THINK Sophie Ellis-Bextor and you probably start humming early-Noughties hit Murder On The Dancefloor, or remember the unadulterated joy she brought during lockdown with her live ‘kitchen discos’ on Instagram – performing tunes in sequinned outfits in her family playroom, often stepping over toys, children and wires.
But you may not know that her talents extend to the kitchen too.
In fact, when she first met her husband Richard Jones (bassist from pop band The Feeling), a mutual love of cooking was one of things they bonded over.
“We wooed each other with food really,” says Ellis-Bextor – her ability to cook a great piece of meat even coaxed Jones off the pescatarian wagon on an early date in 2002 (“I gently persuaded him to start eating meat…”).
“She cooked me duck,” Jones interludes.
“Because he already ate fish, I thought maybe we can go to the surface of the water,” says the 43-year-old singer, laughing.
For their first Valentine’s Day together, Jones rustled up a lobster casserole. “We like cooking for each other but if that’s happening, [Sophie] doesn’t like me touching anything she’s cooking,” says Jones.
“No, that’s annoying,” Ellis-Bextor jibes.
“A bit like if we DJ together and she’s doing a mix and I reach over and tweak it slightly – she’s like, stop it,” Jones continues.
Still, being a good cook isn’t that different to being a good musician, insists Jones. “Putting in various elements, like the drums, bass, percussion and vocals when you’re building a song, a meal is very much the same kind of thing, you’re building around the palate from the bottom end and the bass notes to the top end, where the vocals are in the spice and acids and vinegars and lemon juice.”
“You’re saying my voice is like vinegar?” Ellis Jones, interjects, laughing.
“Like a fine wine,” Jones reasons with a smile.
Naturally, music is always playing in their kitchen. Definitely not their own though: “That would be like having a mirror opposite you as you cook,” says Ellis-Bextor. But their debut cookbook – Love. Food. Family. – comes complete with playlists they love to cook to.
They got married in Italy in 2005 and became parents shortly after. Now they have five – Sonny (18), Kit (13), Ray (10), Jessie, six, and three-year-old Mickey – so there are many mouths to feed.
“As everything evolved and we had more and more kids, [cooking] sort of became part of our family, like how do we feed this massive family every day?” Jones says, adding that they “both find cooking relaxing and therapeutic”.
Big, generous, easy-to-make family feasts are the running theme the cookbook.
“I think the more mouths you’re feeding, the less of a café you can run – I’m not cooking different things for different people,” says Ellis-Bextor. “We have one vegetarian, so we always have to make that tweak. Outside of that, we have to do something we think as many people as possible will eat.”
They’ve had their share of fussy-eaters too. “For us, a successful meal is when most people eat most of the food. It’s quite unusual to have something that absolutely everybody eats. Children can love something one week and then the next day decide it’s not their thing anymore.
“You just have to let a lot roll of your shoulders really, but when I cook for the kids, if they don’t enjoy what I’ve made, I take it like a little dagger in my heart,” she adds with a laugh. “Richard’s much better at being like, ‘Tell me why you didn’t like it’, and, ‘How about if I did it like that?’
“We just try and get them to understand that it doesn’t always have to be in their top five meals of all time. Sometimes it’s going to be, ‘That did the job and that was tasty’.”
The cookbook is a real reflection of how the family eat at home (think easy sausage traybake, chicken stir-fry, spag bol). Some recipes are hand-me-downs from family members (Nanny Claire’s Yorkshire pudding and Grandma Janet’s spatchcock chicken), and many are inspired by family holidays abroad (pistachio baklava with honey and orange syrup, or borscht).
Jones calls trips away with five kids “a logistical nightmare” and holidays haven’t been without small disasters. “On our last trip, we realised when we landed that we’d left not one, but two of the kids’ entire wardrobes at the airport,” Ellis-Bextor recalls.
“You have to learn to relax when the family gets bigger,” she adds. “You have to let go of being across everything, because it’s not really physically possible. My motto is ‘something will happen’ – so as long as the big headline stuff of everything is happy and healthy is right there, it doesn’t matter.”
The same goes in the kitchen – especially when five kids get involved. The musical mum believes a passion for cooking can be instilled from a young age – “if you’re cooking in front of them and taking about the food and showing them, you’re getting them interested in the alchemy of making stuff.
“If there’s a little spark of passion there, just build on it. Even my three-year-old, I can’t start making something without him saying, ‘I’m going to help’. On Saturday I do pancakes, and obviously he’s not going to be super helpful but I give him his own little mixing bowl, his own flour, his own egg to crack, and [let him] have some fun.”
Their cookbook has a section dedicated to dishes the kids love (and could even cook themselves) – the ultimate fish finger sandwich and ‘you should be in bed’ tomato toast. Homemade pizza nights are a staple in their household too. “Rather than getting them premade, it’s so easy to just roll the dough and get them involved, choosing their toppings,” says Jones.
The children also make their own Japanese-inspired maki rolls. “Our maki comes out looking really wonky and weird but the kids have lots of fun rolling up and it tastes the same,” Jones adds. “Anything like that, where they can get a bowl out and play around, it becomes like playtime.”
And the mess? That’s inevitable, he says. “Sushi rice everywhere.”
Love. Food. Family: Recipes From The Kitchen Disco by Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Richard Jones is published by Hamlyn, priced £20. Food photography by Issy Croker. Below are three recipes for you to try at home…
COD AND CHORIZO STEW (Serves 4)
- 2tbsp olive oil
- 200g cooking chorizo, chopped into bite-sized chunks
- 1 large onion, roughly chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 2 celery sticks, chopped
- 2 red peppers, deseeded and chopped
- 1tsp coriander seeds
- 1tsp fennel seeds
- 400ml red wine
- 1tbsp tomato purée
- 2 × 400g cans of chopped tomatoes
- 1?2tsp dried chilli flakes
- 200g couscous
- 1 vegetable stock cube
- 300ml boiling water
- 400g cod fillets
- 1?2 bunch of flat leaf parsley leaves
- 1 lemon, cut into wedges
- Salt and black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat and chuck in the chorizo. Fry for a few minutes or until it starts to release a little of its oil, then add the onion and garlic and fry for a further five minutes.
Add the celery and peppers, along with the coriander and fennel seeds and fry for a further five minutes. Pour in the wine and let it evaporate a little, then add the tomato purée, chopped tomatoes and dried chilli flakes and season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, bring the kettle to the boil. Place the couscous in a medium mixing bowl. Pop the stock cube into a measuring jug and pour over the measured boiling water, then give it a good mix. Pour 200ml of the stock over the couscous and cover or place a lid on top. Leave to steam for five to eight minutes.
Pour the remaining stock into the tomato pan and bring to the boil. Carefully nestle the cod fillets into the sauce so they are mostly covered, then pop a lid on the pan and simmer for five minutes.
Fluff the couscous with a fork. When the fish is lovely and flaky, serve the stew with a sprinkle of parsley leaves, with lemon wedges and some fluffy couscous on the side.
WEDDING TIRAMISU (Serves 8)
- 2 free-range eggs, separated
- 100g caster sugar
- 450g mascarpone cheese
- 1tsp vanilla bean paste
- 150ml double cream
- A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
- 300ml freshly brewed coffee (warm, not hot)
- 100ml dessert wine
- 200g Savoiardi biscuits or sponge fingers
- 50g hazelnut chocolate, finely grated
- Cacao nibs (optional)
Separate the egg whites and yolks into two large mixing bowls.
Add half the sugar to the egg yolks and whisk until smooth and a little paler in colour. Add the mascarpone and vanilla bean paste and whisk until smooth. Pour in the cream and continue to whisk until it is completely incorporated.
Squeeze a little lemon juice into the egg whites and whisk until you have soft peaks. You can do this by hand or use an electric whisk. Fold the egg whites into the mascarpone mixture and mix until well incorporated.
Pour the warm coffee into a shallow dish along with the dessert wine and the remaining sugar. Place two dollops of the mascarpone mixture in a 25 × 15cm dish, and swirl it around to cover the base of the dish.
Soak a few sponge fingers in the coffee mixture for 10 seconds, or until a little soft but not falling apart. Layer the soaked fingers on top of the mascarpone layer and continue with this soaking and layering process, until all the ingredients are used up, finishing with a layer of the mascarpone mixture.
Top with the grated hazelnut chocolate and cacao nibs to finish. Chill in the fridge for one hour before serving. You can also make this ahead and keep it in the fridge overnight.
MAC AND CHEESE WITH CRUNCHY SAGE BREADCRUMB TOPPING (Serves 8)
- 150g salted butter
- 5 garlic cloves, finely sliced
- 6tbsp plain flour
- 11?2tbsp English mustard powder
- 1tsp smoked paprika
- 6 bay leaves
- 2L semi-skimmed milk
- 600g dried macaroni
- 300g Cheddar cheese, grated
- 100g Parmesan cheese, grated
- 200g panko breadcrumbs
- 15 sage leaves
- 150g ball of mozzarella
- Olive oil, for drizzling
- Salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 200°C (425°F), Gas Mark 7. Put the butter and garlic in a large saucepan and melt over a medium heat, then add the flour and stir until incorporated. Add the mustard powder, paprika and bay leaves, reduce the heat and cook, stirring continuously, for five minutes.
Gradually pour in the milk, whisking as you go to avoid lumps. Bring the sauce to the boil, then leave it over a low heat to simmer, making sure you stir it often.
Meanwhile, bring a large pan of salted water to a rapid boil over a high heat. Add the pasta and cook for six minutes.
Remove the bay leaves from the sauce, then drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Remove from the heat, give it a good stir and add two-thirds of the grated cheeses. Season well with salt and pepper to taste.
Tip the mixture into a 30 × 20cm baking dish, scatter over the breadcrumbs and place the sage leaves on top. Scatter over the remaining grated cheese and tear the mozzarella on top. Drizzle with olive oil.
Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden and crispy on top.