Can older learners still cut it in the classroom?

A few years ago, I  left home for three months to live at Ruskin College, Oxford on a Ransackers Course. This was an incredible initiative designed to inspire older learners who had not previously benefited from higher education. An intensive course it’s aim was enable new students to write a full dissertation and included tuition, accommodation, free meals and most wonderfully, a pass to the Bodleian Library.  Ransackers was aimed at those from a generation that has had limited opportunities for education and who have burning questions or a project they are deeply committed to. I applied for the course  and went along to meet the tutor and to present my project and discuss if I would be able to commit to the learning process. They seemed to think that I was eminently suitable, but I wondered how I would take to full time study. I know that I am capable; I have run a business for over 20 years, but reading for me has been more entertainment than for learning.

When I left home in Wales  I had a clutch of O Levels and a lot of enthusiasm for life. My first job was in London employed by the BBC as a secretary in The Urdu Service at Bush House in London. Whilst I learnt a lot about people in that building and their very different cultures , I was a terrible secretary. My typing was so bad that for important letters, my boss, a journalist called Towyn Mason, would type them himself very quickly and accurately with two fingers.

After working in different areas of the BBC, I finally found my niche in food by winning Cosmopolitan Cook of the Year Competition. The first prize was a year at Leith’s School of Food and Wine, sponsored by The Butter Council. In fact I won a whole new career via this prize and my first job was as the chef of Justin de Blank’s country house hotel in Norfolk. From then on I ran various kitchens and set up my own outside catering business, specialising in large events.

Now after 27 years of marriage and combining bringing up our two boys with running a catering business I  left home to study. After a life as a food writer and caterer I was able to explore  the way we eat now and the lost cooking skills of at least one generation. More specifically I examined the benefits of cooking from scratch and  the lack of knowledge the youth of Britain have towards the food they eat. I am always interested in hearing how people manage to cook, eat and share food with their families, whilst juggling different timetables, jobs and social commitments.  As a caterer I learned  to be highly organised, how to manage people and organise my time.

I was so inspired by the Ransackers experience that I am now studying for a BA (Hons) degree in Philosophy & Psychological Studies with the OU and aim to take a Masters in Business Psychology. I am particularly interested in technology from a psychological aspect and how we are evolving (or otherwise) to cope with the rapid changes taking place in our work and personal lives .


White Christmas Cocktails

Here are some fabulous white coloured cocktails to make up for the lack of snow. Cocktails always get the party going and the rule of thumb is that one per person is too little, two is divine and three is too much!  See at the end of the post for quantities and tips on how to serve cocktails at parties.

Christmas cocktail with lime leaves and cranberry

WHITE MISCHIEF – Martini Glass

I devised this for an Out of Africa themed party, and it is based on the classic White Lady. This drink combines a hit of vodka with the fragrance of elderflower and sweetness of the pear juice. Apple and ginger add a bit of a kick.

  • 2oz Absolute Vodka
  • 1oz Funkin William Pear
  • 1oz James White Apple and Ginger
  • 1 oz St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur
  • 1/4 oz Lemon juice

This quantity makes one decent size cocktail. Make up the mixture x 100 in clear bucket, then shake with ice in giant cocktail shakers and pour into chilled martini glasses.

madmen0005THE WHITE LADY

This is the first cocktail I tasted and it felt so glamourous.

It’s a clean-tasting drink and needs to be drunk very cold, so make sure you have plenty of ice.

  • 20ml Dry London gin
  • 10ml Cointreau
  • 10ml  lemon juice

Shake the ingredients together well with ice. Strain into a frosted cocktail glass and serve in a martini glass. Glorious.


A light change to the classic Kir Royale, with a dash of lemon juice to cut through the sweetness. I love the gorgeous St Germain version

  • 10ml Elderflower Liqueur
  • 5ml lemon juice
  • Top up with well chilled prosecco

Pour into tall Champagne glasses and serve very cold.


The ultimate festive martini, using edible loose leaf gold to give a gold snow storm effect. You can buy gold flecked vodka, but this represents very bad value, as you can order leaves of edible gold leaf quite cheaply from Amazon, or buy in art shops. You are then free to add it to your favourite vodka. You can also order gold leaf flakes here

The quantities are for 10 as it is not worth making any less.

  • 750ml vodka
  • 250ml dry martini
  • 2 sheets edible gold leaf
  1. Blend the vodka and vermouth
  2. Shake together vodka and vermouth with ice in cocktail shaker
  3. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with crushed edible gold leaf


To help in calculating how much you get from a bottle of spirits and mixers see the measurements below:

70cl Spirit Bottle = 14 Drinks @ 50ml (double measure)

1 Litre Carton of Mixer = 20 Drinks @ 50ml (double measure)

1 Squeezed Lime = Roughly 35ml of Juice

1 Squeezed Lemon = Roughly 45ml – 50ml of Juice

How to serve cocktails to large numbers:

For a party of 100, I would offer a choice of two to three different cocktails. The idea of shaking up individual cocktails for a crowd of thirsty revellers  just doesn’t work. Our trick is to make up large quantities of the mixture in advance,  then shake with ice in our special giant cocktail shakers. Thus you can serve 10 people at a time very quickly.

If you are offering a choice of cocktails, stick to two-three base spirits, a vodka, a gin and a rum, and offer both long and short drinks. When buying or hiring martini glasses be aware that they vary in size, so check out what size yours are then adjust the quantities for your drinks accordingly. It is important to match your drink to the correct glass, both for practical and aesthetic reasons. Who would want to drink a martini out of an old fashioned glass?


Don’t forget to think about the garnish.  In some cases they add to the taste of the cocktail, though usually add visual appeal Check your cocktail recipe for the type of garnish and calculate how many ingredients you will need for the number of cocktails you are making.

Sticky Stem Ginger and Prune Cake



This is the perfect cake to enliven a dullish day. Although meant to be high summer it felt more like a glorious autumn day and perfect for tramping through the woods with the dog. I half expected Mr Tumnus to pop out from a gnarly oak to offer me a cup of tea. Earl Grey in fine bone china of course. To go with the tea we would have to have cake, and here is a delightful prune and stem ginger cake from Alex Yandell, who has written Cook.Taste.Autumn. Smile for use on the iPad. To find out more go to

This is a great way of seeing recipes while cooking as you can turn the iPad to landscape when the method is enlarged for easy reading. None of that nipping across the kitchen to put on reading glasses to peer at recipe.

170g of self raising flour, sifted together

3 tsp powdered ginger

120g unsalted butter, softened

120g dark soft muscovado sugar

4 TBS golden syrup

2 large free range eggs, beaten

100g of stem ginger in syrup, finely chopped (about 5 knobs)

100g ready to eat prunes, finely chopped

To finish:

2 TBS of syrup from the jar of stem ginger

2 TBS demerara sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 180*C/350*F/ gas mark 4.  Butter a medium sized loaf tin (about 8 1/2 inches by 4) and line it with baking paper.  Set aside.

2.Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy.

3. Add the golden syrup and the beaten eggs a bit at a time, whisking until thoroughly combined.
4. Whisk in the flour and powdered ginger.
5. Stir in the prunes and chopped stem ginger.
6. Pour  the batter into the prepared loaf tin, smoothing over the top.  Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top springs back when lightly touched and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean.
7. Remove from the oven.  Immediately brush the top with the stem ginger syrup allowing it to asorb completely.  Sprinkle with the demerara sugar and allow to cool completely in the pan.

This cake will keep very well in a covered tin for about 4 to 5 days.