Sweetpea Darlingheart founder Amber Rossouw on food and family

Sweetpea Darlingheart - Amber Rossouw

“I first started making meals for the family when I was 15 or 16, cooking simple things like a pasta sauce from scratch or greek salad.” Amber Rossouw on a foodie upbringing in Queensland, Australia, and running baking blog and business Sweetpea Darlingheart…

Amber Rossouw lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her husband, their two children – aged eight and six – and an array of chickens. She runs the brilliant baking blog and accompanying Instagram account Sweetpea Darlingheart…

Where were you raised, and what was your childhood like?
For the first few years of my life I lived with my mum, in beautiful green mountains set just in from the coast of south-east Queensland, Australia. This warm, lush green landscape is the environment I connect to the most. I don’t remember these times very well, but I really feel like they most strongly formed the way I wish to live.

My mum passed away suddenly when I was five, so I moved to a country town and grew up with my grandparents. Most of my extended family lived there; I spent the weeks with my grandparents and the weekends with my dad, often visiting his parents or seeing cousins. I went to the same school for my entire schooling and life was very safe. We were all doing our best to live as normal a life as possible, but of course life was fundamentally completely different.

The town I grew up in always played things very straight; everybody knew each other and it felt like everyone really cared what everyone else thought of them. There were times when I worried about what other people thought of me too, and when I turned 21 I realised I needed to find my own two feet, so I moved to Melbourne.

My grandmother pickled her own onions, which were my favourite, and her Sunday roasts were something we all came together for

Melbourne has something for everyone, and no-one else seems to care too much what other people think of them, which is really cool. Now I march to the beat of my own drum most of the time. The time of my childhood that I most strongly connect to and feel like shaped me most profoundly as a mother is the time I can least remember, which I guess supports the theory that the first few years of your life are the most formative.

What are your food, eating and meal-time memories?
My dad’s parents ran the most well known restaurant in town – the restaurant that you went to on your birthday, or to celebrate a special occasion; so I really feel like my interest in food was formed on the weekends, when I was with my dad or at his parents’ place. My dad’s parents had run many food businesses over the years, so they had a broad knowledge and interest in food, and were always making something delicious in their kitchen.

My grandmother pickled her own onions, which were my favourite, and her Sunday roasts were something we all came together for. Sometimes they would teach any kids that were around how to make something fun, like boiled lollies – my grandfather showing us how to pull the hot sugar and colour it in stripes.

One of my earliest memories is of making an apple and honey tart to take to a friend’s house for dessert

They also had a huge champagne breakfast every Christmas and invited their large extended family; there were always enough crepes for everyone, which makes me wonder what time they started cooking them!

Good food and the sharing of it rated really highly with them; even if they bought something already made, they always added a little extra touch to make it more delicious, like heating croissants in the oven to make them extra crispy, or having a pizza delivered on a Sunday night but then putting it in a big frying pan on the stove top to crisp up the base.

The way they set the table for lunch with proper cutlery, napkins and flowers really held that sense of hospitality and made eating together feel special. It wasn’t stuffy or formal, just something to be enjoyed.

Do you remember the first meal you cooked, or cake you baked?
I was always eager to help out in the kitchen and the weekends often revolved around food in some way. My dad and I cooked lots of things together and would often bake cakes. One of my earliest memories is of making an apple and honey tart to take to a friend’s house for dessert. I stuck my finger in to as it sat on my lap in the car, to have a little taste of the honey, thinking that no-one would notice the little finger hole, although of course they did.

Sometimes we would take on the challenge of making something that isn’t commonly made at home in Australia – such as pâté. That made me really appreciate the amount of work that can go in to the making of something. We had a few specialities that we would cook on repeat, and these changed from year to year – one year we went through a hot dog phase when we would make gourmet hot dogs each Saturday, visiting all the different speciality shops to find the best ingredients in town. I still love nothing more than visiting a bunch of different little shops and picking my favourite ingredients from each one – I’m not a one-stop shop kind of a gal.

sweetpea darlingheart quiche

I first started making meals for the family regularly during the week when I was around 15 or 16, cooking things that were simple like a pasta sauce from scratch or greek salad. My love for making things from scratch has really developed since having my own children and together we learn how to make and grow our own – for example if we have pizza we like to make our own bases and have a variety of recipes to choose from.

The kids are starting to be able to remember quantities for some recipes themselves and are always full of suggestions on what we should make, or where we should go with the flavours. I sometimes wish I came from a culture where the food traditions were stronger, where big families get together to cook together on the weekends and children learn at their elder’s hips. But, I guess the great thing about growing up in a ‘young’ country is that we enjoy food from so many different cultures, and our cooking can be influenced in these different ways and explored in the kitchen even just in a week.

How did you find school?
This is a really interesting question as I haven’t actually thought about how I feel about my own schooling for a really long time. School was a tricky time for me as I had to start primary school a couple of months after my mum passed away, plus I had just moved towns. I didn’t know anybody; a lot of the other kids had all been to kinder together, so I always felt a little on the outer.

I didn’t come from the traditional family model either and that was always something that made me stand out as being different from the other kids. I guess the thing I remember most about school was the feelings I had while I was there. I feel like I was always looking for sustained friendships, and would often be best friends with one person for a year, maybe needing to find a different best friend the next. I think I really wanted to find at least one person I could rely on to always be there, in the day to day of school life.

I definitely think it’s more important to feel happy about going to school, than push anyone to be the best or the smartest

When I think about school for my own kids, I worry most about how they feel while they are at school; do they feel happy, do they feel comfortable and supported for being who they are, and not judged if they do something differently. I feel like the actual education aspect is way more multi-faceted than just what is learnt in a school day, so whilst it is important that the kids are learning all the things they should at school, I think talking to them and getting them interested in the world and in life, going out and seeing different things, being honest with whatever conversations come up, helps create this rounded sense of life education.

I definitely think it’s more important to feel happy about going to school, than push anyone to be the best or the smartest – I like the idea of collaboration rather than competition even when it comes to school, and that’s something I try and teach the kids.

When did you start food blogging and creating recipes?
I started Sweetpea Darlingheart on a much smaller scale back in 2013. It originally started with me making celebration cakes, mostly for weddings and birthdays, with lots of creative multi-layered flavour combinations. I started the business so I could work from home while the kids were still small, and learn how to flex my creative muscles again, in the hope that I would find out what it was I wanted to do once the kids went to school.

I started the blogging aspect of Sweetpea Darlingheart in conjunction with the cakes in 2014, because I felt like I wanted to share a connection with food that was beyond the scope of just a cake for a celebration. I also studied nutrition for a year, which helped me think about how to put food together so it can be delicious and also good for you; it helped me develop the way we cook and eat.

The blog has had many different looks over the years – I have completely redesigned it four times now! At the start of the year I made the decision to no longer make cakes, and instead have been focussing on blogging and recipe creation – mostly recipes with a wholefoods slant.

Only this year have I started to feel really happy with the work I am producing; I’m really enjoying the photography and story-telling element to the blog, and have realised how therapeutic the actual writing of the blog is for me with exploration of feelings and intentions, as well as how food can be a vessel to connect us all.

Amber Rossouw

I have also been contributing recipes and working with Lunch Lady magazine, a quarterly magazine about family and food, since the middle of last year. I hope to contribute and collaborate more in the future.

Is it your career, or a hobby?
It’s kind of both. Which I guess means I have finally figured out something that works well for me. My blog and Instagram are like my portfolio I suppose, and most of the work I have done has come through connections I’ve made through these platforms. I really love the flexibility this kind of work allows me to have, so I can be there for the kids any time, and have fun creatively. I’m really very lucky.

Tell us about your family – who do you live with?
I live with my husband and two children, who are eight and six. We also always have a varying array of chickens; we have had as many as eight, but at the moment have three. We raised six chickens from one-day-old last year, which was lots of fun especially because they were so very cute – they had to live in a rabbit hutch in our bathroom for six weeks because it was too cold for them outside. We are also in heavy negotiations as to whether we should get a cat or a dog – the current leaning is towards a cat! Time will tell.

How did you find it introducing solids for the first time?
Introducing solids for the first time was quite hilarious – we had a great little rubber chair (a bumbo) with its own tray, and I would sit with my daughter on the floor and give her softly steamed broccoli and carrot. She had a great time mushing it through her fingers and generally spreading it everywhere!

We went the recommended route for introducing solids at the time which was to start with rice cereal, then introduce pureed apple and pureed vegetables, working up to proteins. My daughter loved plain yoghurt, and whatever she was eating could be instantly transformed just by stirring some plain yoghurt in – she thought it was a whole new food, and something she found way more delicious. The first time I really felt like she ate properly, was when she ate food in its whole state. She also loved softly roasted parsnip, which funnily enough she wouldn’t touch these days.

My son was a big fan of avocado (and still is) so often when we were out and about I’d just take an avocado and a spoon and scoop out the flesh for him. I wish baby-led weaning was a thing when my kids were little – the idea of giving your baby little bits of your own food to try, and let them chew it and mash it themselves, makes much more sense to me, especially when trying to evolve into eating as a family. I think giving the kids ‘special’ food probably made the transition to eating family food harder.

Has motherhood changed your ideas about food and mealtimes?
I definitely have a much more sacred view of mealtime these days. In the early days as a family we couldn’t get the kids to sit down at the table, instead we’d spoon a mouthful in every time they did a lap around the room. We went to a Steiner playgroup when my son was first born, and that was where we were introduced to having a candle at the table. There was great ceremony around the candle being lit at the start of snack time, and the table became a place of calm to share a plate. While the candle was lit, it was eating and discussion time.

I love baking something for afternoon tea, and then popping some leftovers into their lunchbox the following day

I guess this really introduced us as a family to the concept of ‘sharing’ a meal – it’s more than just about the food, it’s about sharing the moment. Sitting at the table while the candle was on didn’t feel restrictive, it felt beautiful and gave eating together a sense of ceremony. We adopted this practice at home and still light candles at dinner each night; dinner now doesn’t really feel the same without a candle at the table. I often take a candle with us when we travel, so we can always have this sense of eating together and completing the day.

What might you feed the family on an average day – for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks?
For breakfast during the week, we mostly eat whatever homemade granola is on rotation in our house at the moment – I usually have two varieties on the go at any one time, one for the kids (their favourite has crushed up freeze-dried strawberries) and one for the adults, with more nuts and seeds. I always add in extra things to the granola, such as nut butter or hemp seeds to boost the kids’ protein and good fats for the day.

My son also loves french toast, so if we have some bread in the house I’ll soak it in some egg and top it with cinnamon and a little stevia while it’s cooking in the pan; I like to keep it simple and think it’s great if I can sneak a bit of extra protein into him at breakfast time.

On weekends we love to make buckwheat crepes and have a proper sit down breakfast together – complete with lots of fillings and cups of tea. We take the time to light the candles, it makes for a really nice start to the weekend. Lunch can look like many different things – the kids mostly want something simple such as cut-up veggies, a quarter of an avocado and a boiled egg. These are the kind of things that go into their lunch boxes on most days too.

For my own lunch, I will often make myself some kind of generous salad with whatever looks good from the garden, maybe a little cheese tossed through, or a boiled egg or nut and seeds sprinkled on top. I like to put enough things in that a salad feels like a really great, complete meal in itself. I’m big on snacks, especially for the kids. I find they really need something to eat as soon as they get home from school – sometimes I even take a snack to school with me, to share in the playground or on the way home.

I love baking something for afternoon tea, and then popping some leftovers into their lunchbox the following day (or having cake for breakfast, which if it’s full of healthy ingredients, I’m totally fine with).

Dinner is really our main meal of the day, and the time when I make sure the kids are topped up nutritionally. There are always lots of vegetables, dressed in a few different ways to keep it interesting and we love a piece of grilled fish – I am the only one in our family who eats meat, so we eat fish a couple of times a week in our house. We also love going out to eat, and my day doesn’t feel quite right without a morning coffee at a lovely cafe; I’m so lucky to have so many great cafes near where we live.

What are your hopes and dreams for Sweetpea Darlingheart?
I’d really love to write my own cookbook. At the moment it is a personal project that I add to when I have the time. I hope one day the right person will see it and help me turn it into a reality – something beautiful to sit on someone’s bookshelf or kitchen bench that they can cook from or be inspired by, and hopefully encourage them to think about how they can use eating together as a way to enrich their daily lives.

Tomorrow, Amber shares a recipe for delicious, healthy carrot and apple muffins…

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