I’m recovering in a darkened room after yesterday’s encounter with four 6 year olds, flour, eggs and an oven.
I help out at my son’s former primary school. Normally my role is to assist with computer lessons for Years 1 and 2. I can just about manage that: my IT skills are marginally superior to the 5 and 6 year olds I have to teach. But the Year 2 class teacher, Mrs C, asked me last week if I could help make brownies with some of the children to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support.
Now I’m all for doing my bit and I would have quite happily played the part of the willing parent buying some thumb-marked cake from my adored offspring. But as for assisting in the baking, well that’s just not my forte. So why I said yes, I can’t imagine. Mrs C is a bit of a cake-maker and she probably had no idea of my concerns, happily informing me that the recipe and all the ingredients were waiting for me in the PTA kitchen. She had a few caveats for me, however, which did little to calm my nerves.
1. “The oven isn’t very reliable so turn it on early to get it going”
2. “There is a school assembly going on in the hall next door so try to keep the children quiet as the voices will carry through the serving hatch”
3. “I will be upstairs in the staff room kitchen with the other children….but I’m sure you’ll be fine”
Vastly reassured by these words I gathered up my four little chefs, three Nigellas and a Jamie, and took a deep breath. Children sense fear. They just know when they have the upper hand. In the computer suite I am King but here in the kitchen they found my Achilles’ heel. They had hardly tied their aprons on before the first chorus of “Can I do that?” resounded round the little room. I tried in vain to look masterly, but my frightened-rabbit-in-the-headlights look fooled no-one. Four extra pairs of hands picked up the recipe and bless them, their reading was remarkably good. Jamie was the first to take charge, expertly weighing the chocolate, whilst Nigellas 1 to 3 did a marvellous job of breaking it up into tiny pieces. The noise level picked up a bit and as I could hear nearly every word the headmaster was saying as he took assembly next door, I was pretty sure he would soon be able to hear every word from us. So the first set of shushes began from me as I strove to take control. Who was I kidding?
The melting of the chocolate and butter had to be done by me as it was HOT and in any case none of them could reach the hob. So now the mother’s skill of using the eyes in the back of my head was invaluable as I tried to ensure chocolate didn’t boil and my mini-cooks didn’t get up to mischief. There was an awful lot of “Put that down”, “Just wait a minute” and “No you can’t” coming from me and plenty of “Can I measure the sugar?” and “It’s my turn now, you’ve had a go” from the children as Jamie 1 took charge of the reading of the recipe.
“Can I break one of the eggs?” asked Jamie eagerly.”Yes”, I said and instantly regretted it. I was desperately trying to keep check on which child had helped with which activity, forgetting that I was saying “yes” to egg-cracking despite having three eggs but four children. Nigella 3 instantly became tearful as she had wanted to crack an egg. Thankfully Nigella 2 handed over her egg to stem her friend’s tears and I could have kissed her. Jamie missed most of the bowl with his egg and Nigella 1 added a large quantity of shell but we had nearly three gritty eggs-worth in the end which would have to do.
Everyone had a go at whisking but I wasn’t sure how long to continue the activity as the recipe wasn’t clear. Getting into my stride at this point, I instructed the vanilla essence and the sugar to go in before explaining how to “fold in” the flour. Just as I was beginning to enjoy myself I re-read the recipe and realised we should have added the melted chocolate and butter before the flour. Forgetting myself I very nearly swore like a trooper, but at the last second refrained and said “Oh blimey!”. It all went quiet as I started shrieking like a harpy: four pairs of trusting eyes watching a mad woman pouring a vat-full of chocolate into the egg bowl. I was losing it.
Gung-ho mentality took hold: let’s just whack it in the oven and hope for the best. Once in the oven we had to clear up. I couldn’t find ANYTHING! Where were the dish-cloths, towels, pan scrub, washing-up liquid? No idea. The children were given instructions to search the cupboards for me. Eventually Nigella 3 held up a huge industrial-sized bottle of washing up liquid. House point for that girl! The water was extremely hot so it was down to me again to do this task. My back turned, all my little helpers “cleaned up” of a fashion using clean white hand towels to wipe the floor and smearing egg around the table with a dry paper towel. I then made the fatal mistake of allowing them all to lick the chocolate from the pan. Nigellas 1,2, 3 and Jamie 1 were smiling up at me and chocolate was everywhere except on their aprons. Their mothers would kill me.
An hour after we’d begun, a child from the other group arrived to take my buddies away for a spelling test and I was left alone to look forlornly at the oven for the last few minutes. By some miracle, when I took the tray of brownies out they looked sort of okay: they wobbled more than just a little but with a bit of luck would be vaguely edible when cooled.I had an email last night from Mrs C saying the brownies had been scrummy and the parents had willingly paid to eat them. Even the photographer from the local paper had eaten one when taking the “children make cakes for charity” photo shoot. Ah, I’m obviously a more talented cook than I thought. I told Mrs C she needs to alter her recipe: you see, the secret of brownie-making is to use two and a half eggs not three (shells included) and add the flour BEFORE the chocolate: simples!