Child's play

If there is such a thing as a yiddishe mamma complex, Annabel Karmel certainly seems to be suffering from it.

annabel karmel 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
annabel karmel 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
If there is such a thing as a yiddishe mamma complex, Annabel Karmel certainly seems to be suffering from it. Since the birth of her son 18 years ago, she has been on a mission to ply babies and children around the world with good, fresh, wholesome food. She wrote her first book - The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner in 1991 - and has followed it up with 13 more. Her books, which offer guidance on everything from baby purees to party food, are now available in more than 20 countries. What started off as a one-book deal has evolved into a burgeoning empire. Over the last year, Karmel - recently awarded an MBE from the queen for services to nutrition for children - has launched lines in two of Britain's leading high-street stores. One sells cooking equipment and ingredients, while the other stocks ready-made meals for the very young. And it doesn't stop there. If negotiations are successful, brand Annabel could soon extend its influence to a whole range of products. So what makes her so successful? "All mothers want to give their children the best start in life," says Karmel. Of that there is no doubt. Her first book was a word-of-mouth success, while mothers from Denmark to Slovenia are now dishing up dinners la Karmel, which kids are only too happy to lap up. Mothers trust her. Her books contain simple, adaptable recipes and sensible advice. She uses mostly kitchen cupboard ingredients, and does not preach about expensive organic food over standard fresh produce. The personal touch adds to her popularity. Pictures of Karmel's own children feature heavily, while many recipes are preceded with a family anecdote. More than just recipes, they are like time-honored traditions shared between mothers. Trained as a professional singer and harpist, Karmel turned to cookery only after tragedy struck. Her first child, Natasha, died of a rare viral disease in 1987 at 13 weeks old. A year later Karmel gave birth to her son Nicholas - now 18. When Nicholas showed early signs of becoming a difficult eater, she became understandably anxious. "The only books I could find had very boring bland recipes," she says. "No one had really explored the truth about what babies should and could eat, and I started making up recipes that were both delicious and healthy." Over the the next two years, she consulted leading pediatricians and nutritionists, before going on to write her own book. The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner has ranked among Britain's top 10 best-sellers ever since. "When I wrote my first book, I was full of self doubt," she says. "It was like therapy to help me deal with Natasha's death. I never imagined it would become a best-seller." KARMEL GREW up in an Orthodox home in Central London where her grandfather was a cantor. While she still lives in London with her husband and three children, she is no longer as observant, but she remains true to her roots. Her books are hugely influenced by her background, and include recipes for grandma's gefilte fish, matza brei and lokshen pudding. "When I first started out, I thought back to what I used to like to eat as a child," she says. "I remembered some of the things my mother and grandmother used to make and used them." But how readily available is matza in Romania? Karmel says: "I always make sure the recipes work for that country's audience. In America we changed the measurements, but otherwise the books are mostly the same." The Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner was published in Hebrew, but is no longer in print. However, she has been approached about a wider publishing deal in Israel. "I am very keen to start selling my books in Israel, as I often travel over there and it's an important place for me," Karmel says. Now the mother of three teenagers - Nicholas, Lara , 17, and Scarlett, 15 - Karmel looks as if she rarely indulges herself in her chocolate and banana pancakes or mixed berry and white chocolate cheesecake. Petite and slender, she is as well-presented in person as her books suggest. Presentation is important all round, according to Karmel. Food should look as good as it tastes - hence the teddy bear pizzas and bagel snakes that have become her trademark. "Children have a psychological resistance to new things," she says. "It's an uphill struggle, because children naturally gravitate toward junk food. You have to make things look really attractive to children as they can often be very peculiar about food." Two further publications will hit the bookshops later this year: an updated version of the meal planner and Eat Fussy, a collection for troublesome eaters. She already caters for a chain of private nurseries, but is now looking into doing a range of children's meals for restaurants. "I want to build a food brand, so that if you see something with my name on it you know that it's going to be healthy and good to eat," she says. Her Web site, which gets a very healthy 300,000 page impressions a month, is Karmel's direct link with her readership. "I look at it every day. It's interesting to see what recipes mothers like. They don't just talk about food, but everything to do with their babies." Among the most popular dishes are her hidden vegetable sauce and her range of delicious, healthy muffins. "It's a really nice warm feeling to know that so many mothers rely on my books," she says. "I wanted to give something back after Natasha's death. If it never happened, I would never have written these books, so at least something good came out of it." Annabel's top tips 1) Introduce lots of food early. You have this window of opportunity when your child is six months old. Give him everything and don't hold back. 2) Praise positive behavior and leave him alone if he is playing up about his food. 3) Think about the times when your child is at his most hungry. That's the time when you should try new and healthy foods out. The hungrier he is, the less likely he is to make a fuss. 4) Do not be drawn in to food rows. It's a child's way of trying to control you. Take a step back and stay calm. Advice, recipes and interactive forums are all available at CRANBERRY and WHITE CHOCOLATE COOKIES These are not to be missed, one of my favourite cookies and so quick and easy to prepare that you could easily get your child to help you make these and they are perfect for the holiday season. Its fun to host a Cookie Exchange and involve your children. Everyone brings one type of cookie, but each guest goes home with a whole variety of holiday treats. Ask everyone to bring enough copies of their recipe to share around. If you prefer, just invite a few friends over and each one of you can bake your own favorite cookie and everyone can muck in and learn how to make them. Each guest should bring his or her ingredients. Suitable for freezing 150 gr. plain flour 1⁄2 tsp. bicarbonate of soda 1⁄2 tsp. salt 25 gr. ground almonds 150 gr. soft brown sugar 50 gr. oatmeal 50 gr. dried cranberries 40 gr. white chocolate, cut into chunks 150 gr. butter 1 large egg yolk Preheat the oven to 190 . Sieve together the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt in a large bowl. Stir in the ground almonds, brown sugar, oatmeal, cranberries and white chocolate chunks. Melt the butter in a small pan. Stir this into the dry ingredients together with the egg yolk. Mix well, then using your hands, form into walnut-sized balls and arrange on two large nonstick baking sheets. Gently press them down to flatten slightly, leaving space between them for the cookies to spread. Bake in the oven for about 12 minutes. Then remove, and allow to cool on a wire rack. They will be pretty soft when they first come out of the oven but as they cool, they will harden up. Makes 20 cookies. ANNABEL'S MINI FISH PIE That old saying that fish is good for the brain is absolutely true. Oil-rich fish, such as salmon, tuna and sardines, are especially good brain boosters. This is due to their high levels of omega-3 essential fats, which are vital for brain function and can also help the performance of dyslexic and hyperactive children. You should try to include two portions of fish a week in your child's diet and one of these should be oily fish like salmon. 375 gr. potatoes, peeled and diced 11⁄2 Tbsp. milk 40 gr. butter a little salt and pepper 15 gr. butter 25 gr. onion, peeled and finely chopped 1 Tbsp. flour 150 gr. cod fillet, skinned and cubed 150 gr. salmon fillet, skinned and cubed 1 tsp. chopped fresh parsley 1 bay leaf 75 ml. milk 50 ml. vegetable stock 25 gr. frozen peas 50 gr. Cheddar cheese, grated 1 lightly beaten egg Decoration Cherry tomatoes Chives Red pepper Basil leaves Cooked green beans Rosemary Preheat the oven to 180 . Bring a pan of lightly salted water to the boil, add the potatoes, reduce the heat and cook for 15 to 20 minutes or until tender. Drain the potatoes and mash together with the 11⁄2 Tbsp. milk and half the butter until smooth and season to taste. Melt the remaining butter in a saucepan, add the onion and saut until softened. Add the flour and cook for 30 seconds, stirring. Gradually stir in the 75 ml. milk and then the stock. Bring to a boil and cook for one minute. Add the fish with the parsley and bay leaf. Simmer for about three minutes and then stir in the peas and cook for one minute. Remove the bay leaf and stir in the cheese until melted. Season with a little salt and pepper Divide the fish between three ramekin dishes and top with the mashed potato. Brush with the lightly beaten egg. Heat in the oven for about 15 minutes and finish off for a few minutes under a preheated grill until golden. If you like you can decorate the fish pies with cat's faces using a selection of vegetables and herbs. Makes 3 portions