Monday, 8 December 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Little Update

I've been so busy and tired lately that my reading life has been rather uneventful. I got all tied up with craft fairs and a bit run down so I have sat down and made a proper list so I can see what's what. 

So far I've read 8 books (mostly shorter ones) and made 7 recipes. So I still have 15 books to read and 22 recipes to make before my next birthday at the end of August. Having not had time to bake or read lately, I'm wondering if I'm a bit behind? I'm not sure, but I know I need to read more than one book each month till then, plus my monthly reading group books, not to mention all the wonderful new books just waiting for me. 

There are books on this list that I was sure I owned but actually don't, like Little Women and Secret Garden, and others I definitely have never owned but obviously need to, like Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Obviously I can borrow any books from the library at the drop of a hat, but these are all books that are well worth owning, so I have drawn up a shopping list and tried to work out the immediate priorities for what to read next. As this challenge spans a year, from August to August, I kind of want to experience some of these stories in the season they are set in. Particularly, I would like to read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the lead up to Christmas, because Christmas is such a feature of it and one of the recipes is for Turkish Delight, which is a must have Christmas treat in our family. So I have got it down from the bookshelf and I'm about to get stuck in while I rest. Also, I'm thinking that if I get on with reading Pollyanna I can rope in my strong-stomached brother to help me with the calf's foot jelly recipe while he's staying at my Mum and Dad's over Christmas. I am a little sensitive to seeing body parts, but I think I can manage it with a bit of support. Knowing him, he'll probably wave it in my face or something, but what can you do, except yell ""Muuummmm!" 

Anyway, I hope everyone is enjoying their reading at the moment. Do let me know what books are delighting you right now. 


Sunday, 23 November 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Roald Dahl's Matilda

Reading Matilda has been a joy. I'm glad this was on the list along with Danny Champion of the World, because reading the two of them has taught me that Roald Dahl had a lot of heart and fun to give. I'd always had reservations about reading his stories; as a child the little I heard about his stories didn't really make me want to read them. I think what stood out was the griminess, the gruesomeness, the vengefulness and nastiness. I assumed that even as an adult I wouldn't be keen, but I realise there is perhaps a bit of Roald Dahl for everyone. I now know that there are several very special Dahl stories just for me; Danny, The BFG and Matilda.

I loved the development of the relationship between little Matilda and her sweet teacher, Miss Honey. There was a real sense of redemption

I thought a lot of my dear sister-in-law as I read Matilda, knowing how much my brother's wife adores this book. She lives Matilda, and it's a constant friend to her. She has lost count of the times she's read it. I'll definitely be getting a copy for my own shelves and will enjoy re-reading it, especially the scenes with the library books.

I have a better appreciation of Roald Dahl, with reservations. However great his storytelling is, there are some stories I just won't enjoy.

The recipe from Matilda is of course the famous chocolate cake that the grim Miss Trunchbull forced Bruce Bogtrottter to eat in front of the whole school, and you can read about my baking of this monstosity here:

Reading Matilda also happened to coincide with Dahlicious Dress Up Day, and I found out quite by accident that one of our local primary schools was taking part, asking all their pupils to dress up as a Roald Dahl character. I couldn't waste the opportunity to have a bit of bookish fun at the library, and so we invited the school to bring a couple of classes for a visit to the library that day. We offered them the chance to come and listen to some Roald Dahl stories, do some crafts and EAT SOME CAKE! It was just fantastic. I really don't do dressing up, and I'm not a performer, BUT I love sharing stories and enthusiasm for books. So I found a plain blue dress in a charity shop, bought some white frilly ankle socks and a bit of red ribbon, and read to the kids from Matilda. There were several other very charming Matildas listening, as well as a dazzling Willy Wonka, some Oompa Lumpas, a very dashing Fantastic Mr Fox and even a couple of Mike Teevees. They loved hearing about Bruce Bogtrotter eating the enormous cake, and couldn't wait to eat the chocolate cake we had promised, courtesy of Bev in our Cafe. We had also read the intro to The Twits, hearing the details about Mr Twit's sickeningly mucky beard, and then making our own. I game them a template for a dark brown beard and moustache with they covered in scraps of tin foil sardine tails, old cheese (real for the brave and paper for the faint-hearted, and even real cornflakes. They did a grand job and all looked disgusting in their beards. It was lovely chatting with them all about books and seeing them happily munching on the cake. I had a thoroughly good time myself, and think it was probably the most fun I've had in the library so far. I have now read that cake section of the book and know it pretty well by now! "You can do it Brucie!"

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Bruce Bogtrotter's Chocolate Cake from 'Matilda'.

I needed a good excuse to make this cake as it is pretty large, and I can't put my hand on my heart and say "I need this much cake in one go" between just the two of us. Of course, my colleagues and Boss don't mind AT ALL when I bring cake to the library but the opportunity presented itself in the shape of my lovely Mum-in-law's birthday. Chocolate is ok by her. And a big cake is very celebratory. 

I was scared. Cooking a large cake makes me nervous and bad results are expected. I don't think big cakes are a great idea, because it's hard to bake them evenly. I don't like dry cake with hard edges and neither do I like underbaked gooey cake. But I went ahead and bought the worryingly large 23cm cake tin and gathered my ingredients.
I was preparing the cake when our friend Ally was here, so while we waited for our dinner to cook I got on with making the cake batter and we all shared the crucial duty of checking flavour and consistency. Aren't we diligent?
Once we knew the batter was dandy I plopped it all into the tin I'd prepared and wished it well as I placed it in the oven. 

I checked on it regularly, because, from experience I didn't trust our over not to cinder-ise it, and kept poking the cake with a skewer. Time and again it came out still too wet so I placed a tin foil hat over the whole cake to avoid any burning or too much colouring on top. Soon the skewer was coming out cleanly and the foil had protected the cake brilliantly. It all looked rather promising.

I let the cake take its time to cool off before wrapping it up for the birthday visit the next day, at which time I made the thick, dark, shining mass of chocolate icing and plastered it over and inside the cake. Now, there is a division of opinion about the presence of jam in a fruit cake. I am not a fan but Andy grew up with blackcurrant jam sticking the layers of his chocolate cakes together, so I spread jam over half the cake and arranged it on the board so I would know which half was which, and where the dividing line was.

I'm not sure this is the best ever chocolate cake I will ever make, but for a stupidly large cake it was pretty good and very tasty and Andy's parents happily went away with a large chunk of it. I'm just glad no one was forcing me to eat more than one slender slice at a time.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Katy's Paradise Picnic Pie

It was with some trepidation that I set out to make Katy's Paradise Picnic Pie.

I had, until the previous weekend, never made pastry. Mostly, due to lack of time, and also a bit of laziness. Even professional cooks are happy to buy ready-made pastry so I haven't felt too bad about it but the other day I wanted to use up some stewed apples and blackberriess to make my favourite little "Brambly Hedge Pies", individual lidded shortcrust pies, like mince pies, but filled with stewed fruit. Mum used to make them and I've always loved them so they've become a part of our household too. Anyway, I realised I didn't have any pastry in the freezer and no opportunity to pop to the shops so I thought, hold on, this is silly. I want pastry. I can have pastry. I found a baking book on our shelf and found a likely looking recipe and set to making it. I then decided it would be fun to do one big pie, as my parents were coming for dinner that night and we have a lovely enamelled pie dish that we've become rather keen on. It was surprisingly simple and quick and the resulting pie was a real success. The pastry was so tasty and nicely thin and crisp. The bottom wasn't soggy either, although I think people are far too fussy about that anyway. So, I am a new convert to the make-your-own-pastry brigade.

Days later I finished reading What Katy Did and got ready to make the pie that makes all the Carr children's fingers sticky on one of their many picnics to their "Paradise", a patch of land a little way from home, where they find a cosy little clearing between some bushes, to form a precious bower. Cramped but secret and exciting, and visited regularly by the tribe of little Carrs, lead by Katy, the eldest. Here the children while away many a Saturday or holiday, with readings of poems and stories, sometimes written themselves, and enhanced by a generous hoard of provisions, kindly prepared by Debby, one of their cooks.

The pastry for this Paradise Pie was a much shorter pastry, and more like a Rich Shortcrust pastry, with lemon juice instead of water, and an egg yoke.

While the pasty chilled and firmed up, I got on with the filling, which was an intriguing combination of two parts.

The first was a sort of sandy mixture, made up of a lot of dark soft brown sugar, a little flour and lots of lemon zest.

The second part was double cream, warmed

I'd never blind-baked a pastry tart before, but it worked out nicely.

Then the sugar mixture is added and smoothed over before pouring the cream over to fill to the top edge.

Now, here is where I hit a dilemma and realised the tart tin was not suitable. I had the right width but clearly not the right depth. There was far too much mixture, so even just the sugar mix completely filled the pastry case. I was rather disappointed as I'd been so pleased with the pastry case but I had to go with it and make the best of it so I removed some of the sugar mix to leave some depth free for the cream. I poured over as much cream as I could, but it really wasn't enough. You could see the dark brown sugar through it.

Anyway, that was the best I could do this time around so I got on with baking it and kept careful watch. The timings were completely wrecked by being too shallow a tart so I just waited til the custard-ish filling was set, and golden brown. The recipe said brown, but I think it really meant golden, so it was a bit of a judgement call.

Apart from the weird mottling from the sugar underneath it looked fairly nice. I wanted to taste it straight away but had to wait til the evening as we were heading out to some friends to dinner. Our usual contribution is to make the bread to go with the soup but we took along this oddity for pudding too.

When it was finally time to slice it up, it was pleasing that the pastry was well cooked and tasty, and a nice consistency, and cut well. Everyone liked the pie except for me. It was just so sugary and not a lot else going on. It had a very sticky-toffee-pudding type of flavour and it just wasn't wonderful to eat. Perhaps if I'd been advised to use a deeper dish and I had been able to pour in a nice load of the cream, there would have been much more of the custard to counteract the brown sugar, but hey ho. I've learned a bit more about pastry and recipes and since then I've baked two rather nice Tarte au Citron, and had more practice at the timings for blind baking and what to look for. I've also learned from several books that recipes books are often vague or actually just wrong. But I have to say, that the me before this challenge would never have thought of making a pastry tart, let alone bothering to actually do it.

I love the idea of a celebratory pie, but this is not really the pie for me and although some part of me would like to bake it again to prove that I can make a better job of it I'm not sure it's worth it.

I'm glad to have done it. I'm glad to be a pastry-maker. I went and bought a book about pastry and have since made pastry several times and will not be afraid of it again.

Maybe I should decide on my own filling and start a new tradition of picnic pies. I loved reading What Katy Did, and I love picnics.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading What Katy Did, by Susan M Coolidge, and a few extraneous wafflings.

My copy of What Katy Did, but not my original
copy, and I'm not a fan of the cover, but looking
online I can't find any covers I do like.
Katy could do with a stylish new look. 
Happily, for once, I can say that I have already read the Katy books, unlike many other books in this wonderful list. So you can stop worrying that I never read anything as a child. I did read things. Lots of things actually. But not the same selection of things as you, or maybe as most people. I love that we will all hold different, particluar books dear, a unique selection of books that have been part of our lives, that overlap with other people's selections, but aren't a duplicate. There are books that I have loved forever that most people have never heard of, let alone read. And there are books I haven't yet experienced that most people will have read yonks ago. But I don't really think that it's ever too late to discover and enjoy a children's book. Great children's books are a joy for anyone who is sensible enough to let themselves enjoy them. As a child I shunned Winnie the Pooh, Swalllows and Amazons and The Narnia Chronicles. At age 18 I thoroughly enjoyed them and will read them again and again.

As an example, (skip this indulgent paragraph if you want to get straight to Katy, sorry), my fine Mummy and I have always loved Tales from the End Cottage, by Eileen Bell. There are a couple of volumes, and our worn, paperback copies came from a jumble sale originally, I believe. They were read countless times, at bedtimes. Each chapter was a separate little story so a couple of these, or as many as I could persuade out of Mum, were ideal for bedtimes.

A reassuring sight in any puffin book - if it's edited by
Kaye Webb, you're most likely in for a treat. Look out for her
name in the front of puffins when you're in a charity shop. 
After I got married and made my own home, Mum bought me my own copies, which I promptly spilled orange juice over, but I have them; forever comfortingly on my bookshelf. I was SO thrilled the other day when I was out walking with a dear friend, who came into my life in the last couple of years. We were chatting about books, as we often do, and she said that when she was younger her family kept chickens. Then she said an almost miraculous and rather tentative statement. "I doubt you'll have ever heard of these stories, but they were about this old lady who lived in a cottage with her dogs and cats and she was called Mrs Apple." The whoop I  let out rather surprised the couple just passing us but I couldn't help it. Sarah, dear Sarah is the first person I have ever encountered who knows these stories and it is just too lovely to be restrained about! Mrs Apple is the most comfortable lady in the world, round and wrinkled, and forever popping a pie in the oven or sitting by the fire, or feeding her chickens, surrounded by her Pekinese dogs and her striped cats. Tales from the End Cottage is a tonic for the giddy rush of today's world. It is pure, unspoiled homely comfort weaved into throughly absorbing little stories, which even my lovely nephew who loves Power Rangers and Digimon, will happily curl up like a dormouse and nestle into its loveliness.

Now, as for Katy, who I have so rudely negelected in my witterings; it was so lovely to get to know her again. I don't know when I first read What Katy Did, or the two sequels What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next, but I must have read the first one more than once because as I read it, it was so vividly familiar. I really enjoyed it and was desperate to get back to it whenever I had to put it down again. What I hadn't remembered about it was that the writing is really zingy and, for an older book, rather dryly hilarious. The story made me titter, guffaw and weep at various points, and I was sorry to have finished it. I actually miss the characters, and find myself thinking about them still, as I'm going about my day. Susan M Coolidge places you in the centre of a full and busy household and introudces you to everyone living there, giving you a wonderful viewpoint over all that happens, as children race about trying to find their shoes before school, and entertain themselves with raucous games at weekends, and savour every tasty morsel that comes their way.  One such yumminess is Katy's Paradise Pie, which I am due to show you in the next blog post, and which forms a very special part of one of their epic picnics in their private bower. They are very generously catered for on such occasions, by their kind cook, with long lists of treats, mostly very American and nonsensical. Then their meals at home are often very plain and stark, even for Sunday lunch. I had to look up the word Biscuit, as it kept appearing, in the singular, on its own, not "a biscuit" but just "biscuit" on its own. It appears to be some sort of cake, but I wonder about lots of the other things like ham between biscuits. Odd, but intriguing.

Many people might think of What Katy Did as a bit preachy or too obviously trying to teach a lesson or give a message. But I think you'd really miss out if that's your preconception of it. Yes, Katy goes through many trials and one particular experience which shapes her as a person, and yes, I guess the writer is hoping to show the reader the importance of the lessons which Katy learns, but is that a problem? Assessing life and how you live yours is not exclusive to morality tales; many modern novels take you and shake you up and deposit you, not always gently, in a different place to where you started from. And I think that despite the obvious lessons learned by Katy, the journey for her, and for the reader is a heartfelt one, full of compassion and sensitivity and not dry or dreary. I personally found the whole transformation of Katy very profound and a wonderful reminder of how to be good and kind, and how to think of others, and how to always "make the best of something." What Katy Did is not soppy, is not dry, but is a dear story that gives us a very generous insight into what bravery and love is really like. Katy is a wonderful character and as you read about her you will will her on and not be content to leave her on the last page, but to go merrily on, following her doings wherever she goes.

Without this challenge, I'm not sure when I would have picked up What Katy Did again. This is why I am so, so enjoying the Fictional Food Adventure. It really is a wonderful opportunity. And it's changed my cooking life too, as you'll see when I make Katy's Paradise Pie. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Pippi Longstocking's Heart-Shaped Ginger Snap Biscuits

Astrid Lindgren's stories about Pippi Longstocking are so full of lovely food that her books inspired 3 recipes in 'Turkish Delight and Treasure Hunts'. As I have already made her big cream cake, I decided that a quiet kitchen-Sunday was the ideal time to try out her Ginger Snap biscuits. Andy and I had enjoyed a busy Saturday out visiting family and had set Sunday aside for being at home. With Autumn showing its dear face once again I am embracing my favourite season by stocking up the freezer with soups and stew, so we were in the kitchen all day, chopping and stirring and surrounded by happily bubbling pots and pans.

Thanks to Andy's new interest in spices, we had all the ingredients ready to make these biscuits, including really proper Maple Syrup, which we had ever since we got interested in Canadian pancakes.

I wasn't too sure about adding all the spices, as I am not a fan of cinnamon or cloves, as they are usually overwhelming. But I remained faithful to the recipe and Andy kindly ground up the cloves and opened up some Cardamom pods to grind the little black seeds. I love Cardamom. I feel so cosy and refreshed whenever I smell it. It's like the spice equivalent of Lemon. The recipe also included ginger, of course, but not very much, so I was intrigued to see how they'd taste.

The recipe was fairly simple. melting down sugar, syrup and spices on the hob before stirring in butter and then all the flour. The dough ended up quite dry (I'm wondering about leaving out a handful of flour next time) and the recipe says to leave it to cool in the fridge for two hours, so I went off and read the most emotional part of What Katy Did and went back to the dough later.

I was surprised at how hard the dough was, but after it has softened a little I got on with rolling it out. The recipe says to roll it 'very thin'. Now, how am I supposed to know what that is? I rolled it as thin as seemed sensible and got on with cutting out the heart shapes. My cutter is pitifully blunt but I got there in the end, and one tray went into the hot oven to bake while I rolled and cut some more. I have to say I didn't fully embrace the Pippi-esque way of rolling out biscuit dough - on the kitchen floor. She has a mad flurry of biscuit making and whizzes off about 500 biscuits in no time at all, rolling them out on her kitchen floor as there's more room down there. However, our kitchen floor is mostly filled with a carpet rug and the bits of tile that aren't covered are uneven, pitted and grouted, and even when regularly cleaned, prone to just a few cat hairs. We haven't got a lot of work space in our kitchen either, having an enormous hearth oven, two big windows, stairs, and three doors coming off the room, leaving not many free walls to attach low cupboards to. So it was a bit slow, the rolling and cutting but I got there in the end and the biscuits are very quick to bake - about 6-8 minutes. I should probably have taken them out a bit earlier than I did, as the edges did brown a bit and I think they are meant to be pale all over. However, they cooled and quickly hardened to a satisfyingly crunchy bite, not too brittle or hard, and they definitely snap when you break them. I think next time, I would try to bake them a little less and maybe a fraction thinner, but it's all a bit of a trial and error.

Oh, the FLAVOUR! I almost forgot! They are DELICIOUS! I've made plenty of batches of ginger biscuits and ginger nuts before which simply have loads of ginger in. But these are something special. They are so subtle and tasty. No one spice rules, they all blend to make a wonderful, warming, soft spiciness that, once you have munched you will need to pick up another, and another.

I took them all into work the next morning, and my lovely colleagues helped me to devour them.

The only other change I'd make is that I might not bother fridging the dough. It never fully softened and was a bit tricky to roll out, breaking up at the edges a lot. I had two other balls of dough that I left in the fridge overnight (the recipe says to divide the dough into 3, as it's too much to roll out in one go.) When I got the dough out the next day, even hours later, it was solid as a rock, so I carved slices off with a knife and laid these thin slabs on the baking sheet rather than throw it all away. They baked fine, but it was rather disappointing not to be able to work with the dough properly.

I know I'll be making these again though, because they are easy, no faff, and completely yummy. I don't know how true they are to a Swedish ginger biscuit, but they are good and with the lovely mix of ginger, cinnamon, cloves and cardamom, you can believe they are intrinsically Swedish.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Danny's Marvellous Father's Marvellous Toad-in-the-hole.

Toad-in-the-Hole. What an adventure. Despite loving this dish, we have avoided cooking it since our one and only failed attempt several years ago. We had used a recipe by a certain lady-cook whose name rhymes with Celia, and we were so bitterly disappointed with the result. It came out as a flat biscuit and we didn't really understand why.

The lovely thing about this Fictional Food Adventure is that it's challenging me to try things I may have otherwise avoided. I'm already thinking more about what we cook, and relishing the time in the kitchen more. I'm excited about attempting new things and playing around with recipes.

So, after a busy week, Andy and I went out on a Saturday afternoon to buy some sausages for our second-ever Toad-in-the-Hole. Despite being my own challenge, it's lovely having Andy's support, and it was really nice to share the preparations, with the cats swirling round our feet like little reef sharks.

Andy fried the sausages gently on the stove to brown, and chopped the onions for our Onion Gravy (another first) while I mixed the batter. Halfway through adding the milk I heard a little trimphant cry fro Andy as he unwrapped the sausages and found that they were still strung together. I held my phone up to snap my happy man, and just after the photo blipped onto my screen my phone started ringing. It was our very dearest of friends, a friend who fits into our life in the snuggest and easiest way. Even if we're tired, we don't have to feel sociable to see Ally. She is a part of our home now, and she knows there's always a cup of tea waiting, and two cats to stroke. So when I picked up the phone and found out she was just coming to the end of some shopping in a nearby town, my immediate question was "Are you coming our way?" We had a very tricky conversation where I couldn't really hear anything she was saying and her phone turned off halfway through but managed to yell at her to grab some veggie sausages and extra milk as we were running out and she is not a meat-eater. A little while later, some extra batter was being stirred, and Ally arrived with her sausages and milk and we got the dinner well on its way. We followed the advice of our neighbour who stressed that we must use a metal pan, and it must be hot as hot.

Once it was all shut safely in the oven, we sprawled around the kitchen, mostly talking about shoes. I'd got a pair of exceedingly comfy size 9s in our favourite charity shop that afternoon, as well as an unlikely pair of brand new high heels, egged on by Andy who said I should buy them 'just in case!' And Ally was contemplating some new shoes to go with a new dress for a friends wedding.  While the onion gravy bubbled along on the hob we chatted and laughed and took turns in the two armchairs while pootling about with spoons and jugs.

We had a bit of trouble gauging whether the batter was cooked as we weren't allowed to open the oven during the cooking, and the high sides of the dishes made it hard to see through the glass but Andy had a good go shining his phone-torch in on it. We gave it the time our recipe advised and eventually decided to take them out.

This was the rather sorry sight that met our eyes. We'd been worried it wouldn't be cooked through, but the over-browned, brittle, husk of a surface hid a dense and stodgy layer of batter that, despite not being light and fluffy, was cooked and tasty! The onion gravy was thick and delicious and actually perfect, but we could have done with more of it! We served it all with a pile of steaming bright green peas and settled down to stuff our faces with our far from dream-come-true Toad in the Hole dinner.

Ally was very kind and told us that hers usually ends up flat and stodgy and we had a good laugh about it. We worked out that our main mistake seemed to have been that we poured the batter in too deep. We determined to try again soon and not be put off so easily as last time. I could have waited til a day when we have perfected the fine art of Toad-in-the-Hole and then share my results, but I thought you'd rather see this. This was an experience. A joyful one, with the unexpected bonus of a vegetarian alternative and a spontaneous shared evening with a friend. I wouldn't have swapped it for anything.  I only admire Danny's "Marvellous Father" even more for being able to cook a good Toad-in-the-Hole.

As Danny says at the end of the book, "Because what I am trying to tell you ... What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvellous and exciting father any boy ever had."

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Danny Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Danny Champion of the World is another classic that I never read as a child. I asked my Mum, the other day, if she and Dad had read it to my older brother Joe and whether they liked it. Mum assured me that it was a firm favourite with all three of them. With four years between us, my brother and I didn't usually share bedtimes so I somehow missed out on this story. It was probably another example of my stubbornness as a child. I often asked for something to read but was not satisfied with Mum's suggestions for the books on our shelves. Based on the titles, I made assumptions about the stories and dismissed them time and again. I only finally read Winnie the Pooh, Swallows and Amazons and The Chronicles of Narnia at age 18. And oh, how I adored them all. Sorry Mum. Hard work, wasn't I? Well, I wish I had been more open back then, for maybe now Danny Champion of the World would be part of my childhood memories.

Instead, I first read it now, at age 30. And yes, of course, I love it. I borrowed it from the library but as soon as I finished it I bought my own copy as, surely, every home needs a copy on its shelves.

This book is unique among Roald Dahl's collection, telling a simple story of a marvellous father and the sweet son who wholeheartedly adores him, and the life they live and love.

I loved hearing about the caravan where Danny and his father live, and their garage workshop, and their devotion to each other. About their dented cutlery and daily long walks to and from school together. About their conversations, and Danny's questions, and his father's responses, and their bedtime stories.

When Danny's father finally decides to invest in an electric oven, to roast chicken and lamb and pork, it is Danny who requests that they make Toad-in-the-hole, as his father loves it so much, just like his Old Mum used to make. He even describes how he's going to do it.

I'll be sharing my own experience with this simple yet troublesome dish next time,  I haven't eaten it since before we were married because, we tried once and it failed utterly. It was a flat biscuit and a huge disappointment. But we love eating it so looking forward to having another go.

Danny Champion of the World is sitting happily in my own bookshelf now. It's never too late to discover a great read and cherish it forever more.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Campfire Cocoa from The Secret of Spiggy Holes

I've been looking forward to trying this Cocoa, especially as it includes EVAPORATED MILK.

I like the idea of Hot Chocolate, but in reality I find it sickly and have stopped ever drinking it at cafes or at home. This is good old-fashioned Cocoa, from before we got all trendy with Costa and Starbucks and decided that every Hot Chocolate must be bedecked with cream, marshmallows and a fine dusting of sweetened chocolate powder.

This is the Cocoa that our Mums and Dads used to make, and had made for them and which has been cherished by many generations gone by.

If you'd like to make it yourself, it's very simple and you don't need a recipe, it's just about finding what works best for you. Some people like to make a cocoa paste with a little water in a pan then slowly stir in the milk. This way is just plopping the cocoa powder in the bottom of each mug, two heaped teaspoons per person. Then you pour on boiling water, slowly, stirring as you go. Leave some room at the top for evaporated milk, or normal milk, or cream or any non-dairy alternative. Stir in a good teaspoon of sugar, to taste, and enjoy while hot, preferably in the open air or round a fire. 

I love evaporated milk, and the real advantage of this ingredient is that you don't have to keep it cool or fresh. The children in the Spiggy Holes story were staying on a little island so this tinned milk was a real asset.  I like that fact that the drink isn't too thick, and I think I'll be drinking more of it now that I've got over the idea that it has to be rich. I also had a play, adding spices to the cocoa. I added about a third of a teaspoon of ginger before adding the water, and it gave an extra warming kick. I think it could also be nice with some cardamom or cinnamon, or a combination. Perhaps some orange zest! 

Andy and I enjoyed ours after an afternoon of baking, sitting in the armchairs in our kitchen, but I think it would be much more welcome drunk outside. I can picture my friends with allotments filling a few flasks with this to accompany them on a fresh autumnal morning or cold spring afternoon to warm their veins. Good stuff!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading The Secret of Spiggy Holes

 I've loved rediscovering the 'Secret' series by Enid Blyton. 

After reading about the Campfire Cocoa described by Jane Brocket in Turkish Delight and Treasure Hunts, I ordered the featured story, The Secret of Spiggy Holes from my library. I hadn't paid close attention to the title itself, and sort of assumed it was going to be a Famous Five tale and confess that the prospect of reading it wasn't especially thrilling.  Prepare to gasp - I never read any Famous Five stories as a child! However, I did enjoy reading many Enid Blyton's as I grew up - the Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair stories lived at my Nanny and Grandad's house and I have a very clear memory of a particular visit when I was there on my own. I felt very independent and grown up because Nanny got me out a folding garden chair, (with a cheerily bold floral pattern on) and set it out in her sunny little front yard for me. I sat there feeling safe and happy while she probably baked something yummy or cooked dinner - (I LOVED her skinned sausages rolled in flour and fried, served with her home-made flat chips). I was shielded by some brick walls which seemed tall to me at the time, but able to look through a wide gap to the colourful bed below the kitchen window, and in through Nanny's open front door. I was given the choice of some books to read and I remember so clearly sitting there in the sunshine, immersed in the stories about the Faraway tree.

Another clear Enid Blyton memory is of me sprawling on my bed and my Mum arriving home with a pile of books for me from the library. We lived at the top of a hill outside the village and our little library was at the bottom of the hill. I loathed walking and I loathed heat, so I'm going to assume that it was the summer and that my Mum was being kind in not making me exert myself in the heat.I had to walk up that hill every day after school!  I don't really know why else I wouldn't have gone to the library with her, but I remember that particular stash of books and I love my Mum for the variety it held. There was something really exciting about receiving surprise books. There was a story about three sisters, being raised by very strict parents who refused to embrace modern day living. And there was a Secret book by Enid Blyton. It was this one. The Secret Mountain.

I had never heard of it before but  I launched into it and I remember loving the adventurous feel. I think sometimes I was a very foolish child, because I did not ask for more books in this series - I just enjoyed this one and left it at that. I was probably too busy daydreaming. Anyway, there were more. There were six.
 A few years ago, I think I found the same edition in a charity shop and bought it jubilantly.  I then collected some of the others in the series, buying some nice Armada paperbacks on ebay. I have a soft spot for Armada paperbacks. They are instantly recognisable. There's a certain era when they seemed to use the
same illustrator for the Pullein-Thomspson sisters, for the Monica Edwards pony books, and lots of other ripping yarns besides. When I see one I get instantly excited.

So I chose Armada versions of the Secret series because I was so pleased to find that they existed. And despite loving those covers, there is something more resonant in the version I first encountered, sometime in the mid-nineties. A period of fairly uninviting design. Some of the worst book design in the history of books, perhaps. The book cover on The Secret Mountain was not beautiful and it's really horribly cartoonish but I still equate it with the spirit of adventure, because that was how I was introduced to the story. If I'd first seen the next or previous edition then that would be my special version. The version I got through the library this
time was a completely different publication, and a quick Google search reveals many more designs for the same title. I think that's the illuminating thing - these books have been repackaged and presented again and again for each new generation. The story deserves to be read and it's still here for the children of today, whether they buy a brand new current edition, or happen across a ragged old copy in a jumble sale or charity shop, or pick up the copy on their Grandmas's shelves.  That cover will stay with them and will sit side by side with the memories of the story, and perhaps, the memories of where they read it too.

When The Secret of Spiggy Holes arrived at the library the other day, the surprise was both a delight and a relief. I WILL read a Famous Five book, I promise, but it was a real treat to be reacquainted with Peggy, Jack, Mike and Nora, and embark on one of their adventures. I did rather race through it and was keen to reach the Cocoa moment, but the story was a good'un, with some exciting twists and turns. Cocoa kept occurring but THE actual Cocoa-making is quite late in the book. Now, Enid Blyton is a great one for writing about food and her heroes are forever tucking into wonderful picnics and midnight feasts, snacks and high-teas, but I think if you counted up all the food mentions in all her many stories, The Secret of Spiggy Holes has got to win. These kids must have had worms! They are ALWAYS hungry and ALWAYS eating. I don't know how they had time to get into any adventures!

Despite having finished the book now, I still feel in the mood for these adventures so I'm definitely going to embrace a bit of E.B whenever I get the chance, and now I can happily make the Campfire Cocoa, knowing just how welcome it would be when you're out of doors at night and needing a warm, full, tummy. Stay posted for cosy Cocoa.