It has been a while since the last blog as I have been too overwhelmed by the circumstances around me to reach my keyboard. Like many parents, I find that every year, the summer holidays spent with home-bound children are just enough of a distraction to prevent me from getting anything meaningful done at home. You would think that by now I would plan ahead and timetable in some ‘protected time’ to work in my office from home. But this goes against the conviction of every teenager, that a parent’s mere presence on home turf equates to them being available for all taxiing, shopping or organising needed.
This summer we decided to intensify the chaos by adding a full-scale kitchen breakdown which meant a house of noisy builders who seemed to travel with their own soundtrack as they worked. It forced us to de-camp to our living room for over a month which we adapted to also use as a quasi-kitchen/dining room. It wasn’t all bad as it meant that it was easier to corral any children into helping to prepare meals before they could find something ‘important’ to do. As they lounged around the living room, slumped in chairs or trying to fill the entire contents of the couch while they multitasked with phones, music and the tv they were trapped into helping because they were already in the kitchen. Our new setup in the living room also allowed us to prepare meals while perusing long forgotten books on our bookshelves and listen to dusty old CDs and it added a culinary slant to the definition of ‘couch potatoes’.
However, it was quite a bit like camping in our own home on a very poorly rated staycation. In other words, the novelty of cooking in a tiny corner near one of our yawning cats on a cushion quickly wore off. It simply became annoying to cook as each meal involved precise planning and execution to prepare the simplest of dishes with only the minimum of equipment and without a nearby sink. Of course, I had several culinary miscalculations when I remembered past the point of no return in a recipe that we didn’t actually have a usable oven at hand. Promised cupcakes for a BBQ became microwave-friendly rocky road and there were last minute improvisations to produce ‘roasted’ veg, nuts and fish. It goes without saying that another of the downsides of the kitchen/living room union was that the enclosed room containing the lingering smells of many days past meals did not promote the most conductive atmosphere for relaxing…
Obviously, the kitchen breakdown sits very firmly with other first world problems, but in effect, it still became impossible to think with all of the noise and dust, let alone, write. But finally, with the new kitchen almost complete and some more one-pot recipes born out of cooking with a tiny hotplate, the dust seems to have temporarily settled. And it is just in the nick of time as last week, the new series of The Great British Bake Off returned to our screens.
This has caused the usual media interest stories pitting baker against baker and speculating who, if anyone, is going to make Paul Hollywood cry. I am one of millions glued to my seat, watching for any hint of a repeat of last year’s ‘bin-gate’. So far, this year’s series seems to have some potential for drama because it is already getting a bit emotional. There have been tears over technical challenges and showstoppers by contestants and the presenters, Mel and Sue, seem to be on constant standby with an endless supply of concerned faces, ready hugs and commands of ‘Deep breath!’. However, the series has prompted even more drama outside of the tent as uncomfortable questions have been asked in the media about whether the popularity of so many cooking shows in the UK really influences our cooking skills or diets positively. With our obesity rates rising like one of Paul’s many loaves, who’s to say that these shows are good for our health? Add to the mix the most recent controversy from none other than the Queen of Cakes, Mary Berry, and the issue is even further confused.
Apparently, Queen Berry has come under harsh criticism from all fronts for an interview she gave to Good Housekeeping when she said that ‘We need to teach parents about the right foods to give children. It’s very difficult…Many people think children must have chips. I don’t think any household should have a deep fat fryer.’ She also dared to suggest that children should not consume ‘sugared drinks’. Many in the media found this outrageous, that the Queen of Cakes was sharing sound healthy eating advice on par with the NHS and public health guidelines whilst headlining a show that is promoting the baking of cakes and other indulgences. There has even been criticism from the kitchens of Bake Off’s main competition, Master Chef, who put a Brexit slant on it by saying that the UK was ‘built on chips and spam fritters’ and Berry’s comments are an attack on our British way of life’.
However, the Bake Off has never purported itself to be a healthy eating cookery show and the clue is in its title. It’s simply about baking from scratch and watching the contestants try to create one of Paul’s breads or Mary’s cakes and desserts. If it promotes anything, it is to get back into the kitchen and do more than just microwave. And, going back to Mary’s comments, if we are honest with ourselves, we know she is right about how important it is that children (and their parents) have a healthy diet and ‘sugared drinks’ and deep fat fryers do not need to be a part of it. In fact, the new Public Health England Eatwell Guide does not even include a pie slice of high fat, salt and sugar foods on its plate in order to emphasise the official recommendation that we eat it less often and in small amounts. But this is not to say that on occasion, these foods cannot be eaten and including them in the Eatwell Guide recognises that we do enjoy to eat these foods. Therefore, it is the nutritional quality and the portion size that is really important to get right.
In regard to the nutrition, it seems obvious that cooking something homemade always trumps readymade. Although some manufacturers may dispute this, homemade breads and cakes are generally healthier (and tastier!) than any of the readymade versions available because you are more able to use fresh ingredients and can control the amounts and types of sugar and fat you use. But does the Bake Off encourage its viewers to bake their cake and eat it, too?
Portion size is literally a big issue when it comes to preventing overweight and obesity and it goes far beyond Bake Off. I cannot fathom that the judge’s nimble tasting of the breads and cakes is encouraging viewers to eat an endless array of them. The truth is that as a country, we have an obesity problem that is not shifting and blaming it on Bake Off is simply a distraction to the more difficult option of doing something about it. So demonising such a great show is pretty pointless when it could actually help to get people cooking again. Especially when one of the greatest things about Bake Off is the fact that the contestants are quite diverse. They come from a range of backgrounds, cultures and ages and there is consistently an equal number of men and women battling it out to be Star Baker. It is a great endorsement that anybody, really, can cook (although I do hope that we will see some contestants with disabilities facing Paul and Mary in the future).
So I return again to the wise words of Queen Mary, who was also asked how she managed to eat so many cakes on Bake Off and stay trim. She replied that she has a balanced healthy diet and exercises to keep herself fit but the key is this: it isn’t about the many cakes she has to eat, it’s about the size of the slice.
And now for some more cooking, inspired by our recent kitchen breakdown. Luckily whilst confined to the tiny kitchen, the weather was relatively good and amongst other dishes we ate a lot of hearty salads. Feta cheese is one of my favourite’s and here is a recipe for a recent delicious feast, Summer salad with feta, papaya and mint.