The babysitter looked like she desperately wanted to choose flight from the fight or flight options her instincts were giving her, but given she had 54 children in her charge she could do nothing but freeze. It was dark and cold outside and peering in through the misted up windows, the classroom at Bonshaw school looked like an evacuation centre set up after a mysterious natural disaster had wiped out almost all of the population over 12 years of age. A world in which only hungry, tiny children, a frazzled babysitter and her gobsmacked boyfriend were left behind.
It was Bonshaw's annual Trivia Night in the hall across the road and one of the many things going for the event was that you could leave your kids with a babysitter at the school for $5 a child. There would be spag bol and movies for all the kids, leaving the parents to have unshackled fun across the road with not a single port-a-cot in sight. Families came from hundreds of kilometers. Even parents who weren't going to the trivia thought it was a good idea, with one trying to sneak their child - possible children - with the maxed out babysitter too. ("A cuckoo in the nest!" gasped a family friend in delight).
I can't say exactly how the night turned out for the kids, but when I dropped my own children off it looked like for some it might have been harrowing. The babysitter was muttering to the oven in disbelief, repeating quietly "it just won't heat up the food". Her boyfriend was rocking a screaming baby in a pram with impressive focus. I do not know how much experience he had had with small babies but he was certainly giving it a good go. Wide-eyed three year olds were wandering around in between clusters of older kids colouring in and mounds of pillows, clutching onto precious bits of fabric for comfort. A 12 year old was chief carer for a very upset two year old who had been inconsolable for quite some time and didn't look like she was giving up anytime soon.
And amid all this chaos there was the overwhelming majority of kids hanging out and having a blast. On the same weekend that Nikki Gemmell advocated the style of "lighthouse parenting" as opposed to the tiger and helicopter modes, it was a refreshing sight.
"There's a new level of mollycoddling in local playgrounds that didn't exist when we were growing up," wrote Gemmell in The Weekend Australian Magazine. "After much trial and error I've settled on the "lighthouse parenting" style as the most effective .... That is, you're a beacon of stability to guide those little boats out to sea away from the rocky shores, but you're leaving them to find their own way into a safe harbour. That may involve risk and failure and disappointment and hurt, but it's all a part of growing up."
I probably felt more like a captain jumping ship than a lighthouse as I walked out the door over to the party across the road, leaving the babysitter with the cold dinner, crying babies and the rumbling of tiny, hungry tummies growing louder. But I am very grateful that this school and community actively encourages lighthouse parenting, rather than OHandS helicopter overkill. There admittedly could have been another babysitter. The kids were safe, not all of them were happy, but the grown ups had fun.
My two year old was still awake when I went to pick the kids up at midnight. She looked like she was at the tail end of a wild house party, rolling around on the ground in drugged out delight, in the "this carpet feels SOOOO good " way. I stepped over sleeping children passed out under the bright overhead lights, bundled up my tribe and went home, with images of lighthouses and tiny ships accompanying me along the way.
As for cooking, I do not have any tips for cooking for large numbers. We made a beef stew for the 100 people for the trivia night from a recipe I have made many times before and have absolutely adored, but it seemed to lose its magic when I multiplied the ingredients by 15. My friend Michelle, on the other hand, successfully made 120 sticky date puddings (in several rounds of muffin tins) that were very easily reheated in the oven just before serving with caramel sauce and ice cream. There was nothing lost flavour wise here. I would highly recommend this as a tasty, simple dessert for feeding large numbers.
Despite no resounding success in the commercial kitchen this week, I had a few triumphs while cooking at home. The first was the best morning tea I have had in quite some time and it is thanks to Sophie Hansen who posted a picture of some vanilla grapes roasted in the oven and served with fruit toast, goats curd and sweet dukkah on her instagram account.
I couldn't get it out of my head. Here is the closest I could get to it without going to the shops.
Sweet oven-blitzed grapes with fruit toast, goats cheese and roasted pecans
A couple of smallish bunches of grapes
2 tablespoons honey
2 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Soft goats cheese
A handful of pecans
Turn the oven to 200C. Place grapes in a lightly oiled baking tin and coat with the honey and balsamic and a pinch of sea salt. Place in the hot oven for five minutes, then add the pecans to the pan and roast for another five to ten minutes. You don't want the nuts to burn so just keep an eye on it.
Meanwhile toast the fruit bread, then spread a generous amount of soft goats cheese on top and finish it with a bunch of grapes and a couple of spoonfuls of the balsamic honey juices. You can eat the grapes stalks and all. It is sublime.
The next kitchen hit was a dinner of slow cooked beef cheeks (the first time I have cooked this cut but certainly not the last) which my neighbour and I enjoyed together with too much wine and a radicchio salad that I could eat every single night . The cheats risotto the next day was a bonus for my sore head.
Beef cheeks with parsnip mash and a cheat's risotto the next day
6 pieces of beef cheeks
2 red onions
1 head of garlic
2 bay leaves
125mls red wine
125mls stock or water
12 parsnips (baby ones)
Season the beef cheeks generously with pepper and some finely chopped rosemary if you have it at hand. Brown in a hot pan on both sides. You want colour. Set aside. Slice onion and carrots and add to a baking dish (with a lid) along with the head of garlic, bay leaves, red wine and stock. Place the beef cheeks ontop and cook in a low oven, about 120C, for four hours.
Peel and dice the parsnips and boil in salted water until tender. Drain and then tumble back into the pan with the butter and generously season with salt and pepper and mash.
Serve one piece of beef cheek per person on top of a bed of mashed parsnip. The quantity of parsnips here serve about three but if you are using larger parsnips you will need less. With the left over beef cheeks (I was down to two as my husband had pinched one) and the juices to make a cheat's risotto the next day by tipping all the juices and meat into a saucepan, adding a few handfuls of aborio rice and simmering until the rice is ready. Add more liquid if it is starting to look like it needs it. You are aiming for a broth with rice rather than a pure risotto. And no stirring - god forbid - but it works. Then I added a heap of good parmesan and gremolata (lemon zest, garlic and parsley chopped finely together) on top.
Radicchio dressed with balsamic, honey, olive oil and cheese
This recipe is a total winner. It is shockingly simple and so very tasty. The recipe is here and I used good parmesan instead of manchego.