Baking and stuff, Chocolate Sponge Cake, Family Stories and Food, Mum and Baking

Mum’s rare chocolate cake

Mum was a brilliant baker – for others but not for us. For charity, for church, she would bake, bake, bake but on the home front, she always limited confectionary. There was no philosophy to it – she simply didn’t lavish us with sweet treats. Pals reminisce about how fascinated they were to always find biscuits in our house when they’d be scoffed within minutes of leaving the shopping trolley in their homes.

We did get treats some Sundays – a couple of chocolate biscuits and a glass of cold milk. Jelly and long life cream. Tinned fruit salad and…eh…long life cream. A sliver of HB Vanilla ice-cream served between two wafers or covered with broken Flake chocolate. Angel Delight. And a dessert I have never encountered anywhere else – never, ever – whipped jelly (long life cream optional). Dad was a little more in tune with the sweet tooth needs of youngsters, sneaking in the odd Kit Kat or bar of chocolate, neatly tucking the contraband into the creases of the Evening Press newspaper.

In the run up to Christmas, Mum would religiously slave over a cake and puddings, intoxicating the fruit with oodles of alcohol taken from a generously (over)stocked drinks cabinet. Then she would get annoyed when no one ate any – that included herself! One time it all got too much for her. She threw down her wooden spoon in a fit of rage, refusing to be a slave to tradition and so no cake or puds were prepared that year as she continued her one-woman-protest. Her sense of victory was immense but short lived. Picture the poor woman’s face when she received not one, but seven, Christmas cakes as gifts. We sat with the hoard of iced blocks adorned with snowmen and plumb Santas in the middle of the table – looking at them aghast. Mum hated waste and we feared we might be forcibly fed the whole lot. Re-gifting was the only sensible way to go.

On her all too rare moments of madness, she would make chocolate cake. Light and delicate, we would savour each rationed piece. I would marvel at the criss-cross pattern on the top. In later years, I learnt there was no great mystery to this but merely the result of cooling sponges on a wire rack!

The Teen likes this cake too but only as a mildly acceptable alternative to my own recipe (which teeters on the verge of being throttled to death by chocolate!). For her, it is an option but never a substitute. Not being a mad fan of chocolate, I prefer this lighter version. It is all a question of taste.

When the Teen was a tot she was horrified at my dislike for all things chocolate. At the tender age of three, she proclaimed that ‘Real mummies like chocolate, drink tea, wear skirts and walking shoes.’ As I complied with none of these conditions at the time, I failed to make the ‘Really Mummy’ grade! Thankfully, the tiny tot wasn’t as disappointed with the cake.


Mum’s Chocolate Cake

For the sponge
8 ounces self-raising flour
10 ounces margarine
8 ounces castor sugar
4 large eggs
4 level tablespoons of powdered drinking chocolate
2 tablespoons of milk

For the filling
4 ounces butter
8 ounces icing sugar
Few drops of vanilla essence
1 tablespoon of milk
1½ tablespoons of powdered drinking chocolate

1. Preheat the oven at 175 C
2. Combine flour, margarine, castor sugar, eggs, drinking chocolate and milk in a bowl and beat well for two minutes with a cake mixer
3. Put into two greased and floured 8 inch tins
4. Bake in the oven for 35 minutes
5. Turn out on a wire rack to cool
6. To make the filling – cream together the butter, 8 oz icing sugar and powdered drinking chocolate
7. Add the vanilla essence and milk until blended
8. When the sponges are cold, spread the icing on one side and sandwich the two together
9. Lightly dust the top with icing sugar.



Beef, Family Stories and Food, Goulash, Goulash with Issues

Goulash with issues…

From toddler to post-teen, I spent oodles and oodles of time in Spain. No – to my shame – I never mastered the language and no, I never developed an ability to tan. Pale Irish skin and auburn hair meant the most I could manage was a light beige after months (and months) in the sun. I resented my parents so much – I was convinced that if I could only go to the local caravan park like some of my pals I would be golden brown…

Why all this time on the Costa? Many of Dad’s business interests were in the area. Well, in the area is stretching the imagination. If he brought us with him, it meant wrenching us away from our house on the beach, strapping us into the car, ordering us not to speak to one another (as one word could always erupt into a fight) and making us endure what has never been surpassed as ‘the’ most excruciating journey. Miles and miles travelled in a hot car with no air conditioning in sweltering heat with a child (me) who got car sick on a level only equalled by the the girl in the Exorcist.

This was no ordinary trip. It involved dirt tracks and winding around hairpin bends until we reached the top of a mountain. There we would alight from a hot car into blistering heat with no breeze and among us, a child (me) who reeked of  stale ‘parmesan’. Happy days – not!

Spanish food is still a firm favourite but Spain is also where I was first introduced to Goulash. Near where we lived was a restaurant called ‘El Conejo Loco’ (the mad rabbit) run by a Hungarian beauty and her frequently inebriated Spanish husband. There were many heated exchanges between the two and pots full of drama. To a child, it seemed funny but when I look back, we dined regularly in the middle of a never-ending domestic war. She would hold the balance, smile at the guests while he swiped bottles of brandy and reverted back into the kitchen where he would roar demands, laugh loudly and cook brilliantly. Except for one dish. That was her domain. She made Goulash like her mother made and it was divine.

While others gazed at perfectly cooked Gambas (and they stared back with their beedy little eyes), I would tuck into a plate of Goulash served with noodles and a dollop of sour cream. It was simply the best thing ever. I always wish I had got the recipe but I was precocious enough without stalking elders to ask for recipes too.

Now, when winter sets in, Goulash is made and served exactly as all those years ago. It will never equal that lady’s but it is definitely a firm favourite in our home. It is meant to contain beer but I leave it out – mainly because I like to drink rather than eat the stuff! Here’s the recipe I cook and it is one of those wonderful dishes which indeed tastes better the day after.



1½ lb rib steak, cubed
3 level tablespoons flour
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced
1 red pepper, seeds removed and sliced
2 level teaspoons Paprika
3 level tablespoons good quality tomato puree
Nutmeg, a pinch freshly grated
Salt and pepper
2 ounces plain flour
½ pint beef stock
1 tin chopped tomatoes
¼ pint of ale (optional)
1 Bouquet Garni
Oil for frying

1. Pre-heat the oven at 160c
2. Place the 3 tablespoons of flour on a plate. Season with salt and pepper
3. Toss the beef pieces in the flour
4. Fry the onion and pepper in the oil until soft for about 3-4 minutes
5. Add the meat and fry for about five minutes until golden brown
6. Add the paprika and fry for another minute
7. Reduce the heat
8. Add the tomato puree, nutmeg and flour and cook for another couple of minutes
9. When the flour is cooked, gently add the stock and mix, making sure to eliminate any lumps
10. Add the tin of tomatoes
11. Season with salt and pepper
12. Transfer to a casserole dish
13. Add Bouquet Garni
14. Cook slowly for about 1½ hours
15. Remove the Bouquet Garni and add the beer
16. Leave stand for about 15 minutes
17. Serve with noodles and sour cream. Alternatively, it can be served with mashed potato.



Cooking for the Unreasonable, Uncategorized

Cooking for the Unreasonable

“But you’re going on holiday the next day?” came the response when I said having people over to eat was simply impossible. I work full-time and yet, this couple insist on inviting themselves to dinner. I explain that I am simply too stressed and busy getting ready to leave but they are having none of it. “Ah sure, don’t you have to eat anyway…” There’s no arguing with that (even though we would ring for a take-away if simply left alone). In the end, I cave only to hear “Now you better impress us with this dinner.”

I have to admit that when I heard those words, I wanted to use my limited knife skills for something other than culinary pursuits. So in between packing, cancelling the milk order, newspaper order, washing floors, emptying the fridge, dealing with bin juice, giving keys to neighbours, ironing…I pick a menu and buy food. I need something which takes little preparation, reduces washing up and the leftovers can be frozen. With that, I prepare a pot of chilli which can bubble away while I get on with other tasks at hand. I throw – and I mean t-h-r-o-w – together a Pavlova as I don’t have to watch it and there is rarely any leftovers from that.

And so, they arrive. I transfer chilli, rice, cheese, sour cream into bowls, plonk them down on the table and encourage everyone to dig in. Disappointed faces. “It’s a bit casual…” says she. “I’m not mad about chilli myself…” says he, lip curled as he pushes kidney beans out of the sauce and over to the side of his plate. “Oh and Pavlova…that will see my allergies flare up,” she adds. And then they laugh “Next time, we’ll order in advance” as they proceed to hoover up every morsel of food that is in their vicinity. They guzzle cold beers I offer on top of a couple of bottles of wine. Their contribution to the evening? Their charming wit and repartee… Despite subtle reminders that we need to finish packing and get to the airport by 6am, they won’t be budged. Eventually, as the witching hour approaches, the two waddle off down the drive, mumbling ‘thanks’ and whispering about how grumpy I am…

‘Never again’, I grumble as I finish the final preparations for our trip.

Until the next year. And bang on cue, we are heading off on holidays and the two pipe up to say they are coming to dinner. I repeatedly say ‘No’, ‘It’s not suitable’, ‘Not this year’ but they are heading in our direction. This year, I make even less effort. I roast a chicken, stuffed with lemon wedges, garlic with butter and sea salt spread on the top. I pop in a tray of vegetables to roast. And to make a point that time is precious, I buy a Viennetta ice cream and a container of cheap, commercial, chocolate sauce. The teen is horrified but I figure, if this doesn’t give the hint that time is limited, nothing will.

And so they plonk themselves down at the table and start to graze. The chicken arrives out, crispy and delicious. The vegetables the same and while they complain that there is no gravy, they work like termites through the fare. I take the ice cream block out of the box, in front of them for full affect, and instead of utter disgust, they gasp with childish delight, exclaiming ‘How retro!’ ‘How kitsch!’ They help themselves to big wedges, much to the teen’s annoyance who is left with only a sliver, and happily drown the dessert in chocolate sauce. I watch aghast as they shovel it in, piece after piece, without sparing a thought for anyone else at the table.

They leave at midnight, delighted with themselves. “Best dinner ever”, they declare before waving back a reminder that they’ll see us next year.

A year passes. Pointing out how unsuitable having people for dinner the evening before holidays has fallen on deaf ears. Time for a change of track. Slyly, I book holidays a week early and true to form, the phone rings – same date, same time. But this year an unexpected response. “No, we’re not going on holiday,” I tell them a whopper of a white lie. Stunned silence greets the news. I fumble through the idea of us coming over to them in a week or so and listen as she hastens her retreat from the conversation rather than issue an invitation.

Sigh of relief and a smile to the teen as I relax in the taxi on the way to the airport. I think God will forgive me that little fib…just this once!


Family Stories and Food, Handy Household Hints from Mommy Dearest

Handy Household Hints from Mommy Dearest

To make me the best housewife ever was my mother’s ultimate goal. It surpassed all dreams of higher education. A lady only had a career, if absolutely necessary, to make herself more eligible and work until such time as she could take up the post of ‘housewife’.

And so my mother spent endless (endless) hours teaching me how to cook, bake, crochet, sew, embroider and keep house. She taught me how to make beds with knife edge precision corner folding that would make an Army Captain wince. Knitting went by the way side when, much to her disgust, I simply couldn’t coordinate two needles.

During this hardcore training process, she imparted handy household tips. Mastering these would set me apart from other contenders in the housewife stakes and make me the ultimate ‘good catch’.

Problem was, I never really listened. I wasn’t interested in learning how to make silver glimmer and crystal sparkle. Marks on a table could, and were, easily covered by a coaster. If cooking vegetables generated a smell, I simply opened the nearest window. I couldn’t get my head out of the books until I emerged without spouse but with the dreaded career! My mother’s sense of failure was obvious – as much as was my sense of relief!

The other day, I found some of these household hints she saved through the years. With the passage of time, they seem quite…eh…useful!

To counteract odour
A cut onion placed in a dark corner will counteract odour.

A pinch of Bread Soda in a soufflé helps to prevent it subsiding when cooked.

Mark on a polished table
For heat marks on a polished table, use cigarette ash applied with a soft cloth.

Fishy smelling cooking utensils
If a saucepan or even a spoon or fork smells unpleasantly fishy, wash it in the usual way, then sprinkle dry mustard powder on it and rub with a wet rag. Then rinse.

For a burn
Rub gently over with a piece of butter.

Cauliflower odour
To prevent the smell of boiling cauliflower, put a piece of bread in the water.

Silver cloth
Mix one teaspoon of plate powder, one tablespoon of ammonia, one teaspoon of methylated spirits and one teacup water. Dip cloth into this solution and leave to dry. A towelling cloth is most suitable.

Rough hands
Put a small teaspoonful of sugar on the palm of your hand. Add a few drops of olive oil. Rub it in, then wash in warm water to get nice smooth hands.

Baking and stuff, Family Stories and Food, Greta of the Griddle, Griddle Bread

Greta of the Griddle


My Godparents were posh. They looked posh, spoke posh, lived posh and ate posh.

Born slightly after the turn of the twentieth century, Mervyn was the son of a doctor who lived and had Rooms on the rather salubrious, leafy, Merrion Square in Dublin’s centre. He and his two sisters were attended to by ‘Staff’, went to the best of schools, enjoyed the Square as their garden and had pet monkeys which, he assured me, were quite common in the Dublin of that time.

Greta was more exotic. Born and raised in Canada, she came with her family to Ireland in her teens. I would meet her later in her life, when she had grown to resemble in face and mannerisms the wonderful English actress, Margaret Rutherford. A marvellous cook, Greta delivered delicious meals and baked like a demon for charities and church events.  Some of the food, like her accent, was a throwback to the British Empire – curried eggs and Kedigree – foods we marvelled at but remained reluctant to taste (put off by the odd colour and spicy smell).

And in between all the posh and foreign nosh, she would take out a griddle. Seeing Greta with all her fine manners, jewellry and clothes cook on a griddle just seemed plain wrong. Even as a child, I felt this implement was best suited to an open fire in a cottage than on a top of the market, gas stove, in their art deco home. And so, I would watch as she cooked Griddle Bread on that contraption until done. It was always delicious but I doubt those who savoured it, would ever believe that Greta cooked it herself on a griddle!

The tripod griddle would be placed on the stove top with the gas on a medium high to heat the cast iron base. She would make the dough and…eh…then…Greta would griddle.

1lb flour
1.5 ounces sugar
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of baking powder
1.5 ounces of melted butter
1/3 pint of full fat milk
1 large egg

1. Combine the dry ingredients
2. Combine the wet ingredients until one liquid
3. Add the wet to the dry and mix thoroughly
4. On a lightly floured board, shape the mix into a cake shape with a flat top
5. Cook on the hot griddle – about 7 minutes each side
6. When cooked, it will have texture of a very large English muffin,

Cutting it into triangles, Greta would divide each again into two. She would spread one side with butter and slather the other with her homemade jam. As I would sit on a stool at her breakfast counter, eating this warm delight, warm butter/jam concoction dripping off the bread and onto my fingers, I would watch as she cleaned the kitchen. The last thing to do was to rub a light coating of oil into the griddle to stop it from rusting before she put it away. And with the kitchen tidied, the griddle would be no more…


Family Stories and Food, The Teen Loves Spice!

The Teen Loves Spice!

photo (7)

Ever since she was a tiny tot, the Teen loved spice. Now we are not talking about the tangy ting of a chicken wing or the gentle sensation of a frozen curry, we are talking a level of spice that would make even the most accomplished of eaters see their toes curl from the heat.

Her first outing to an Indian restaurant and she climbs up onto the big person’s chair. I order a main dish of highly spiced chicken and on enquiring what my daughter would like, I exclaim “No, that’s for her. I’m wimping out with the Butter Chicken.” The waiter scratches his head and off he goes.

Minutes later, he returns with the Chef. I am immediately on edge, worried that there may be some culinary problem or even a previously unknown issue of child abuse for letting the small person bathe herself so liberally in spice. Hesitantly I ask if there is a problem. The Chef answers: “No, I simply wanted to see the child who had ordered that level of spice.” She smiles sweetly and devours her meal when served. It is little surprise that she declared to the restaurant staff, that when she grew up she wanted to be an Indian – she sure has the palate for it!


Family Stories and Food, The Curative Properties of Food Stuffs

The Curative Properties of Food Stuffs…

photo (4)

My mum was a great one for old fashioned remedies. These were always tried before anything from the Chemists was bought. Invariably, we rarely needed anything else as she was careful to catch ailments in the earliest of stages.

As a small child, I balked when I saw what she was doing, thinking it had more to do with hocus pocus than having curative properties. I was proved wrong and had to convince my own teen that there was indeed method is such apparent madness.

Here are two such remedies my mum passed onto me.


Cold tea
When eyes are developing an infection and/or stye, cold tea can help to shrink the infection while calming any soreness or itchiness. Where the eye is infected, cotton wool dipped in cold tea can be used to clean the eye – making sure to sweep the eye very gently, away from the nose to the end of the eye. This can be repeated until the eye is completely clear.

Where a stye is developing, the eye can be cleaned as above. Cotton wool soaked in tea can also be used as a compress on the eye as this can help to relax the eye and shrink the stye.


Bicarbonate of Soda
When I was about 10 years old, I must have been very naughty as Santa brought me Chicken Pox for Christmas. While everyone was playing with their toys, I was more interested in tearing at my skin to relieve the pain.

Itching like a mad thing, my mother ran a bath, poured about a cup full of Bicarbonate of Soda into the streaming water and then plonked me into the bath, telling me to relax while the water worked its magic. And indeed it was magic as it so calmed the itch. Later on, when I emerged from the bath like a wrinkled prune, my mother basted me like a turkey in Calamine lotion to make sure the effect lasted longer.


Family Stories and Food, Mommy Dearest and Gur Cake, Uncategorized

Mommy Dearest and Gur Cake


As a child, I loved the sound of this cake but had no idea what it was. I heard others talk about it and when I asked Mommy Dearest to buy me a piece, she would constantly – and consistently – ignore my request.


And still I wanted to taste something which sounded like Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! What a great name! Where did it come from? I looked at a number of sources and there is a difference of opinion. While accepted as a mainstay of Dublin confectionary, some suggest ‘Gur’ is ‘Gutter’ pronounced in a strong Dublin accent while others think it is short for ‘Gurrier’as this cake was traditionally popular among poor children.[1] Why was it so cheap? The majority of the mix was made from the ends of stale bread so where the British made Bread and Butter Pudding, Dubliners made Gur Cake!


So what is this brilliantly named cake? It has short crust pastry either side and a dark brown filling of bread, dried fruit, brown sugar and mixed spice. When I finally encountered the illustrious Gur Cake, I realised that it was already a regular feature in our house – a firm favourite of Mommy Dearest who in her infinite poshness called it by its other name ‘Chester Cake.’

[1] A local word defined as ‘street urchin’.

Family Stories and Food, Seasonal Food and Generational Gaps

Understanding Seasonal Food can be a Generational Thing

As I head towards fifty, I see myself as quite modern and up-to-date. When I discuss food with the Teen, however, it is a stark reminder of how different our worlds really are.

She thinks I am mad when I describe how fruit and vegetables were seasonal – if they weren’t in season, they were simply unavailable. She looks at the array of fruit and vegetables in the supermarket and cannot understand this seasonal thing at all. Root vegetables were available in the colder months and salad ingredients only available in the summer. I even remember a sliced pan called ‘Salad Days’ appearing only in the Summer months which was thinly sliced especially for cucumber sandwiches. I remember looking forward to new potatoes when we could eat the delicious spuds with their skins on. A special treat was when Dad would pick up a punnet of strawberries in June when he drove home from work. The teen thinks I am making this all up but it seems perfectly natural to me!

The teen thinks it odd that certain days often meant certain foods. In our home, there was a roast on Sunday, a stew on Monday, fish on Friday and boiled ham, bacon or corned beef on Saturday. Tuesday and Thursday were not set but would never have veered far from this general theme.

When I tell the teen about the food my parents ate as a child, I could be describing someone from the 1800s so far is her experience from theirs. My parents were teens during the Second World War and being in Ireland, food could be scarce rather than rationed. Dad was born and bred in Dublin but Mum was a country girl. From a farm, one might suspect that food was more plentiful but this was not so. She spent these years boarding in a Teachers’ Preparatory College, within sight of her own home and her tales of rancid butter and watered down milk were common.

Given what they ate as children, it is a miracle they grew up with any taste buds at all. Both my parents developed quite discerning palates and a love of fine food but the comfort food they often yearned for left me cold! My father, in particular, loved offal. While I had no problem preparing the dishes, my sense of adventure did not extend to eating them too. Stuffed lambs hearts, fried liver and onions and tripe cooked in milk and onions were among the favourites. ‘Crubeens’ (pig’s feet) were also on the list but he liked these served on newspaper, not plates. The stickiness from the meat and fat used to stick to the newspaper and my fingers would be grey with print but they were delicious.

When Mum was out, Dad would cook. He was a good cook when he stuck to things we liked but there were occasions when he couldn’t resist showing his penchant for boiling. He would boil mutton in water with a carrot, an onion, cabbage and season with salt and pepper. Eating this with boiled potatoes and big lumps of butter, he would savour the moment while we would look aghast at this tasteless plate of watery food with a lump of grey meat in the middle before we would push it away – far, far, away – from us. While he ate, he would tell us yet again how the greens should be nettles not cabbage. He would lament his inability to find good nettles since most were now sprayed with weed killer. We were thankful! We learned quickly and we learnt young that, if Mum was not making dinner, to convince Dad to take us out rather than risk a ‘boiled’ dinner.

Mum liked Ling. Returning from her home town in West Kerry, she would have a stash of locally grown Golden Wonder potatoes, meat from Patty Atty’s Butchers and a piece of salted, dry, Ling. As a member of the codling group, the piece of Ling was white but resembled shoe leather than fish. She would soak, cook and flake it – serving it with white sauce, boiled potatoes and cauliflower – her favourite ‘white dinner’. It was palatable but like Dad’s boiled dinners, we preferred to pass on this one too.

It was not all bland and boiled. Dad imparted a love of food and a respect for quality ingredients. In particular, he believed that food was part of the travelling experience and introduced us to delicacies in all countries we visited. He never told us what it was until we had tasted it – we did not have to like it but we did have to taste it. With this approach, we came to love many of the foods he enjoyed – albeit not all. Eggs made bright orange by frying them in the oil of chorizo was one that I passed on plus his love for fresh oysters (I did come to love the cooked variety though).

And from my mother, I inherited her passion for cooking and recipes shared from her sister and mother. My grandmother’s recipe for Irish Stew is one of the tastiest, simplest and purest dishes I have ever made and due to its low cost, has become a favourite with many pals at home and abroad. Her recipe for Pot Roast is top of my ‘Comfort Food’ list. The aroma and taste of stews and roasts bring with them memories of my childhood and people now passed. Teaching me the skills she learnt or inherited gave me a firm basis to move onto making foods from other cultures. Due the availability of more ingredients and more fluidity of seasons, my repertoire of dishes is wider but not better. In amongst the Goulashes and Thai Curries are Shepard’s Pie and roast chicken dinners. I have passed on these to my daughter. I simply cannot imagine cooking for the week without one of Mum’s dishes popping up. Alas, Dad’s favourites are not expected to make an appearance any time soon…