What we feed our children has changed dramatically over the past few decades - indeed, it is evolving day by day. As we go to press, the word is: organic vegetables, no red meat, no peanuts - but all that will probably change by the end of the week. While parents understandably chop and change about what is or isn't good for their kids, one thing remains constant: the sort of food young children ask for at their birthday party.
When I asked a group of children what they wanted for their birthday tea - and allowing them total adult-free abandon - they chose food virtually identical to the stuff served up at every birthday party I went to 30 years ago. It seems that no matter how much children tolerate our latest thoughts and concerns for their dietary wellbeing, what is truly embedded in their collective soul is the thought of chocolate rice-crispy cakes, jelly, ice cream and birthday cake. Of course, there are one or two things that pop up for a year or two then deflate as fast as a knifed Teletubby, but there is a constant, unshakable core which one must respect. To do anything else on this special day would be to break some unwritten rule passed down throughout history. While we can swap the phony orange colouring for freshly squeezed juice and sneak real milk chocolate into the cakes instead of chocolate-flavour covering, some things are written in stone, and we change them at our peril.
Fair enough, I do as I am told, even by someone in short trousers. Whatever good intentions we may have for the rest of the year, I don't honestly think we should even attempt to inject our usual healthy-eating principles into these proceedings. This is a party - their party - and if they want to eat shocking-pink Barbie cake with tooth-rotting icing and six different E numbers, then we shouldn't try to talk them out of it. It is only one day a year, and it just won't be a party if we start clucking away about brown rice and organic carrots.
One of the things I regret most about my childhood was the amount of sugar I was allowed to consume. Buckets of the stuff. I am now paying the price for years of marshmallows and fizzy pop. But as I said, it's a party, and sweet, sweet cake is always at the top of the list. A big cake, yes, but even fairy cakes, complete with camp icing and sugar flowers, are a constant, and when all is said and done, absurdly charming. Adults, no matter what they pretend, find them irresistible. It must say something that if ever I get deeply depressed, the sushi, noodles and fresh fruit juice go out the window to be replaced by a box of Mr Kipling iced fancies eaten in my dressing gown.
The peak of any party was, and still is, reached with the blowing out of the candles. If anybody remembers to dim the lights, then so much the better. I can still feel the butterflies in my tummy as I breathed in, the humiliation of not blowing them out all at once being too much to bear. There was, I seem to remember, an adult strategically situated over my shoulder to make sure they were, by hook or by crook, extinguished in one puff.
There is something special about having your own individual iced cake, but nothing can beat the sheer spectacle of a vast layer cake studded with candles. The best idea I have come across in this respect is Konditor & Cook's (020 7407 5100) tiny iced squares - complete with icing messages or flowers - that can be handed out individually or pushed together to form one huge cake. So the kids get a fabulous, multicoloured birthday cake that can be speared with candles, and then, as if by magic, it splits into 20 tiny cakes. They can tuck in then and there or take their individual sticky square home to squash into the carpet in the back of the car.
While there are a number of rather good books encouraging children to cook, most of those on cooking for children seem to me to be somewhat patronising and out of touch. No parent I have ever met can explain the phenomenal book sales of one particular bestselling author. According to most parents I have spoken to, there is still a huge gap in the market for a book on cooking for children. But one book that gets nearer than most, and was loved by everyone I spoke to, is Eat Up by ex-Ivy head chef Mark Hix (£16.99, Fourth Estate). While the plethora of photographs of cutesy children holding free-range eggs will send even the most adoring parents reaching for the sickbag, the recipes themselves are cracking stuff. Salmon and pea casserole, Corn fritters, fishcakes with herb sauce and Crispy pig's tails put this book head and shoulders above the competition. Here at last are recipes that kids - at least the ones I know - really want to eat. And yes, there is chocolate rice-crispy birthday cake, too. As if anyone would dare.
Mark Hix's Thai summer rolls
Children often prefer raw vegetables to cooked ones. They also like messing about in the kitchen. I see every reason to mercifully exploit this. How you could approach it is by letting them wrap up their own Thai summer rolls. Follow the recipe below, but instead of wrapping the rolls yourself, give each child a piece or two of rice paper, and pile the vegetables in dishes in the middle of the table. The kids then grab whatever they want, heap it up on their rice paper, then roll it up and eat it. Huge fun. I wish my parents had thought if this instead of sandwiches made of egg and cress and white sliced. Makes 8-12.
2 spring onions, finely shredded
10-12 mangetouts, finely shredded
2 large carrots, peeled and finely shredded
1 chicken breast, cooked and finely shredded
1-2 tsp sesame oil
1-2 tsp soy sauce
1 tbsp chopped coriander
8-12 small rice-paper sheets (from Chinese grocers and major supermarkets)
Mix together all the ingredients except the rice paper and season lightly with salt and pepper, if necessary.
Take a shallow bowl large enough to hold the rice paper and half fill it with warm water. Put two or three pieces of rice paper at a time into the water to soften - this normally takes 2-3 minutes. Remove from the water and drain on kitchen paper. Put some of the chicken and vegetable mixture down the centre of each piece of paper and roll up as tightly as possible, then store, seam-side down, on a tray covered with clingfilm until required.
Mark Hix's elderflower jelly
It isn't a party without jelly. Remember not to double up on gelatine if you make more than the amount below. Makes 6 small jellies.
juice of 1 lemon
400g caster sugar
100ml elderflower cordial
200g mixed berries (strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries)
Bring the water and lemon juice to the boil, add the sugar and stir until dissolved, then remove from the heat, Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water for a minute or so until soft. Gently squeeze out the water, add the gelatine to the sugar syrup and stir until dissolved. Add the elderflower cordial, then leave the jelly to cool but do not let it set.
Put the berries into a 1.5 litre jelly mould or 4-6 individual moulds, then pour in the jelly. Put in the fridge for an hour or so until set.
Blueberries are perfect for throwing into fairy cakes and muffins because most kids seem to like them and, unknown to them, they are little powerhouses of vitamins. Also, if you squash them between your thumb and finger as you add them to the cake mixture, you will find they bleed, sending beautiful purple blue ripples throughout the finished cakes. Makes 12.
250g plain flour
1 level tsp baking powder
4 tbsp caster sugar
1 medium egg
grated zest of 1 small orange
225ml buttermilk or milk
50g butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 200 C/gas mark 6. Sift the flour and baking powder into a large bowl, then stir in the caster sugar and tsp of salt.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg and add the orange zest and the buttermilk or milk. Stir in the melted butter, then pour the mixture into the flour. Stir for half a dozen strokes, then stop. The mixture will be lumpy, but this does not matter. Divide half the mixture between 12 buttered muffin tins, then drop about four blueberries into each one and cover with the remaining mixture.
Bake the muffins the centre of the preheated oven for about 20 minutes till risen and golden. Serve warm.
Overleaf, Jim Ainsworth on where to find fun-filled ingredients for a children's party.