Francine Wolfisz speaks to Annabel Karmel about her new Busy Mum’s Cookbook, which is packed with recipes the whole family can enjoy
Annabel Karmel once saved my life. Well, my sanity at least when, as a new mum, I was faced with the dilemma of trying to rustle up foods that would eventually make it into my fussy daughter’s mouth, rather than ending up on the floor, the walls or, on more than one occasion, my hair.
Her bestselling Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner became our culinary bible and today still lies on my kitchen worktop, dishevelled, dog-eared and thoroughly loved. Legions of other mums clearly feel the same because that same book, first published 25 years ago, went on to launch a business empire for Karmel and is the second bestselling hardback non-fiction book of all time.
Not bad for a title that publishers overlooked as “a flash in the pan” before it was finally accepted.
Now the hardworking 56-year-old has a new title to add to the more than 40 books she has written over the years and this one focuses not just on little ones, but the entire family.
The Busy Mum’s Cookbook is packed with more than 100 recipes that take just 20 minutes to make, need just six ingredients or can be prepared in advance. And just like the recipes that first established her as a household name, they promise to be delicious, too.
“No longer do you have to lick the baby’s bowl if you’re looking for something nice to eat!” quips Karmel, who laughs at the thought that my husband enjoys eating any leftovers made from her recipes for the children.
As a busy mother herself to Nicholas, 27, Lara, 25 and Scarlett, 23, Karmel knows all about the challenges of balancing her career and home life. Apart from the tens of books she has written, Karmel also looks after a food range, a website and two apps. If you ask her what the secret is, she’ll tell you straight “it’s all a myth”.
She explains: “Something has to go. For me, I have to work late, usually until midnight to fit it all in. But don’t feel sorry for me – I love it, I enjoy creating what I create. I meet lots of people who say my books have made a difference to their lives and that’s very important to me.”
Karmel, who is a former professional musician and shares her north-west London home with her partner, lawyer Stephen Margolis, confesses she works incredibly hard, partly to ensure the continuation of a legacy for her daughter, Natasha, who died aged just 13 weeks from a viral infection in 1987.
The tragedy spurred Karmel into writing her first book but she reveals she “never expected it to be a commercial success”.
She adds: “That was never part of the plan. It was almost a therapy for me to get over her death. I put my heart into that book, it came out in 1991 and it’s been a bestseller ever since.”
The popularity of her Complete Baby and Toddler Meal Planner, in the days before social media, grew largely by word-of-mouth, helped by the other mums at St John’s Wood Synagogue playgroup, where she would test out her recipes each week.
Karmel also worked with experts from Great Ormond Street and the Institute of Child Health to understand what children could eat and at what stage.
“There were so many old wives’ tales, like you can’t give eggs or fish before your child is one – and that was nonsense. The advice also said that babies only like bland food, but that wasn’t true either! I cut through it, because I wanted to know what the truth was.”
However, it wasn’t just the simple, down-to-earth and nutritionally healthy recipes they and their little ones enjoyed – it was the fact Karmel connected with her readers, because, as she says: “I was living the life of these mothers.”
She adds: “Many books had been written by nutritionists, but they’re not mums, they don’t know what it’s like having a child who won’t eat, how emotionally straining it is and how you want to lose the will to live!
“But I knew what it was like. I was living it as I was writing my book.”
She points to her son, Nicholas, telling me he was “the world’s fussiest eater,” until she happily began innovating meals he came to enjoy – chicken apple and lentil puree were apparently his favourites. Her early editions of the cookbook also included such Jewish favourites as chicken soup and matzah balls, lockshen pudding and gefilte fish. “Making the fish sweet is a great way to get children to eat it,” she laughs.
Karmel believes she “changed the face of the way children are fed in this country”, by helping to inspire mothers away from the baby jars and into the kitchen to make fresh, home-made meals.
Now 25 years later, she hopes to bring that same inspiration for mums looking to cook for themselves, as well as their children.
Her delicious recipes include duck stir fry with plum sauce and dover sole with herb butter, which can be made in less than 20 minutes, as well as herb-crusted salmon and honey-glazed chicken with lemon and thyme, which use just six ingredients.
There are, of course, also desserts, which Karmel promises are no-fuss, such as her berry and white chocolate tart and mini tropical pavlovas.
As for the techniques involved, her fans can rest assured the new recipes are as simple to make as always.
“I’m very much common sense and don’t include things that the ordinary mum at home couldn’t do,” adds Karmel. “I believe in real life.”
• Annabel Karmel’s Busy Mum’s Cookbook, published by Ebury Press, is priced £20 and available now