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.