These days, though, it doesn’t scare me one bit. In fact, I’m glad she has chosen an elaborate design, as opposed to a been-done-a-million-times-before hedgehog or Smarties cake. And the reason behind the ‘bring it on’ attitude? A (relatively) new-found confidence in the kitchen. A challenge I would have run from a few years ago, but now one that I fully embrace.
Rewind five years and I was working full-time (and then some), managing a busy city-centre tapas restaurant. I was surrounded by food all day at work and, while I ate well when I was there (thanks, chefs!), the last thing I felt like doing on my rare day off was cooking. Yep; cooking was a chore, and a royal bore. As a result, we spent most of our salaries on eating out. I’ve always loved and appreciated food, but back then it was only if someone else had made it. We went to Michelin-starred restaurants all over the country and were wowed by the masterpieces we were presented with. Back home, though, it was a different story. The most I could be bothered to rustle up was pasta or beans on toast.
But then, when you find out you’re expecting a little one, everything changes. I reduced my hours, and suddenly had more time on my hands. Very quickly, I got into the ‘nesting’ frame of mind and, as well as plumping up cushions every ten minutes, I transformed into a domestic goddess in the kitchen. I became obsessed with cooking programmes and, rather than spending money on eating out, I’d head into town and spend hours picking out cookbooks to add to my rapidly-growing collection.
One of the first books I bought was Gordon Ramsay’s ‘3 Star Chef’. Described as a book “not for beginners”, I really did throw myself at the deep end. The book showed me how to make trademark dishes that featured on the menus of his restaurants (where I had eaten just a year earlier) and pointed to one thing: Perfection… with a capital P. I followed Ramsay’s recipes to the letter and produced some of his signature dishes, including Lobster Ravioli and a Bitter Chocolate Cylinder with Coffee Granite – and this was just a standard mid-week meal!
I began making my own bread. I started inviting friends around for afternoon tea where I’d display homemade scones and cupcakes on my (homemade) cake tier. Thanks to Michel Roux, I was living the pastry chef’s dream! I even bought my first apron, which I’d wear (covered in flour) with pride. We’d invite people over for dinner parties and I’d put on a Fantastical Feast to rival Heston’s (ok, I was using all of his recipes and techniques, but still). And I became the master of presentation: from a brush of balsamic glaze to a scattering of micro herbs, I did everything I could to impress. The more complicated the procedure and exotic the ingredients, the more I thrived. I lived for hunting down galangal and ghee.
But then, the baby was born and, once again, things changed. It’s hard to grind your own spices for garam masala when you have a baby strapped to you. Kind neighbours and family members started bringing over big batches of lasagne and cottage pie, and I began relying on others. I ate when I remembered to (anyone who has had a newborn will know the drill).
However, the alien/bird-like baby stage doesn’t last for long, and before I knew it Evie (that’s my daughter) was starting to eat baby mush, and then solids. Annabel Karmel’s New Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner (a Godsend) was recommended to me by all of my new ‘mum’ friends, and I began following this kind of recipe book to the letter instead. In terms of cooking for us adults, my new best friend was the slow-cooker. The firm favourite recipe had to be the Pot-roasted Brisket in Beer; the meat becomes so tender you can cut it with a spoon – and a plastic baby one, at that.
Evie grew (as you might guess) older still, and we knew we didn’t want her to be a fussy eater (I had a friend when I was little who would only eat ‘white’ food – i.e. pasta with cheese, pizza with cheese, and chips). I began cooking real ‘home food’ and ‘fast food’ (thanks, Jamie Oliver) that we could all eat and, thanks to my many months spent learning the basic skills and flavour combinations when I was expecting, I was now a confident cook. And I still am. I internalised a lot of knowledge, and this has been extremely liberating. I still use recipe books as a guide for dinner parties, but I’m certainly not afraid to improvise. I’ll use Barefoot Contessa’s Caesar-Roasted Swordfish, for example, but then come up with my own side dishes.
I particularly enjoy Lorraine Pascal’s Home Cooking Made Easy; her Rioja-braised Lamb Shanks with Chorizo and Garlic are to die for – but I’ll happily go ‘off recipe’, and won’t be put off because I only have white wine instead of red wine or sweet potatoes instead of carrots.
In the year that Evie turned four (and I turned 30), I think my cooking style is more confident than ever. These days, I’ll try my dish several times before serving (adjust the seasoning, add a squeeze of lemon juice, sprinkle in some chillies), rather than copying the recipe from the book word for word. I’m still growing my collection of cookbooks, though, and have a fair few written on my Christmas wish-list.
My recent planet cake creation was testament to my new-found confidence; I’m not sure if I’d win The Great British Bake Off with it, and it’s not scientifically to-scale, but the important thing is I enjoyed every bit of making it.
Leave me a comment in the box below to share which cookbooks you always rely on.
Toni Waterfall – Cookery, Food & Drink A mum with a food-loving family and a part-time pescatarian lifestyle, I’m always searching for delicious and practical ideas to try in the kitchen. My all-time favourite chef is Gordon Ramsay, but I’ve never made a bad meal using a Jamie Oliver recipe. Spaghetti bolognaise is the go-to meal in my household, but I also enjoy cooking curries from scratch – especially seafood ones. I always say that balance and seasoning are crucial elements of getting a dish right. I’m constantly thinking ahead to the next meal and am an impulsive, daily supermarket shopper, as opposed to a weekly bulk buyer.