Needs Must When The De’il Drives

I am the first to admit, and I know I’ve written before, that I often found it difficult cooking for you boys when you were young and awkward.  (Though, in fairness to Andrew, I have to say that he was never as difficult as a child as the rest of you.)  There was no fun in creating something that I thought was delicious and tempting, only for it to be pushed away, mouths closed determinedly and heads shaken in disgust.  It was particularly irritating when this happened with a dish that had been enjoyed on a previous occasion.  We reached a sort of modus operandi when I agreed not to try and poison you with things you truly hated and you agreed to properly try what I’d made.  From my point of view, though, life improved quite dramatically when you started going on play dates.  It seems that peer pressure is what pushed you all into eating a wider choice of food.

The quid pro quo of you going on play dates was that we had your friends coming to the house.  Some of them were nothing like as willing to try my cooking as you were prepared to try their mothers’ food, and there were also some rather demanding mothers.   I will never forget those who couldn’t eat anything without it being smothered in ketchup, and the mother who blamed me for not having any; the mothers who wanted their children to only have organic food; and the boy who only ate plain boiled rice in Wagamama’s – these are particular standouts.  I was never as bothered by friends who had genuine food requirements – varying levels of Kosher adherence; nut allergies; or genuine dislikes of which I was forewarned.

The final turning point in your eating habits was a proposed trip to Hong Kong in 1999.  We were all invited to Uncle Steve’s 40th birthday bash, but Dad and I explained to you that one of the great joys of Hong Kong was the food, and that we just weren’t comfortable taking you when you were quite restricted in your choices.  The carrot of a trip to Hong Kong turned it all around, and I don’t honestly think we have looked back since.  I have always known that no-one eats absolutely everything, but my hope was that we would be able to travel and go into any restaurant and find something that any one of you would eat and enjoy.  I believe we’ve achieved that.

Now as I get older, I find increasingly that it is rare to have people to dinner who don’t have some kind of food request.  Some of these are medical requirements, some religious, some feel better for avoiding something, some are pescatarian or vegetarian.  Unless there are many varying requirements at the same meal, I must say that I quite enjoy the challenge.  Last Sunday, we had friends over, one of whom cannot tolerate wheat, not just the gluten, all wheat.  The starter was simple, spicy tomato soup; the main course was a roast; and for dessert we decided on cheese (because Dad tries to avoid carbs …).  I wanted to serve oat cakes with the cheese, but Whole Foods didn’t have any.  So I decided to make them.  I haven’t done this for some years, but I knew it wasn’t difficult.  I knew that my trusty The Scots Kitchen by F Marian McNeill would have the recipe, as indeed it did.  However, that recipe was imprecise even for me, the queen of imprecise recipes.  I remembered that there had only been five ingredients – oats, salt, fat/butter, baking soda and water – but I didn’t remember the proportions.   Much searching of the internet, and much rejection of recipes that I felt were too complicated or inauthentic, but eventually I combined a couple and made the following.  I thought they tasted good.  They could perhaps have been cooked for slightly longer in the oven so that they were dryer and browned, but all in all I was pleased.

Oatcakes – Ingredients

Makes 20

  • 125 g / 4 oz rolled oats
  • 125 g / 4 oz pinhead oatmeal (steel cut oats in the US)
  • 125 g / 4 oz oat flour (which I didn’t have so I blended 125 g of rolled oats until it looked flour-like) plus extra for rolling
  • 60 g / 2 oz butter (I used unsalted as I always do), melted
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tsp / 5 mg baking soda
  • hot water


Heat the oven to 150 C / 300 F.

I used a mixer for this once I had mixed the oats.


Rolled oats

Mix the oats, salt and baking powder in a mixing bowl.  Add the butter and mix well.  Add 4 tbsp of hot water and mix well.  The aim is to have a mixture which is not too wet and which sticks together as a lump, so add more hot water, a tablespoonful at a time, until you have the desired consistency.

Sprinkle some of the oat flour on the counter, and roll until it is about 5 mm / 1/4 inch thick.  All the recipes I read warned about the mixture sticking to the rolling pin, but this didn’t happen.  I suspect that my mixture was slightly too dry.  The cutter I used was about 6 cm in diameter.


Cutting out


I then placed them on my pizza stone, put them in the oven and cooked for about 40 minutes which is way longer than any of the recipes said.  Nor did they brown particularly.


Just about to go into the oven


An alternative is to cook on a flat griddle.  I thought about this, since it is more traditional, but decided against because we have a very sensitive smoke alarm!


Ready to be served

If you want to add herbs, only use dried herbs because fresh will burn.  Hard cheese such as Cheddar or Parmesan can also be added.

I will definitely be making these again.  I was really pleased with the result.



The Most Important Meal of the Day

Anyone who knows and loves me knows that I am a great fan of bacon – smoked back, dry cure if possible, British back bacon, grilled to my idea of perfection and ideally served with scrambled or poached eggs, black pudding, red pudding, good quality pork sausages and mushrooms.  And I’ve been known to add haggis into the mix, and in Ireland white pudding.  Yup a proper cooked breakfast.  In days gone by I enjoyed fried bread too, but seem to have lost the taste for it over the years.  I wouldn’t turn my nose up at bread dipped in bacon fat though, even now.  (Remind me again why I needed to diet?)  I used to really enjoy doing a cooked breakfast on a Sunday morning when we were still in London and serving it to family and whatever waifs and strays were staying over that night.  This amazing meal would then keep us going until the family meal in the evening.  Sundays were epicurean excellence for me, and I can’t tell you how much I miss those brunches (as they inevitably were – no-one got up very early on a Sunday), and those Sunday evening meals.

Now most of the cooked breakfast fits in with the high protein, low carbohydrate style of eating but honestly they don’t really keep you going.  There has been much in the news recently about the advantages of eating porridge and how good oats are for lowering your cholesterol and that porridge is in fact the best meal to keep you going through to lunch without any hunger pangs.  I am also an expert on porridge, on the eating of it, that is.  I knew the weather had turned cold when Papa offered porridge in the mornings and it was he who taught me to make it.  Now Papa liked his porridge thick so that it would ‘stick to your ribs’ and keep you warm.  Grandma didn’t like hers quite so thick.  (Just realised that there are shades of the Goldilocks tale in this!)  I didn’t care so long as someone else was making it for me.

I remember that when we still had milk delivered in bottles, and therefore still had a top of the milk, ie, cream that gathered at the top of the bottle, we all preferred the top of the milk on our porridge.  I can still hear Papa (who got up first, made the porridge and thus almost inevitably got the top of the milk) shouting at us to finish one milk bottle before we opened another.  I don’t remember taking any notice though.  Sometimes I carefully poured the milk around the edge of the bowl, sometimes I put the milk in a cup so that it stayed cold and dipped a spoonful of porridge into that cup.  I always sprinkled sugar on top.  I can see Papa ladling sugar or golden syrup onto his, and happily telling me how his grandfather had warned him that he would get diabetes because of his sweet tooth.  Papa had also eaten sugar sandwiches as a child.  And of course sadly his grandfather was right.  It was hard for Papa to learn to eat porridge without sweetener, but he did.  I too have learnt to enjoy it without sweetener but it took a while.  I still prefer full fat milk though – I would rather eat porridge ‘nude’ than with skimmed milk.

Papa used to say that in the olden days, when winters were hard in Scotland extra porridge was made and it was spread into a drawer, where it hardened and was then cut into pieces for lunch for the workers.  Sounds grim.

Anyway, today’s recipe is Porridge.  The recipe is simple, but you have to remember to stir with your left hand in a figure of eight – this is the way I was shown by Papa (who was left-handed) and it seems wrong to use my right hand.  No idea why it has to be done in a figure of eight but since it’s always worked, I’m not changing it.  Ideally you will be using a spurtle but a wooden spoon works just as well.  Porridge pans can be horrible to clean, so as soon as you’ve served it, fill the pan with warm water.  Latterly Grandma and Papa made their porridge in the microwave because it was quicker and you didn’t have to clean a pan.  Unbelievably I’ve never done this.  I enjoy stirring the pot, thinking of Papa every time and laughing at the fact that I still believe that I have to do it left-handed.


(Serves 1)


  • 280 ml / 1/2 pint water
  • 2 heaped tbsp oats – I tend to use rolled oats because you don’t have to think.  Papa’s favourite was pin head oatmeal, but he soaked the oats overnight.  It’s worth buying good quality oats – they last forever and the difference in the porridge is worth it.
  • Pinch of salt – it is not Scottish porridge without the salt.


Put all the ingredients into a pan, and bring to the boil, stirring often.  Simmer for about 7 mins, stirring all the time, until it’s the required thickness.  Leave to stand for a minute and serve into warmed bowls.  Serve with sugar, honey or syrup and cold cold milk.  I doubt you’ll find top of the milk nowadays!