Sunday, 26 April 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Chitty Chitty Bang Bang by Ian Fleming

Well, it's highly likely that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang will be the only book of Ian Fleming's that I will ever read. The only things this story shares with his novels about James Bond are food, adventure, and cars. The fact that 007's creator wrote this story has always slightly amused me. I mean, where did it come from? He never wrote any more books about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or any other children's books. The series however, has now been developed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, fabulous author of Millions, Framed, Cosmic and more. 

I wonder what Ian Fleming enjoyed writing about more, the magical motor or the slick spy? I did enjoy a few of the more dated Bond films when I was younger. Our family favourites were The Living Daylights and License to Kill, both of which starred Timothy Dalton, who has (in the Wrigley's most humble opinions, never been improved upon.) What could be a better action scene than he and a lady cellist hurtling down a snow-covered mountain side to escape the villains, riding her open cello case as a twin-sled and using the cello to steer and fend off bullets. I'd have been very happy if James had married that sweet cellist but alas, as he is not the settling down type, it was not to be. And yes, I do know the back story to his womanising but I still don't like his habits. And the newer Bond films feature so much cruelty and nastiness that I can't watch them. 

Andy has very sweetly read Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to me, and it's produced many a grin from us both. Its language and phrasing is rather dated, but it's a great read. If you have only seen the film, you may think you know this story, but the filmmakers were obviously only inspired by the one idea of the book, rather than the plot itself. They even did away with the children's natural mother to introduce the romance with Truly Scrumptious. Andy used to love that film when he was younger, and saw it many times. I only saw moments of it and don't know it well at all. I've bought the dvd as a treat for finishing the book, so we're just about to settle down to it's musical fancy brilliance. But it's been fun discovering the real CCBB. It's very charming, and good fun. And it features a very enticing picnic including lots of bottles of lemonade and squash, sausages, hardboiled eggs, bread and butter sandwiches aaaaannd .... Jam Puffs! 

Picnics are one of my most favourite things in the world and no picnic is really complete without sausages. We'll soon discover whether Jam Puffs are as indispensable, won't we! I'll be making some soon, so stay posted. And I might need help eating them all. Anyone?

By the way, for my loyal followers, you'll be pleased to know that I'm on track to complete my challenge because I'm now over halfway through the list of books. I have read 12, with 3 on the go currently and 7 still to go. On the recipes side of things, I have made 17 things,12 still to go. So I am getting there, and feeling spurred on. 

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Ma's Hand-sweetened Cornbread from The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Unlike the Ingalls family, who eat Cornbread on a daily basis, I have never before eaten the stuff. I've never even seen it close to. Here in England, I think not many of us are familiar with it unless we've visited Canada or America, or have friends with Cornbread heritage who have shared their Thanksgiving meal traditions.

I didn't know what it would taste like, or what the texture would be like. I spoke with a friend who has made Cornbread many times from a typical Canadian packet mix, and she said it's great warm, spread with butter. I knew that it's a good accompaniment for stews and roasts so the day I made it was a day when we were heading over to Mum and Dad's for roast pork, when my brother, sister-in-law and nephew were staying after Easter. I knew Andy and I couldn't manage the whole loaf on our own, but we didn't get much help from my brother's family as none of them eat wheat. The recipe is half and half plain flour and cornmeal so they couldn't have any. 

The recipe included a bit of natural yoghurt and milk, an egg, butter, salt, bicarb and baking powder.  You start by heating the milk in a pan, then taking it off the heat to let the butter melt in. Meanwhile, all the dry ingredients are mixed in a large bowl, ready to pour in the mixture of buttery milk, egg and yoghurt. It's very easy to mix it all up, and it produces a unique sort of dough/batter. Not quite cakey. Not quite bready. Not even quite sconey. A sort of damp but not sticky, yellowy dough. The recipe instructs to use a round cake tin to bake the cornbread in, but Ma doesn't use a tin, and I think that if I'd wanted to, the dough was dry enough to pat into individual flat loaves like Ma does:

"Ma made the cornmeal and water into two thin loaves, each shaped in a half circle. She laid the loaves with their straight sides together in the bake-oven, and she pressed her hand flat on top of each loaf. Pa always said he did not ask any other sweetening, when Ma put the prints of her hands on the loaves."
Cornbread is such a comforting presence in The Little House on the Prairie. They eat it so often, and always seem to relish it. At the time, they had not yet sown or reaped any of their own crops so their meals are very simple and sparse.

Their days are very full and active, so I suppose they were always ready for their meals when the time came, however plain or repetitive they may be. As a reader, you never tire of hearing about Ma preparing supper, mixing up the cornbread time after time. So I really, really wanted to like cornbread myself. I wish I could say that I like it, but I'm afraid I just can't. I had a slice of mine, still warm and spread with butter. It was odd. Sort of grainy and tasting faintly of sweetcorn, and very salty. I didn't eat any at dinner - I was too intent on helping Oscar finish his delicious pork, but Mum and Dad tried a bit, sloshed with dark gravy. 

It was fun to make, and interesting to taste, but I'm just not sure Cornbread is for me. My friend Helen has offered to gather some of the best recipes for it from her Canadian friends, and it would be intriguing to see how they compare, but I think I'm mostly just not a fan of the texture of polenta (cornmeal). I would gladly eat bread, or cheesy dumplings, with a big meal, but the thought of tasting the Cornmeal again kind of turns my stomach. Andy isn't a fan either. But it won't change my enjoyment of the fictional Cornbread - I will picture it as soft and tasty as ever.

PS Since writing this post, my friend who knows lots of Canadians has recommended not using coarse polenta but using coarse Cornmeal, which is, after all, different from polenta.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Fictional food Adventure: Reading Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Reading the Little House on the Prairie has been a great joy. It's been a wonderful escape. Every time I open it to read again, I am swept onto the wide open prairie. Surrounded by blowing grasses, an enormous, open sky, the twitterings of birds and clicking of insects, and a feeling of calm. A rich, expansive ocean of unspoilt nature. Although I love hills and trees, there is something about this landscape that makes me just want to dive in and run as far as I can, to twirl with my arms open wide and to lie back under the blue canopy. When I am reading this book, I am lost to the many enclosing walls, narrow streets, cars and higgledy-piggledy town I live in. The space pervades my soul and I am almost as free as if I were actually there. Laura Ingalls Wilder writes beautifully about the weather, and the sights and sounds of the prairie. 

The nature of these books is to describe processes in great detail. This was the case in the first one, The Little House in the Big Woods, but even more so in this book. The family have to build a whole house from scratch. And a stable, and dig a well, and make furniture. I love hearing the minute details of Pa's endeavours to create their log cabin; how he shapes the logs to interlock, how he builds and lines the chimney, how he splits and trims the logs to lay floorboards smooth enough for "little bare feet to run upon", how he makes and hangs the big door and fashions hinges and a latch-key. You can almost hear the thud of his axe. 

A real treat, reading under an
enormous Oak tree, in the April
sunshine, sitting on a wonderful
wooden swing.
Laura's parents rise to every challenge and seem to know exactly what to do in every circumstance - a prairie fire, rampaging wolves, all sorts of alarming situations.

It's also interesting seeing how they parented their young girls, with lots of love and care, but with a strict discipline. The children learn that to disobey, in some cases, could mean the difference between life and death, when such danger surrounds them. During their journey in the wagon, there is a moment when all of a sudden Ma's voice, usually gentle and calm, becomes stern. The girls all pay attention instantly and quickly do whatever she says because they recognise that it's important. I thought about how so many of us are quick to sound annoyed at small things, so how are children to know the difference when something really matters. I like the fact that it was rare for Ma to sound that way, and that when she did, it was with good reason. 

The story is full of sounds; the cry of wolves and Indians, Skylarks, Prairie hens, Pa's fiddle playing in the evenings, the gentle breeze through the grasses, the strong howling wind round the house, the sad songs of passing cowboys and the wild jamborees of the Indians.

The family ate very simply. They had no fresh vegetables, and relied on meat and bread and beans. There were berries, fresh and dried, and milk from their cow. But not a lot else. Cornbread is their staple diet, along with whatever Pa has been able to shoot; rabbit, chickens, deer, turkey. Laura shares a tin cup with her sister Mary, until a special Christmas day when Santa Claus brings them one each. Their delight in this gift is amazing. Something we take so for granted; a choice of many mugs and glasses. Yet, just having one to herself was felt to be a wonderful luxury and a great treat.

I was so much enjoying their life on the Prairie yet I knew they wouldn't be there forever because the next book is entitled On the Banks of Plum Creek. Despite knowing this, it still shocked me when they made a very sudden decision to leave it all behind. Their wonderful, handbuilt home and the wide open prairie. I miss it. But I will follow them into their next adventure and beyond, and I wonder if Cornbread will still form such a part of their diet when they are living in a town. I've never made it, or eaten it before, so keep a look out for my Cornbread soon. 

Monday, 6 April 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Bad Harry's Birthday Trifle from My Naughty Little Sister at the Party by Dorothy Edwards

About a week ago I succumbed to popping into one of our Cullompton charity shops as I walked home at lunchtime and found, to my utter delight, that one of their shelves was groaning under the weight of an array of moulded glass items, from little lidded pots and dainty perfume bottles with cut glass stoppers, to a huge fluted bowl. I got a bit over-excited and decided I needed these three items and took them to the counter, where they gave me a discount for buying lots in one go, which is rare in a charity shop these days but very much appreciated. The little glass perfume bottle was an instant present for our friends Helen and Mike who have just redecorated their bathroom in an elegant Victorian theme, and I thought this would sit happily on their windowsill. The small, lidded pot is yet to find its use, but the large bowl promised to be helpful for all manner of things and seemed ideal for a trifle. I did not already possess any vessel suitable for containing such a pudding, having never set about making a trifle before. Which, actually, is very witless of me because I adore trifle. My Mum makes a stonking Mocha Trifle, which I have now determined to make. 

So after having read about Bad Harry's Birthday Trifle, I was very pleased to make it myself, on the very weekend that we had a long-standing appointment for afternoon tea with our lovely friends the Nichols family. I phoned first to check that the trifle would be welcomed and heard a joyous little squeal from Claire, who said she loves trifle but only makes it on her birthday as the rest of the family don't really like it. 

That same evening, which was a Saturday, I got myself a head start so that the jelly would be set in time for the following afternoon. I used almost two packs of trifle sponges, instead of one, as it is a large bow and I wanted it to end up full to the brim. I soaked it in the lovely tangy raspberry syrup from the two tins of raspberries and made up the raspberry jelly to pour over it all, after the pulpy raspberries themselves. Then I fridged it, hoping the jelly would set nicely despite how much the sponges were already soaked. 

The next day I was relieved to find that all was well with the trifle and made some custard on the hob. We always have packets of instant custard (just add hot water) in the dresser AT ALL TIMES because you don't ever want to be stranded with no custard, but it's not quite the same as when you make it from the normal powder. I LOVE custard, and always feel that trifles could do with bit more of it, so I made a double portion, and made it a little thicker than the packet's advice as I wanted it to be nicely set. I didn't double the amount of cream because although I find it delicious, I also find it easily makes me queasy so my ammended proportions allowed for that. 

Once the cream was spread relatively evenly, I placed the Jelly Babies on top. Bad Harry's trifle had lots of red, green and yellow sweeties on, so the Jelly Babies seemed like a faithful choice. I then sprinkled on the finishing touches of silver balls and Hundreds and Thousands. Again, this was only in order to be true to the My Naughty Little Sister experience because otherwise why would you put something tiny and hard on top of smooth cream, only to have it jar against your tooth as you devour it? If I made it again, I would do everything exactly the same except for the topping. I would like plenty of fresh raspberries and a dusting of flaked chocolate ideally. 

The moment it was ready we had to dash to our car down the road as we were running a little late, but it is not easy to dash when one of you is carrying a two-tonne trifle in a heavy glass bowl and the other is carrying a plateful of light pastry puffs and the wind is blowing a gale. As we made our way along the pavement a lady passed by and as she drew near she locked her eyes onto the sight of our brightly decorated trifle and pouted her lips into a pointy "Oooh," and said "Yummy!" with a cheery smile as she hurried on. Andy then asked me the question he always asks me after people have greeted me when we're out about  - "Do you know her?" And for once I said "No!" Usually when I exchange hellos with people that Andy is not acquainted with it's because I know them from the library.

Eventually, after a few alarming gear changes and twists in the road, we (and the trifle) arrived at the Nichols household and settled in for a very nourishingly friendly time with them all. Claire was a fan of my glass bowl and showed me her collection of lovely glass vases and sweetie dishes. At teatime we all sat around to a wonderful high tea of Claire's homemade bread rolls, scones, Victoria sponge and my new favourite Apricot jam puffs.

The boys, Simon and James, had long awaited the trifle during the meal and tucked in with gusto. The trifle refusers, Matthew and Ruth enjoyed their portion of Jelly Babies and I loved my very custardy pudding. The serving spoons were cleaned very thoroughly by the boys at the end of the meal, and I filled a Pirex bowl with as much trifle as I could, to leave for Claire and the boys to eat on another day. Simon and James were most intrigued as to what I would do with the rest of the trifle, as was I, as there was still well over half of it left. 

Fortunately, a friend who needed to come around to borrow our maps of the Lake District the next day ended up having dinner with us so she was able to assist a little with the epic leftovers. 

It turned out that the lady stranger in the street wasn't the only person I didn't know who was delighted by this big, colourful trifle. When we got home from the Nichols' house and I turned my phone on I found that lovely Claire had chosen the photo of me and my trifle as her photo of the day (365 photo challenge on facebook) and that a host of her friends had typed a flurry of delightful Oohing and Aahhing comments beneath it. It was fun to see how many people love trifle and who were excited by the Jelly Babies and the immensity of the trifle.  I've added the string of comments here, as they were such a fun little encouragement at the end of a lovely day.

I'm glad to say that I was wise enough not to indulge in seconds and was just comfortably full, which is more than can be said for Bad Harry and My Naughtly Little Sister who ate so much in one go that they were very sick and never liked trifle again after that day. 

  • Rachael Barrett That is an amazing trifle. Was it really as big as it looks in the picture?
    2 hrs · Unlike · 3
  • Claire Nichols Rachael Barrett it was ENORMOUS! Those are jelly babies on the top  I love trifle, its my best ever pudding but most of the Nichols family detest it, so I never get to eat it (unless I make it for myself which is a bit piggy!!)
    2 hrs · Like · 2
  • Rachael Barrett Susie Tyler, will you be my new best friend and come to tea please (with a trifle)? Cream, custard and jelly with an extra bonus of sweets on top, what's not to like?
    2 hrs · Unlike · 3
  • Laura Haystaff Errr cor! TRIFLE!
    1 hr · Like · 2
  • Jennie Langdale Wooah, trifle with jelly babies? Why have I never thought of that?
    1 hr · Like · 1
  • Rachael Barrett Jennie Langdale, it's got silver balls and sprinkles on the top too, amazing!
    1 hr · Like · 1
  • Jo Burraston Yummy looking trifle!! 
    31 mins · Edited · Like · 1
  • Susie Tyler He he, it's funny to see everyone getting so excited about trifle. I've never made one before but it's so easy, anyone can make one whenever they feel like it. And put anything they like on top! Rachael Barrett, if only I'd known. There was a LOT left over!!!
    1 hr · Like · 2
  • Jennie Langdale It is truly epic. My past efforts are nothing in comparison, I will be sure to add sprinkles, silver balls and jelly babies to my next attempt.
    1 hr · Like · 2
  • Mags Keysell Awesome! Susie you must make the epic chocolate cake from Matilda!