Victoria Neumark serves up a feast of winter warmers for communal kitchens
As the dark nights creep in and outdoor activities get more shivery, so the kitchen becomes an increasingly enticing place to be. From hot toast dripping with butter to steaming baked potatoes heaped with cheese, winter seems to spell out "Eat me!".
But, hang on a minute, isn't this all a bit unhealthy? What about our five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, avoidance of fats and sugars, cutting down on processed foods? That's all very well, but somehow, carrot sticks just don't cut it when the wind is howling outside and hail is lashing the windowpanes.
Yet compromise is possible: why not team the crunchy raw veg with a nice pink dip? Or you might have luscious, foamy drinks, but make them with real lemons or berries, yoghurt and mineral water. You can still enjoy the fun of decorating Christmas-style marzipan shapes - but also try glazing fruits and flowers.
Children usually love helping in the kitchen and can happily spend hours adorning the face of a gingerbread man, using all those wonderful chocolate chips, jelly lozenges, hundreds and thousands, and silver balls which you can find in the shops. The result may be inedible, but just paint it over with milk before cooking and it will have a shiny protective surface to preserve it as a decoration.
Then there's chocolate - you can't have a proper winter cooking session without it. Gooey chocolate brownies are such a treat. Cook them when you expect a big party and the smell pervades every room.
And if you really have to venture into the freezing outdoors, there is nothing so reviving on your return as gathering round to whip up a "chocomallow" drink. The following recipes can all be made by an adult and up to six children.
Brownies are perfect on a cold night. You can let them cool and serve them tidily on separate plates for a parents' evening do or a proper coffee morning at the Christmas bazaar. But I think they are better scooped out of the pan hot and glistening with runny chocolate. Be sure to have lots of tissues!
For the brownies: 100g unsweetened dark chocolate 220g butter 4 beaten eggs 450g demerara sugar 100g fine self-raising flour 1 tsp baking powder 200g walnuts, optional (some children hate them, adults tend to swoop on them) For the topping: 100g darkest chocolate melted in 75g butter * Grease a large tin - a roasting tin lined with greaseproof paper is ideal. Heat oven to gas mark 4, 350degF, 180degC. In a big, heavy-bottomed saucepan melt the chocolate and butter while slowly stirring. When melted, take off the heat and stir in the sugar, then the beaten eggs. Fold in the flour and add the nuts last.
Bake for 50 minutes or so in the middle of the oven, until a knife inserted comes out clean. Don't worry if it's crispy on the top or otherwise imperfect. As soon as the cake is out, heat the topping ingredients together in a small heavy-bottomed pan. Pour over the cake and leave for 30 minutes to sink in. Cut into squares and - scramble!
The freshness of this drink is the ideal antidote to the gooeyness of the brownies. Get unwaxed lemons or just scrub the outside of the lemons with a metal scourer.
8 lemons 225g sugar (caster is best) 1 litre sparkling mineral water * Cut the lemons into quarters. Put them with the sugar and a little of the water into a blender. Whizz until frothy then strain through a sieve which will let some of the fruit but none of the pips and skin through. Pour into a jug, add the rest of the water and ice. Serve in large glasses with a sprig of mint.
Otherwise known as cheese, olives and pineapple cubes on sticks. Serve with berry lassi, a yoghurt drink from India.
huge slab of cheese (low-fat feta is good) a half-kilo of olives tin of pineapple chunks cocktail sticks * With careful supervision, get the children to cut the cheese into small (say 2cm square) cubes. Each child then spears a pineapple chunk, a cube of cheese and an olive. Warning: the cheese can crumble, so this requires concentration. The sticks are then stuck into an upside-down half-melon to resemble a hedgehog.
There are many ways to make this delicious cooling Indian drink. This fruity version is particularly good in winter. You can miss out the sugar if you like.
carton of frozen strawberries 1 litre natural yogurt (not extremely low-fat) 100g sugar 500 ml milk (low-fat is fine) 500 ml fizzy mineral water * Whizz in blender and serve in small cups.
Popping corn can be great fun, but be careful. If you take the lid off, someone can get a nasty burn.
1 packet popping corn (you can buy this anywhere, but health food shops always have it) 1 tsp vegetable oil salt or sugar to taste * Heat oil in a heavy pan. Sprinkle the corn kernels on the bottom. Turn up the heat and cover. You will soon hear the sound of artillery fire. When the shots die down, uncover and spoon out the fluffy mounds of popcorn. Toss in either salt or sugar and serve warm in bowls.
Frosted flowers or fruit
For something very different, try this recipe. Roses, geraniums, grapes and tangerine pieces are all good: and the effect can be stunning on a plate.
flowers or fruit 1 egg icing sugar paintbrushes * Get each child to bring a flower or piece of fruit. Wash each piece and place on a wire rack. Crack an egg and separate the yolk (probably best done by an adult). Whisk the egg white with a fork until it nearly peaks: children can take turns. Tip the icing sugar into a wide, shallow bowl. Dip the brush in the egg whites and carefully paint the fruit or flowers. Then dip into icing sugar. Put on a rack to dry.
Lots of people have apple trees in their gardens - and lots of apples go to waste, so...
cooking apples muscovado and demerara sugar sultanas * Heat oven to gas mark 4, 350degF, 180degC. Get the children to bring in a cooking apple. Bramleys are best as they go fluffy when cooked. With a sharp knife, get the child to core out the apple and score a line around the middle. Fill the inside with a mixture of scrunchy demerara, soft crumbly muscovado sugar and plump sultanas. Some like bananas, too. Place the apples in tins of water up to about 1 cm deep. Bake for about one hour. Serve with natural yoghurt, vanilla ice-cream or "squirty" cream from an aerosol.
Hot chocolate with marshmallows
There is no drink so good for reviving frozen fingers and toes as marshmallows slowly dissolving their pink and white creaminess in the froth of whipped chocolate milk.
tin of drinking chocolate full-cream milk (other kinds don't whip properly) bag of marshmallows * Cut up the marshmallows with scissors into tiny pieces. Put the milk on to boil in a very big saucepan. Mix three teaspoons of drinking chocolate with a little milk in the bottom of each child's mug,until it makes a runny paste. Pour in milk, mix with spoon, then pour all back into the big pan. Take a balloon whisk and take turns in whisking the milk over a low heat. Do not let it boil. When very hot, pour back into the mugs and add a handful of marshmallows. Stir until partly dissolved and ... enjoy.
Make the children help. Life is not a tray of brownies: it is a tray of brownies which someone made and someone has to clear up.