during the long nights feeding this little life that I sat scrolling through Facebook and blogs on my phone. I discovered the blog of an old friend, and although she didn’t write exclusively about adoption, whenever she did (for example here and here), something in my heart went all a-flutter. It was as if I was jealous of her. Perhaps I wanted to adopt a child as well. Could this be God tugging at my heart strings?

“Well God,” I reasoned, “you’re going to have bring hubby up to speed on this too – if this is meant to be, then prompt him as you’ve prompted me.” This had to come from both of us – I knew it would never work if I was having to motivate my husband to get as excited about it as I was. And, besides, I trusted that if this was something God was calling us to, He would call the both of us. It may have been the very next morning when, as I was coming downstairs for breakfast, Desert Dad alerted me to a news headline which had caught his attention: a pitifully small number of children had been adopted in the last year, raising questions about over-complicated bureaucracy and calling for reforms. Most importantly – and sadly – it meant a huge number of children were remaining in the care system, with their chances of adoption getting lower by the day.

This article had moved DD enough to draw it to my attention, and from that moment on, adoption was something the two of us could talk openly about, pray about, ask others about. Fast forward three-and-a-bit-years, and the time felt right to pursue growing our family through adoption – so here we are, two months into the process. It’s exciting and it’s daunting – mostly in equal measure.

The two most asked questions from friends so far have been what age we’re hoping to adopt, and when we might be expecting to adopt, should we be successful at panel. We feel it wouldn’t be right to adopt older than our birth children, which means we’re looking at age 2 or under. There’s a big need for adopters of older children, and it saddens me that we can’t offer a home to an older child. But there’s also a big need for adopters of younger children with additional needs – and this is something we’re open to. The only ‘needs’ we feel we would have to say no to are those which we wouldn’t be able to provide for alongside providing for the children God has already blessed us with. In terms of a time frame, thank goodness that the news article I referred to above was the start of some major changes for the adoption process in the UK. It’s a lot quicker nowadays – although no less rigorous – so if we were successful at panel, we might be hoping to adopt in the autumn. Not long!

As we’ve shared the news with friends over the last couple of months, we’ve been overwhelmed by their support and encouragement. Not that we were expecting them not to be – but the level of enthusiasm has certainly surpassed what I was expecting. Of course nothing’s confirmed yet – we still have a lot of paperwork, social worker interviews, reading, training and general soul-searching to do. And ultimately an adoption panel will make a decision about whether or not to approve us. There are a lot of unknowns. But, for now, this is our journey and I’d love you to join us.

desert parenting: the early years

There’s been a plethora of new babies born to my friends recently and it’s making me reflect upon my own experience of becoming a mum – in particular, how my faith has grown. The last five years of my life have been the most exciting ones faith-wise, yet this isn’t because I’ve been extra holy – in fact, the number of times I’ve sat down with my Bible for a traditional ‘quiet time’ is shockingly small. I’ve missed a lot of sermons due to being on the kids’ work rota or chasing toddlers round the church or placating an unsettled baby. On paper, my spiritual disciplines would look pretty awful to an outsider. So what’s helped?

* My tribe. I’ve been so blessed by the good Christian friends God has put in my way since, and because of, having kids. We don’t force theology, it just comes naturally. It comes when we’re chatting over tea and cake; we grapple with a tricky Biblical application over jigsaws with our kids; while we’re eating a plastic banquet, prepared by the littlies, we’re also musing over Scripture and faith and life and the grey areas. It’s not a big deal – and it comes alongside tales of the previous night’s sleeplessness, potty training anecdotes, plans for spa days and what so-and-so posted on Facebook – but it’s these snatches of God-conversation with friends which have shaped me, encouraged me, and got me thinking over the last few years. I couldn’t be more grateful for the ‘tribe’ God has put in my life. If you’re new to this parenting business, pray for your tribe to come. And if it’s already flippin’ obvious who they are: use them! Hang out more, open up to them, share your burdens and your thoughts, pray with them.

* Blogs, books and articles. Gradually, I’ve been able to read more whole books – but in times when that’s been too much, I’ve really appreciated blogs and articles sent my way by friends or posted on Facebook. Punchy, succinct thoughts on an aspect of Christian living. Friends, if you read something good: share it! It could be just the encouragement one of your tribe needs. A particularly helpful blog post I read a while back was this one, about reading the Bible as a young mum. Read it now – go on! I dare you! (It’s short and easy and encouraging – promise.)

* Serving and ministering. This is a really tough one. It requires a fair bit of planning (and sometimes childcare) to be able to serve in your church or community when you have kids. It’s never easy – but it grows faith. If I haven’t picked up my Bible in a couple of weeks, you can be sure that having to plan a kids’ work session or story for Toddlers, or preparing a Bible study for a Mums’ cell group, or planning to mentor a younger Christian will force me to open it again! I’ve grown in faith as I’ve seen others grow in faith.

* Sharing faith with my kids. There was a time when I was driving my kids somewhere and was massively challenged by a random Bible story that came on the CD player. (We were listening to the Big Bible Storybook, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected to hear a Bible story – more that it was some random part of the Old Testament which I’d forgotten about.) There have been other times when reading a children’s Bible or Christian storybook with them, or discussing faith, or praying, or playing through the Bible has kept me spiritually ‘topped up’ as well as them.

* My husband. I approach this one sensitively, knowing that several friends long for their other halves to come to know Jesus. I am so massively grateful for a husband who is unswayed in his pursuit of loving Jesus more, and I don’t take this for granted. He shares with me the things he’s thinking about, the books he’s reading, the articles he’s found – and it’s like I benefit from the time he’s put in, without committing lots of energy that I don’t have. Of course Christian wives are just as responsible for encouraging and challenging their husbands with new theological thoughts – but at this stage in life, low on time and energy, I’m thankful for a husband who keeps me on my toes. If you’re a Christian whose spouse does the bulk of the childcare, how are you supporting them in their faith? Those of you who are courageously and unreservedly pursuing Jesus without encouragement from your partner: we want to walk this journey with you. Please tell us how we can be better Christian siblings to you.

Before I had kids, my view of discipleship was very different. Perhaps I could liken it to a knitted square in one colour, row upon row of identical stitches forming a unified whole. There was one way to pursue God: through the Bible, in a daily quiet time, followed by a shopping list prayer. Nowadays, my walk is a tapestry: many different colours and stitches interacting in varied ways. There are dropped stitches too, as well as areas not yet stitched. I am an ongoing work, more aware of my imperfections than ever, but more aware of God’s grace than ever – grace which enables me to pursue discipleship in the haze of early parenthood, guilt-free and joyful.

why i threw away your artwork (letter to my kids)

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To my adult children,

As you read this to yourselves, I want you to do so in the context of our relationship. You must know that I love you dearly. You are, and always have been, our greatest achievement, source of immense pride and joy, and our lives are immeasurably richer for having had you in them.

That said, as children, your artwork was regularly binned – by the bag load. This is not because I didn’t love you or because I wanted to discourage your artistic attempts – in fact, I feel partly responsible for the creative people you were (and possibly still are – I don’t know, because I’m writing this in the past – your past – and you haven’t grown up yet, so who knows). I provided you with materials, and a space, and tried to nurture a love of Trying Things Out. But I threw away so much of what you produced, daily and without shame.

Let me try to explain the factors which led to this course of action:

1) The quantity. I’m sorry, but you seemed to bring back an average of four pictures a day from school. Apparently the teachers also taught you some reading and writing, because you’re now literate (again, not entirely sure as you haven’t grown up yet), but how they fitted this in, I don’t know. Because you drew so much. How big did you think our house was? I mean, I know you were small so it probably felt bigger to you, but seriously – how much wall space?

2) The poor choice of colours. Yellow on white does not work. It won’t be seen from a distance. And that is important, for some reason. Also – you didn’t understand that eyesight deteriorates, not improves, with age. So, no, I didn’t keep anything I couldn’t detect without a UV lamp.

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3) The repetitive nature of your output. Obviously, what with you being all (fictitiously) grown up and everything, I’m over this – but there was a time when I wanted to inflict some serious damage on whoever it is who markets all those identikit superheroes. You never seemed to get bored of drawing them, over and over again, identified in your pictures with capes and sometimes-decipherable labels. But I was so bored I was screaming inwardly. “TRY MIXING IT UP!” I was yelling in my head. “TRY PAINTS OR PASTELS OR COLLAGE OR SOME KIND OF FUN TECHNIQUE THAT MAKES ME LOOK LIKE THE YUMMIEST MUMMY FOR HAVING SUCH NATURALLY CREATIVE KIDS. BUT, DEAR GOD, NOT ANOTHER FELT-TIP SUPERHERO.” Man, am I glad I don’t feel that way now.

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4) The poor choice of medium. Chalk will rub off. Things that were not meant to be stuck to paper will fall off. And I wasn’t prepared to adorn our home with A4 sheets decorated with PVA splodges where the yogurt pot and pine cone had been. Just wasn’t.

I hope you’ll forgive me, and understand why I chose to act in the way I did. I don’t think you’ve suffered any major trauma as a result, and I’d like to think you’re all well-adjusted adults – perhaps that you benefited simply from the act of being creative, even if it wasn’t always displayed. But if you’re reading this with your therapist – what can I say?

Sorry. And I love you.

Mum xx

PS Some tips for when you have your own kids:

a) have a space where their artwork can be displayed. A big space, but defined – so that it can’t overflow. Despite what I said above, you had your own defined display spaces in the dining room, kitchen and bedroom. (They just weren’t enough for the HUGE amount of things you drew.)

b) keep a folder in the hall for all pictures produced in the week. At the weekend, decide with your kids which ones are keepers and which ones are not.

c) work on a one-in, one-out basis – kids want to display a picture? They have to take another one down.

d) cut round anything small-ish and stick it onto a card for the next birthday party they get invited to

e) palm off some pictures next time you see grandparents, aunts/uncles, godparents, cousins, neighbours, random strangers…they see your kids’ pictures as a novelty, something sweet and innocent, rather than a noose around your neck.

f) don’t use the words ‘bin’ or ‘throw away’. Instead talk of ‘recycling’, and make it an Adventure – “hey, I know, why don’t we put this one in the RECYCLING?!” you could say, excitedly. You never know, they might just buy it.

feb express

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Continuing with my one-cookbook-per-month challenge, for February I chose Nigella Express. This is a book I use regularly, but there were still plenty of recipes I wanted to try. So we stocked up on sugar, butter, cream and wine, and were ready to begin.

Oh my word, was this a wondrous month. Flavoursome Coq au Riesling, Macaroni Cheese (with a clever trick to avoid making a white sauce from scratch), Buttermilk Roast Chicken and New Orleans Coleslaw (made for a shared lunch at church) and Festive Fusilli served with Halloumi Bites (the best accompaniment to an evening catching up with a vegetarian friend).

There was not a single pudding which let us down in any way, shape or form: Caramel Croissant Pudding, Flourless Chocolate Brownies (served with ice cream), Orange French Toast, Instant Chocolate Mousse, Chocolate Chip Cookies (made for a friend’s baby shower: said baby is still in there, guzzling away), Glitzy Chocolate Puddings and Ice Cream Cake (made for my birthday). I would happily eat any or all of these puddings at any time of the day or night. I swear: not one of these puddings will be absent from the Kingdom of Heaven.

It was a magical morning when we discovered the ease and deliciousness of Oeufs en Cocotte. The baked egg definitely improves upon the boiled egg for (predominantly) lack of shell, but also for the possibilities of adding chopped ham, diced mushrooms, or pretty much anything small and complementary. This and poached eggs have become my new Favourite Ways with Eggs for 2015. (Hashtag, anyone?)

The ‘Get up and Go’ chapter – a range of more interesting breakfast ideas than cereal and toast – proved popular in the Desert household. We had a Valentine’s Brunch with Smoothies, Chopped Fruit Salad, Breakfast Bruschetta, Green Eggs and Ham (pesto pancakes) and Breakfast Bars. The Pear and Ginger Muffins were sadly not as more-ish as the other options.

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Mediocre was the Red Prawn and Mango Curry – I mean, any curry is a good curry (right?) but this one wasn’t up there with my favourite curry recipes of all time (and I do have a few, so I’ve every right to be picky). The Potato and Mushroom Gratin was OK as an accompaniment, but not so good that I’d remember to get the book out again for it. Sweetcorn Chowder was a good option for a veggie dinner, served with toasted nachos and cheese, but I’m not sure I like sweetcorn enough to have a whole bowlful of it in one sitting.

The Naan Pizzas were a let down. OK so it’s a clever idea and, yes, I’ll accept that naans make better pizza bases than shop-bought pizza bases, but the suggested toppings (chiefly mushrooms) were rather lacklustre. I left these for Desert Dad and the kiddoes one evening when I hopped off to a meeting, and they were Not Impressed.

The Brandied Bacony Chicken was just not Brandied or Bacony enough to warrant the addition of these ingredients to a simple roast chicken (which, let’s face it, is one of the most Express things you can make, and tastes flippin’ fantastic with it). The Croque Monsieur Bake – basically a baked ham and cheese sarnie – was a disappointing dinner. And I just couldn’t get the Cheese Fondue to work. I mean, I did leave it unattended for an hour while I went out (accidental) but even before this, the gloopy cheese and simmering wine just didn’t want to be friends.

I think the Maple Chicken ‘n’ Ribs would have been nice, but I managed to overcook these just a little:

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Sorry Nigella.

However, on the basis that the good recipes were really, seriously good, this book is a definite keeper. And you know the best bit?

There are still loads of recipes left to try!