"My food snobbery has definitely gone out the window since becoming a parent,” laughs Donal Skehan, as I chat to him from his new home in Sutton, Co Dublin, which he shares with wife Sofie and sons Noah (5) and Oliver (3).
“The boys have been making cupcakes with me this afternoon. Basically, Oliver had his whole face in the flour and they were throwing sprinkles at each other. It's constant carnage with our boys,” he laughs infectiously.
Having spent five years living and working in Los Angeles, hosting various television programmes, the Skehan’s returned to Ireland in 2020, at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, to be closer to family.
After living in three rental homes over the past three years, the couple were thrilled to get the keys to their “little cottage by the sea”, close to Skehan’s family home in Howth.
After 17 years of renting, top of their priorities was having a kitchen that was “functional” and in which the family could share meals together and make food memories.
Although with future intentions to build onto the cottage and design a studio kitchen, Skehan admits his family are “just loving and basking that we have a kitchen that's our own”.
One thing he didn’t add to his new home was an Aga range cooker.
“Randomly, all the houses that we’ve rented since moving back to Ireland had Aga’s. At first we were excited about making soda bread and barmbrack, but then we had so much trouble with them. We now have a lovely regular Italian oven,” he sighs with relief.
Skehan isn’t ashamed to admit that he has gone from being an absolute critic of modern cooking devices to fully embracing them and proudly has an air fryer on his kitchen worktop.
“I used to have a passion for vintage cookware. I had vintage scales and egg beaters I brought back from Sweden, and not a gadget in my house.
“But you have to acknowledge convenience. People have aspirations of cooking something beautiful but often find time doesn't allow it and, since I've had kids, I've embraced the slow cooker, the air fryer, literally every kitchen gadget you can use to make your life easier.
“If you had told me five years ago I'd be including recipes that include microwave instructions in my book, I wouldn't have believed you. But it's a game changer - putting broccoli and a bit of water into the microwave for four minutes is the easier option than getting the pot out, boiling the water and doing the washing up.”
Skehan goes as far as saying he believes air fryers should be rebranded. “They aren’t deep fat fryers, they are little mini ovens. I use them for meal prep and as I'm working away on other things I'll throw things in that I can pop into a lunchbox.”
Home Kitchen is Skehan’s 11th cook book and his most personal to date, filled with family photographs, anecdotes and even images of his grandmother’s hand written recipes.
“The last couple of years have been tumultuous in that we moved back to Ireland and finally found a home, and I was very much trying to pull together a book that was reflective of where our family was at.
“The essence of Home Kitchen is all about celebrating, sitting down with your family at the kitchen table and sharing moments together,” explains the 37-year-old.
Skehan acknowledges that food often sparks happy memories and the discovery of his grandmother's recipe books reminded him of the important role food plays in family lives.
“She was the overarching matriarch of fantastic food and a constant source of inspiration to me. In 1970s rural Ireland she was making croissants because she found them with a cookbook - nothing stopped her trying something.”
Filled with everyday classics and new inspiring ideas discovered during his travels, as well as family-friendly recipes he has developed since becoming a father, Home Kitchen includes a number of “quick, but bursting with flavour”, pasta dishes.
One of Skehan’s favourite autumnal recipes is Autumn Pasta with Blue Cheese & Nuts, but he warns you to be selective when visiting your nearest pumpkin patch.
“Seek out smaller, sweeter pumpkins with interesting textures and skin colours; they are far more flavourful than the regular large orange ones.”
A firm favourite on our television screens, his RTÉ programme Donal’s Feast, Fasts & Festivals recently explored the lives and kitchens of people of various faiths living in Ireland.
A regular on BBC One’s Saturday Kitchen, he will be hosting a new cooking series on ITV’s This Morning in November exploring food from Texas.
As a teenager, Skehan started out in the boyband Streetwize and later supported The Pussycat Dolls as part of the Irish pop group Industry.
But food has always been his passion, even penning his first cookbook from the back of their tour bus.
I can’t resist asking if he ever contemplated combining both talents and becoming a singing chef?
“The number of people who tried to pitch a show like that was unbelievable. It never came to fruition - probably for the better,” he cringes.
Surprisingly, Skehan admits he is “an anxious cook”, especially when it comes to hosting.
“When people come over, I literally have to have it all done before they arrive so I can enjoy the experience too.
“A lot of my make-ahead recipes are ones that are really flavoursome, like a beef ragu, that benefits from slow cooking. Plus, guests are more impressed by you being unflappable than if you're trying to cook fish or a steak to order.”
When it comes to his dream dinner party guests, he’s not shy about piling on the pressure by naming some of the world’s biggest food writers - Martha Stewart, Donna Hay and Nigel Slater.
“I have no time for chefs with egos. I have much more respect and time for people who really love food.”
Autumn Pasta with Blue Cheese & Nuts
1 pumpkin or autumn squash
(about 1kg/2lb 4oz), peeled,
deseeded and sliced
3–4 sprigs of thyme
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp salted butter
2 onions, thinly sliced
350g (12oz) pasta shapes,
such as conchiglie or rigatoni
100g (3½oz) blue cheese
75g (3oz) walnuts, toasted and
Sea salt and freshly ground
Best-quality extra virgin olive oil, to
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/400°F/Gas 6.
2. Place the pumpkin on a large baking sheet with the thyme sprigs and toss in the olive oil until all the pieces are coated. Season generously with salt and pepper. Roast in the oven for 40 minutes, or until tender and caramelised at the edges. Once cooked, keep warm.
3. While the pumpkin cooks, place a large heavy-based frying pan (skillet) over a medium–high heat and add the butter. Add the onions and season generously, tossing to coat completely in the melted butter. Reduce the heat and cook gently until the onions are sweet and caramelised, about 10–15 minutes.
4. Towards the end of the pumpkin cooking time, bring a large pan of water to the boil and generously season with salt. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain and reserve a cup of the starchy cooking water for use in the sauce.
5. Increase the heat back up under the pan with the onions, then add the reserved pasta water and bring to a steady simmer. Meanwhile, mash half the cooked pumpkin and add this to the onions. Crumble in almost all of the blue cheese (keep a little
back to serve) and stir until you have a smooth, creamy sauce. Working quickly, add the pasta to the pan and stir through until completely coated.
6. Serve the pasta hot in warmed plates topped with the remaining pumpkin slices and blue cheese. Sprinkle with toasted crushed walnuts and top with a generous drizzle of the best-quality extra virgin olive oil you have to hand and a last seasoning of sea salt and black pepper.
Irish Coffee, Hazelnut & Chocolate Tiramisu
400ml (1¾ cups)
double (heavy) cream
250g (9oz) mascarpone
4 tbsp caster (superfine) sugar
75ml (⅓ cup) Baileys
300ml (1¼ cups) strong coffee
75ml (⅓ cup) whiskey
200g (7oz) savoiardi sponge fingers
100g (3½oz) hazelnuts, toasted and roughly crushed in a pestle and mortar
75g (3oz) dark chocolate, grated
1. Put the cream, mascarpone and sugar into a bowl and whisk by hand with a balloon whisk until it is thick and luscious. Whisk in the Baileys and set aside.
2. Mix the coffee and whiskey together in a shallow dish. Dip the sponge fingers into this mixture and put a layer of them into a glass serving dish. Spread over a third of the mascarpone mixture and scatter with a third of the nuts and chocolate.
3. Repeat to make two more layers, finishing with a layer of cream scattered with nuts and chocolate. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. This will keep well covered in the fridge for two to three days.
Little Kid/ Big Kid Pastina Soup
2 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed 1 carrot, finely chopped
1 courgette (zucchini), finely chopped
Pinch of chilli flakes
1 x 400g (14oz) tin cherry tomatoes
2 tsp red wine vinegar
1 litre (4 cups) fresh chicken stock
150g (5oz) pastina (stelline, orzo, conchigliette)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the basil oil
50g (2oz) basil leaves, plus a few extra to serve
5ml (⅓ cup) extra virgin olive oil, plus a drizzle more to serve
4 slices of sourdough 1 garlic clove, halved
Parmesan cheese shavings
1. First, make the basil oil. Bring a saucepan of water to the boil, then blanch the basil leaves for a few seconds before transferring to a bowl of iced water. Gently squeeze out the water, then whizz in a small food processor with the extra virgin olive oil. Leave to stand for 10 minutes before straining the oil through a fine sieve.
2. To make the soup, heat the oil in a sauté pan (skillet) over a low heat and gently fry the onion, garlic, carrot and courgette for 10–15 minutes until softened. Add the chilli flakes and cherry tomatoes, crushing the tomatoes with the back of your spoon, then add the vinegar and simmer for 10 minutes.
3. Add the stock and season well. Bring to the boil and simmer for a couple of minutes, then add the pasta and cook for 8 minutes until the pasta is just cooked. If you’re making this ahead, wait to add the pasta until you’re ready to eat.
4. While the soup is simmering, toast the sourdough and rub with the cut garlic clove, then drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil.
5. Serve the pasta soup with the garlic toast and a drizzle of the basil oil, some basil leaves and shavings of Parmesan.
Home Kitchen by Donal Skehan is published by Hodder & Stoughton and is available now.