Perfect porridge

Before I had children, I’d never dreamed of eating porridge for breakfast. I mean, it’s all gooey, soft, and bland-looking. Old people’s food, was my impression. I much preferred good old toast with lots of butter and jam. When I first started making porridge to feed my children (as everyone does in Australia), sometimes I’d have a little taste, and still found the taste bland and texture unpleasant. My kids didn’t care for it much, either. We all ended up eating toast most of the time.

But everything changed when I was browsing one of my favourite cookbooks, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything one day. He recommended that we should always choose normal rolled oats, not the instant kind. He also suggested throwing a bit of butter at the end to enhance flavour. Intrigued, I gave it a try.

And oh my, what a difference real porridge was from the instant kind. It had beautiful, soft-but-chewy texture, like al dante pasta or rice. It only took 5 minutes or so on stovetop to cook, I don’t know why people bother selling the instant version in the first place. And butter! Who knew butter in porridge would be so lovely (well, I should have known because butter in everything is lovely – we Japanese people even put butter in a warm bowl of rice and eat it with soy sauce when there is nothing else to eat – and it’s delicious).

Encouraged, I started adding more goodies to the porridge mix bit by bit – more for my enjoyment, but also to entice my reluctant little eater Miss M. A handful of coconut here, cinnamon and brown sugar on top, yoghurt…. And now I have perfected it.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An unbelievably yummy, steamy bowl of porridge on cold winter mornings!

For me and my kids, I cook about 1 cup of rolled oats with 1/3 of dried desiccated coconut and dried mango strips (so nice!), with about 2 cups of water. When cooked, add about a tablespoon of butter. Serve in a bowl, with sprinkles of cinnamon and brown sugar (don’t need much because of the sweet dried fruit), top with (dreadfully expensive) banana slices, and a quenelle of yoghurt on top.

I eat it faster than my kids, but surprise, surprise, my kids now totally eat this up. A nice big bowl each. Do you know how precious this is? That porridge fills their tummies up so well, they don’t come back an hour later begging for unhealthy snack. If you are the kind of person who equates butter with guilt, I assure you, these benefits far outweigh the cost.


Rainy day (mini) pizza

It’s been raining like mad here for days. Now I like rain. I used to love it in fact – there is nothing better than curling up inside your home on a cold rainy day with a good book and a hot cup of tea. But that was before I had children.

Children – well, my 3 and 1 year olds at least – just can’t seem to sit back on a sofa, relax, sip their babychinos and browse picture books for hours. Why not, is beyond my comprehension. The destruction that goes on inside my house when the kids are cooped up on a rainy day? It’s too painful for me to describe.

So I need to think of activities. Activities that would pin the kids to the table so that they don’t go destroy my sewing machines or spill milk on my precious fabrics. It’s not easy, but I found a good one yesterday just when I was on the verge of losing sanity.

 

Mini pizzas! Which you can make with your children!

It’s an extension of the bread-making idea really, but it is more elaborate than just play dough, and thus keeps the kids busy for a longer period of time. First there is the usual play dough (this time with rolling pins!), then there is “helping mommy” shred cheese in a food processor, then decorating the dough with tomato sauce, the toppings, and then cheese. You can really stretch the activity time if you are a little creative. And even after the pizza-making is over and the children are reverting back to their natural destructive / whiney state, you can effectively distract them with: “Oh hey, do you want to come see how those pizzas are doing in the oven?” etc.

Then, when the horror hours of the evening descends on you, and your sanity is really being tested, you can pull out your final card: “let’s sit down and eat the pizza you made for dinner!” I guarantee, your bewitched children will turn into angels of compliance. My children adore eating what they made. Even Miss M, who is normally finicky with food and doesn’t eat much at all, devoured the pizza, vegetables and all.

You might think pizza isn’t healthy. But I disagree completely. Here’s a basic recipe that is very healthy, wholesome, and unbelievably tasty as well. And if you have never made a pizza dough from scratch, it’s really the easiest thing.

Wholemeal Pizza (from scratch)

Pizza dough
Adapted from Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking

  • 1 cup wholemeal flour
  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • about 1 cup water (you may need a bit more or less)

Put all the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl of a stand mixer, add olive oil and most but not all of the water. Start mixing on low speed with a dough hook. If you see dry stuff left at the bottom of the bowl, gradually add a little more water, until all the dry stuff is absorbed. Again you are looking for the consistency of play dough. Knead at low speed for 7-8 minutes. If you don’t have a stand mixer, you can mix and knead on a table top. When done, cover the dough with a little olive oil, cover the bowl with a plastic wrap, and let it sit somewhere warm for a couple of hours (or more) till it roughly doubles in size.

Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce (for the pizza base).

Easy tomato sauce

  • 1 large onion, or 2 small onions, finely chopped
  • 3-5 large cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 cans of diced tomato
  • a handful of (preferably) fresh mixed herbs (oregano, rosemary, thyme, parsley, and bay leaves are great), finely chopped (leave bay leaves whole, and remove after cooking)
  • salt and pepper to taste

Heat a little olive oil in a pot on medium heat. When hot, toss the onion and garlic, and stir for a few minutes until they are transparent but not burned. Add the tomato and the herbs. Add some salt. Cover, bring to the boil, and simmer on low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sauce thickens up nicely. Leave it to cool.

The key to this recipe is fresh herbs. Please use a lot of them, like a good handful. It makes such a big difference. But if you don’t have fresh herbs, dried ones are okay, too.

Note this recipe makes a lot of tomato sauce. You only need half of it for making pizza, but the leftover is delicious, and you can use it the next day to make lasagne or other pasta dish.

Toppings

The beautiful thing about pizza is that you can pretty much use any topping you can think of, or whatever you have left in the pantry and fridge. The only essential thing is cheese. Yesterday for example, I only used vegetarian sausages, chopped mushrooms and red capsicum.

Assembly

When the pizza dough has risen, bring the children in and have them sit at a table. Sprinkle a bit of flour in front of them, give them a handful of the dough, and show them how to roll them thin with a rolling pin. My children completely ignored my instructions and did their own thing (which, for Mr. A, involved a lot of eating and licking the dough – I know, yucky, but do you know the most useful thing I learned at cooking school? That bacteria dies at about 80 degrees Celsius.). The main thing is they had fun. In the end I made sure all the dough pieces were more or less flat and round, and placed them on a baking tray.

At this point, turn the oven on to preheat at 220 degrees Celsius (to kill off that bacteria!).

Now into the second activity phase – topping the pizza. Let your children spoon the sauce on the dough, put toppings on, and sprinkle the cheese over each pizza. Again the mantra is, “if it’s messy, it doesn’t matter.”

When it’s done, you can put it in the oven straight away. Unlike proper bread, pizza dough doesn’t need a second proofing. Bake until the dough is golden around the edges and the cheese is bubbling.

Another great thing about homemade pizza is that, you can turn leftover veggies, a block of cheese, and basic pantry staples into a most delicious, home-cooked meal. Perfect for rainy days when you really don’t want to go out there grocery shopping.

Good luck surviving the rainy spell, everyone.

Bread-making

Miss M goes to a Steiner preschool. One of the activities they do is make bread – wholemeal bread. It is one of Steiner’s “signature” activities for preschoolers. When I first heard it, I thought “how quaint!” and had this image of little children earnestly learning the lost art of traditional bread making, as families of generations past might have done together.

Then one day it occurred to me. Why, breadmaking isn’t particularly arty or anything – it’s just like play dough! It’s a perfect activity for preschoolers because, you have all the fun of play dough, and in the end you put your creations in the oven and voila, you can eat it for lunch, too. Two birds with one stone, what a clever idea. Plus it’s pretty hard to screw up a loaf of bread. Unlike cookies or scones, which can be ruined if over-handled, bread dough can withstand a lot of toddler abuse.

So I decided to do the same at home, too. I put together a batch of bread dough in the morning (takes no time with my beloved Kitchenaid mixer), leave it to rise till after the kids wake up from a nap, then it’s play dough time. Miss M and and Mr. A love this. (Well, Mr. A mostly loves eating the bread dough, but I turn a blind eye to such small transgressions these days.) After they’ve had enough, I clean up, bake the bread, and it’s ready to eat for dinner.

The great thing about making bread is that it’s incredibly easy. You don’t need to be precise with the ingredients as long as you are in the ballpark for the flour-yeast ratio, and you can eyeball the water amount as you knead the dough (you can’t blindly follow a recipe here anyway because the amount of water you need changes depending on the humidity, the weather, and the kind of flour you use). Even the rising and proofing time is flexible. If the dough is a little under- or over-risen, it doesn’t really matter. It’ll still taste far better than any bread you buy in a supermarket.

Here’s a simple recipe I’ve used and works well:

Easy Wholemeal Bread

  • 300g wholemeal flour (I use organic baker’s wholemeal flour, which, if you are in Australia you can order online in bulk here)
  • 300g plain flour (the same shop has the organic bakers flour here, but you can use any flour with a decent protein content – say, over 10%).
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • about 380ml water (1.5 cups)

Place all dry ingredients and in a mixing bowl, add olive oil and about a cup of water, and start mixing at low speed with a dough hook (or you can do this by hand; it just takes a bit more effort). As the mixture is mixing, slowly add the remaining water, watching the dough consistency. Basically, you use enough water so all the dry stuff is absorbed, but not too wet. You are looking for the consistency of play dough. If there is any dry stuff left at the bottom of the bowl, slowly add more water till all the dry stuff is gone. If it gets too wet, just add more flour. Knead at low speed for about 7-8 minutes. Or longer if by hand.

Cover the dough with a little bit of olive oil, cover the top with plastic, and leave at room temperature for the dough to rise. You want the dough to rise to roughly twice the size. Wholemeal is heavier than white flour, and it takes longer to rise. In cold weather like it is now in Sydney, it takes longer yet than in warmer weather. In summer it might take less than 2 hours. The other day when it was particularly cold, I left the dough in the kitchen for nearly 5 hours, and it was still all right.

When the dough has risen, hand it over to your children and play away! In the end I encourage a semblance of a round bread roll, all of them in similar size to bake evenly, but a bit of variation doesn’t matter. Then, when it’s done, cover and leave the dough to proof – about 1 to 2 hours. This time it doesn’t have to double up in size. Just wait for it to puff up a little.

In a preheated oven at about 200 degrees Celcius, bake the bread till it’s done. Every oven is different and every bread has different size, so it’s impossible to say how long it’ll take. You know it’s ready when the top of the bread is golden, and the bottom has a nice hard feel. When you tap the bottom, it feels a little hollow inside. Leave it to cool for a while before eating (I know, this is the hardest part).

You’d be amazed how tasty a simple wholemeal bread is straight from the oven.  All you need is good butter. Your kids will love eating what they made. And it’s nutritious, too.

Happy breadmaking!