Most of you probably know this, but: the Tall Man has just been diagnosed with a rare and late-stage cancer. If you didn’t, I will direct you now to these two columns I have filed about it. In a way it feels a bit callous to be writing so much about it: still, I couldn’t not. And I still have to pay bills, after all.
We have been fundraising for Anthony Nolan, the stem cell charity, in order to get as much good as possible out of this shitty, shitty situation: if you enjoy this blog, please consider chucking them a few pennies via this link.
Everything on this site remains free- but if you’ve ever found one of my recipes useful, fun, or moving, please do think about donating- you literally will be saving lives. And maybe the Tall Man’s, and therefore mine, leaving me free to write and think and invent recipes.
Here’s a bonus picture of me and him, when he finished his first round of chemo last week:
Anyway, as you can imagine, this blog might be a bit cancer/calamity focussed for a while- but we’ll get through it. We get through everything. We always do, and we always have, and we do it through food, and cooking together, and eating together- even when one of us is perched high over London, looking out at the sunset that (I know now) belongs only to millionaires and cancer patients, and the other is sobbing on the kitchen floor.
I have always, in times of crisis, been found sobbing on the kitchen floor, and I can’t stop now.
Eventually, of course (as in my very first blog) I got up off the floor, and I picked myself up, and I put myself back together, and I made these for my Tall Man.
The NHS is admirable on almost every front, but the food is not necessarily one of them.
The Tall Man would (broadly speaking) disagree on this point: like a lot of British men, he finds School Food very comforting. One piece of gelatinous mystery meat. One scoop of Premium Creamed Potato. One very soft vegetable, boiled down for the toothless. This twice a day, and for breakfast a small sad bowl of cereal.
The breakfasts, funnily enough, were the one thing Tall Man found hardest to tolerate. You might remember the kind of breakfasts Tall Man enjoys- sausages, fried eggs, mushrooms, black pudding– and that is not exactly NHS fare. More to the point, it is difficult to eat with both arms hooked up to an IV: with the double whammy of a drip on both left and right, you need something portable, tidy, and absolutely full of nutrients. When eating is tricky, every mouthful has to absolutely count. (And, if you aren’t really eating, because you are so tired and stressed that everything tastes of ash- which is a true thing that happens, by the way- the same applies.)
So I found these, in Nigella’s Nigella Express. And they were (almost) perfect.
Of course it was Nigella: as the Tall Man wrote in his blog, I feel more than ever a certain kinship with her. “Ella,” (wrote the Tall Man) whose first cookery book will be out next year*, is the next Nigella from top to bottom; brunette curls, zero regard for calories and (now) a journalist partner who’s full of cancer”. He has been writing in The Times about having cancer, and he’s been funny and sharp and dark. The John Diamond comparisons were too easy. Of course it was Nigella I turned to. (And I remain absolutely beside myself that she told me she was thinking of us.)
These breakfast bars are nutty and delightful and incredibly easy, which is exactly what you need when every part of you wants to be weeping on the kitchen floor. I have made them three times now, and you will see that I have changed the recipe very little. Nigella is remarkable, and (I should say) if we can handle this with the same grace, dignity and determination and she and John Diamond faced their own tragedies, we will consider ourselves both very proud and very lucky.
Chemo Breakfast Bars
Makes 24, takes 10 mins to make, 1 hour to cook
One can of condensed milk (375g, I think?)
250g ordinary rolled porridge oats (just the cheapest kind)
75g desiccated coconut
100g dried apricots
75g sesame seeds (mine were black, because of the time I bought 3kg off Amazon in an insomniac fit)
50g pumpkin seeds
(You can relax a bit here: 100g dried fruit, 250g chopped nuts and seeds. Anything works. This is easy. Promise.)
A disposable baking tray (23 x 33 x 4cm- this is IMPORTANT or they will go flat. You can buy them in Sainsbury’s at this size.); saucepan; mixing bowl; can opener.
It is also very useful to have a pair of surgical gloves, but maybe you don’t have a loved one in hospital and cannot pinch a pair as easily.
(Pre-heat your oven to 130 degrees.)
First, open your can of condensed milk. Or rather, if you’re me, don’t open the can of condensed milk. Look bleakly at the place where the Tall Man usually sits. Look bleakly at the empty space. Look bleakly at the impossible can-opener.
Realise, with a horrible gulp, that this is the first of many things that you do not know how to do, that you have always relied on the Tall Man to do. Resolve to learn. Resolve to be better.
Call the Tall Man, undergoing punishing Day I of chemo, and beg him to talk you through using the can-opener. Learn. Be better.
Open your can of condensed milk.
Flushed with success, tip the condensed milk (scraping down the sides) into a saucepan, and warm it, very slowly, over a very low flame.
Weight out your oats, your coconut, your seeds. Crush the walnuts between your palms: feel real. Feel them shatter. Tip them in too.
Take your apricots, and cut them into little pieces with the kitchen scissors. Tip them in.
Oil your baking tray incredibly well- go very, very generous. I used a big glug of rapeseed oil, and wiped it round with a piece of kitchen paper.
Pour the warm condensed milk into the mixture, and put on your gloves: stir it all until it binds with a spatula, and then use your hands to form it into a loose dough. Scoop out the dough, and press it with your gloved hands into the greased baking tray, evenly, into the corners too.
Put the whole lot into the oven, and bake for one hour. (You may resume floor sobbing at this point, but you probably won’t want to. I painted my nails with another coat of disco glitter, and read two chapters of The Princess Bride.)
Remove from oven, and allow to cool for fifteen minutes: this lets it set. Take up a big cleaver, and cut the bars: I usually go for twenty-four pieces, six horizontal, four vertical. (There is nothing more useful in the kitchen than the big cleaver.)
Slide out (they will come away easily and in twenty-four solid pieces: not at all flaky or crumbly), and pack into a Quality Street tin, layered with greaseproof paper to stop sticking. Rush to hospital. Feed a hungry Tall Man. Feel, for the first time in days, a little comforted. Eat, together.
Please enjoy this photograph of Tall Man, looking handsome, writing the blog linked above. I have no more pictures of the Breakfast Bars.