Sunday, 31 May 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Debby's Jumbles from What Katy Did at School by Susan M. Coolidge

Well, it's the good old creaming method again for this one. I am getting better at it, I think, but not any more of a fan of it!

This dough is very similar to the dough for Mary Poppins Jam Cakes, and is really simple to make. It produced a very wet, sticky dough, so I was very generous with the flour when forming my rings. I divided up the dough into about 15 rough balls, and got my hands floury, to roll them into long 'worms' which I then made into rings, squeezing the ends together firmly. It was very squidgy and felt like flumps under my hands. These went onto a baking tray and were brushed with milk and sprinkled generously with caster sugar. They emerge lightly golden and still a little soft inside, as they are really a sort of cakey biscuit. I had a bit of fun making a few that were just long and straight, and a few little round 'wingolas' with the leftover mixture. 

I had added the zest of a large satsuma, as I was lacking a lemon, and it added a nice warm citrus flavour, fitting with the tastes of Christmas Day, when Katy and Clover open their gifts and sit in bed with Jumbles on their fingers, nibbling away at the treats made by Debby at home.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading What Katy Did at School by Susan M. Coolidge

Although I'm quite certain that I have read What Katy Did at School before, I don't seem to remember any of the story. I have quite vivid memories of the last book in the series though; What Katy Did Next. This second book has a very different feel to the first book about dear Katy, and I don't think it really has the same substance, but it is a sweet book. 

Unfortunately, the copy I have is the worst book I have ever encountered for typing errors. It is one per page, or at least one per double page spread. It's quite appalling. Mostly, there's a lack of full stops, but also lots of omissions of speech marks. There are also quite a few instances of numbers instead of the letter "s". I have to say it is rather distracting from the flow of the story, but I am trying desperately to overlook it. I need to invest in another copy at some point!

Anyway, part of the fun of What Katy Did at School is in the fact that she is away at school. Some of the expected home-sickness, however, is lessened by the fact that her lovely sister Clover is there with her. They are very close, and are good, loyal friends. 

The main point of them being at a boarding school is to be around other children their age and learn to have a bit of fun. Their perceptive father, Dr Carr, is aware of how serious young Katy has become, after her long seclusion as an invalid, and the role of housekeeper being thrust upon her early in life. Desirous that she should not become old before her time, he wastes no time in finding a suitable school that comes highly recommended.

The upside to being far away from home is the letter writing, and the chance of receiving parcels. A taste of home, in the form of baked goods at Christmas, is a very welcome treat in the middle of winter. The Carr family's cook Debby is a baking marvel, and it is one her excellent biscuits that I am bound to try and make from this story.  

Monday, 25 May 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making The Borrower's Potted Shrimp

Potted shrimp, eh?

Well, who'd have thunk it, but what a little gem!

Neither Andy or I, (or any of my family, except my dear Nanny who loved all things gloopy from a shell) can abide seafood. 

Fishes, yes. Proper real fishes with fins and tails, that swim, and taste of haddock or trout or sardines or something tasty, yes. 

Prawns are a bit of a funny one for me. For years I've not liked them but discovered they are quite acceptable in special fried rice from Hong's. And our fish van on the high street once had such exquisite looking tiger prawns that I felt a rush of braveness and bought a few to try. I fried them in chilli oil and they were really very delicious, tender and sweet.

But they are so very very beautiful, and ... CUTE! I find it hard to eat cute things, and I find prawns and shrimps really rather adorable, with their beady little eyes, that I am quite torn about finding them delicious.

I DRAW them, as CHARACTERS. I go to SEE them at the AQUARIUM. Because they are irresistibly beautiful. I love seeing them in rockpools, with the sunshine glowing through them and the salty water making them almost invisible. So, eating shrimp, is ... difficult. Usually I just avoid it but sometimes I give in.

The borrowers can each only manage one shrimp each. These little brown shrimp are very tiny, about the size of a baked bean. So one of me needs quite a few to make a good snack, let alone a meal. 

The recipe asks for 400g of brown shrimp. However, this 100g pack costs about £3 so I'm quartering the recipe as it handily quarters the price as well!

Our nice man with the fish van is parked on the high street every Wednesday til 1pm, so on my way to work this week I popped by, having first seen the brown shrimp there weeks ago, but not having read the Borrowers yet. (I have read them all before, and love them dearly.) Last week he'd had no shrimp and yesterday when I went along I couldn't see any either but he had kindly saved me a pack. So when I got home I got straight on with potting them up while our sausages and tatoes baked.

It's very simple, you basically fry the shrimp in butter for a few minutes, then put them in a ramekin and chill them. Then you melt a load of butter and pour it over the shrimp to form a seal. Apart from the addition of a pinch of cayenne pepper and nutmeg while frying, that's all there is to it. I added some salt and pepper too. And we don't have any ramekins so I used egg cups. As I was reducing the amount anyway, it made 4 little cups, to have on toast at the weekend. I'm thinking that when you tip it all out onto hot toast, the butter will melt into the toast nicely rather than get in the way. 

I did taste a couple of the shrimps before potting them, and they really are quite a delicacy. So sweet and tasty. And it does them good to sit tight in the fridge for a couple of days, so I'm looking forward to a tasty morsel on Saturday.

If you like prawns, I'm sure you'll love brown shrimp. They are very expensive, so not an everyday snack, but you can swap them for normal pink prawns and do the same thing. You can pot any meat you like really, and there's something very pleasing about it all. 

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading The Borrowers by Mary Norton

Do you know the theme tune to The Borrowers T.V series? The plinky, clunky jugga-jugga sound of it is full of so many other lovely senses all linked to hearing it: the smell of toast, the scrape of a knife spreading butter, the loud drizzling of dark brown tea into 4 big mugs from a big brown teapot, the crackle of the fire, the poker stirring the embers as fresh coals are heaped on top, and the nestling into the cosy sofa amidst crochet blankets as we all gathered to see the next episode at a Sunday teatime. 

This series aired in 1992. I was 8. It was epic. I loved it so much, everything about it was exciting and riveting. I loved Arietty, but at the time didn't really understand her yearning for freedom. Perhaps because I had that luxury in abundance and didn't really understand that it could be different for other kids. I had a big garden and our house was surrounded by fields that I could roam in whenever I liked. But now I really see her need to get out and be independent. To feel the fresh air and face danger.

I read the Borrowers some years ago, when I was a teenager, and devoured the entire series with an enormous appetite. These books are wonderfully written and flow along beautifully. This time around, I am listening to The Borrowers, read by Samantha Mathis. But I need to invest in my own copies of the books. They are full of so many things that make an appealing story. There are the comforts of home, good food, love and family, then danger and risk, and braveness, and determination. 

As a child I couldn't resist miniature things. I used to seek out the most tiny sea shells on the beach, I ate cereal with a mustard spoon, from a tea strainer bowl, I adored the mini Hovis loaves you could buy, and relished the little sandwiches you could make from them. My Sylvanians had a tiny ceramic tea-set, and I had a miniscule basket which I used to put picnic food in. It was smaller than a thimble. 

So The Borrowers held great appeal for me, with their tiny world, a strange combination of their own smallness and human-sized objects that were enormous to them - a potato that they roll into the kitchen to extract a tiny piece for their dinner - a single shrimp each makes an entire meal for them. I'm looking forward to sharing my own little Potted Shrimp soon, although Andy and I needed a little more than one each.

A few years ago Studio Ghibli made 'Arietty', a beautiful retelling of the story. The animation is gorgeous, and the details are so intricate. The music is also wonderful and I highly recommend the film.

I'm very glad that we now own the complete series of The Borrowers on dvd. They are pretty excellent, and very close to the original story. 
If you read The Borrowers, however, be warned that you will instantly need to then read all the following titles: The Borrowers Afield, The Borrowers Afloat, The Borrowers Aloft.


Sunday, 24 May 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Mrs Banks' Bribery and Corruption Cocoanut Cakes from "Mary Poppins Comes Back".

I have come to rather dread cake recipes that ask you to cream the butter and sugar together. Butter, in our house, is never soft, even if we don't keep it in the fridge. But I gritted my teeth this time and relished the workout, to pound and pound it in the bowl 'til it was as light as I could get it. Probably not light enough, but if I wanted to be able to use my arms for anything else at all that day, I left it at that.

I have made cakes with coconut in before, ((and yes, I know you don't spell 'Cocoanut' with an 'a' in, as above, but P.L.Travers did in 1935) and these are simple little fairy cakes, iced with a butter icing, with a bit of milk and lots of dessicated coconut in.  Apart from the tiresome beating, the recipe was an easy one, and the batter pleasingly divided exactly between the 12 paper cases, as the recipe said it would. 

I decided to try spreading the 12 cakes over two trays, even though each tray has 12 spaces. I thought they might bake more evenly if I used just the middle 6 of each tray, over two shelves. I think it helped! 

They baked for less time than stated though because, as I have mentioned before, our oven is power-crazed. The cakies came out looking lightly golden, and cushiony to the touch. After they'd cooled I spread some of the thick icing on, and added half a glace cherry to each one. I know most people don't like them, but they look so chummy and I am more than happy for people to pick off their cherry and put it on my plate.

I baked these on the day we were off to a little birthday party for our bestest friend, with her man, at another of our friends' house. This meant there would be no risk of us eating them all ourselves, as they are very tempting. As Jane and Michael Banks would agree, a cake to look forward to at teatime is a very fine thing. Their fretful mother, in her desperation for a little bit of peace and quiet uses "Cocoanut Cakes" as a bargaining tool, to win their co-operation. Before Mary Poppins unexpectedly returns to the Banks family, everything in their home is going wrong. Nothing is as it ought to be, and everyone is fretful about some little thing.
At last it all becomes too much for Mrs Banks and, to preserve her sanity, she ushers Jane and Michael out of the house, begging them to take their little toddler twin brother and sister to the park, AND NOT COME HOME UNTIL TEATIME! "And if you will go quietly and be good children," she tells them, "there will be cocoanut cakes for tea."

The bribe works, and by the time the children all come home, not only is there a sweet treat, but Mary Poppins is coming with them up Cherry Tree Lane, to stay "until the clasp of her locket chain breaks."

Friday, 22 May 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Reading Mary Poppins Comes Back by P.L.Travers

I always thought that when Mary Poppins floats away at the end of the story, that she was never to be seen again. At least, not by Jane and Michael Banks. I thought they'd had their time with her and that she was off seeing to some other family who needed her more badly, after she'd nudged each of the Bankses in the right direction to resolve their problems, and strengthen their family relationships. 

But that is only true in the Disney film version. At the end of the actual book, nothing is resolved at all and Mary Poppins' leaving doesn't feel caring or kind. And as the second book opens, it is evident that something is still very much lacking, and Mary Poppins arrives at the perfect time to bring peace back to the Banks household. 

However, if you thought Mary Poppins was sour and moody in the first book, this second set of stories will do nothing to change your mind. In fact, you will probably end up disliking her more intensely, and wondering why Jane and Michael crave her company so much. She never does anything kind, reassuring or affectionate. And the only time she smiles is when she is admiring her own reflection, taking great satisfaction in her appearance. The mildest comment or most innocent question can set her off into a foul temper. She never explains anything to the children, and is sarcastic, dismissive and rude. She does keep their behaviour in order, but only by being unpleasant, disparaging and brusque. I have decided that the children must only be attracted by her unexplained magic mysteriousness. 

Mary Poppins certainly does open up a world of wonder for her young charges, and it seems that unexpected and strange things just happen when you are with her. The adventures they encounter are entertaining, very original, and sometimes quite abstract, and the writing does a good job of unfolding it all to the reader. I've enjoyed this set of stories, despite my disapproval of their main heroine. To me, the heroes are really Jane and Michael. I just can't help feeling they'd be better off with someone who can be nice to them. 

Friday, 1 May 2015

Fictional Food Adventure: Making Jeremy and Jemima's More-Jam-Than-Puff Jam Puffs from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

What's more enticing than hearing someone describe all their lovely snacks as they are packed into a hamper for a picnic?

Especially when the list includes sausages and Jam Puffs!

When the Pott family set out for the second ever drive in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, on a hot summer's Saturday, they head to the coast with a picnic. The Jam Puffs from that hamper are what I've set out to bake, though I've never eaten a Jam Puff before. I've never even seen a Jam Puff before. The name is fairly self-explanatory though.  Puff pastry with jam.

I fancied Strawberry Jam for these puffs and had to go and buy some as, like I've said before, we have majored on the Damson jam in our house and don't have much else except Marmalade. Pleasingly, Bon Maman was on offer so I stocked up on Apricot too, to tide us over til the lovely apricots are in at our greengrocer's.

My truly lovely and very dear friend Sarah had invited me for a rather charming jaunt to a couple of her favourite places in Devon, so on a sunny and blustery March Thursday we headed off with a picnic to Colyton, for a river walk and picnic followed by cups of tea and mooching at Lyme Regis. This lovely opportunity for an early Spring picnic presented itself as the perfect chance to make Jam Puffs.

It's always nice to share your baking with friends, and never good to have to eat it all yourself, so I hurriedly made the puffs before we set out in the morning. They are so quick and simple, and I highly recommend you giving them a go. There are no measurements so you can make as many or as few as you like. I bought one pre-rolled sheet of puff pastry from the supermarket (why would you ever bother to make it unless you're on the Bake-off?) and it made 6 nice square puffs. 

The recipe gives you the option of one enormous Jam Puff to be sliced afterwards or individual ones. I wanted nice little separate parcels so I divided the sheet in half then cut each resulting rectangle into 6 squares. I spread the jam over 6 squares, leaving a good margin jamless ready to be brushed with egg. I took an un-jammed rectangle and brushed egg around each edge then laid it over the jammed square, pressing down well around all the edges and squeezing them upwards a little. They nice thing is that they fitted perfectly one one baking tray, which went in the oven at 200 degrees. The baking time given was for the whole large puff, so I just kept a careful eye on them and set the timer for ten minutes. When the beeper went off they had puffed up beautifully but were still quite pale so I gave them another 2 minutes before whipping them out and brushing them generously with egg and sprinkling them liberally with caster sugar. After 2 more minutes they were a shiny golden brown so that was it. Delightful puffy pillows of pastry.

Now these puffs are called "More-Jam-Than-Puff Jam Puffs" and to be true to the book, I should have been more generous with the jam, but the truth is I don't like it when jam overtakes everything so these puffs are Just-Enough-Jam-to-Puff Jam Puffs and Sarah and I, (and Andy) decided they were just right. I took a can of squirty cream with us so that we could lift off the lid and splurge the cream inside, and Sarah and I enjoyed our first ones in the sunshine and strong wind as soon as we parked the car, for elevenses at Colyton, before setting out on our walk. It turned out to be a very gentle and pootley walk because we were looking out for the quite rare, natural, small daffodils that are very precious to Sarah, as well as savouring the most wonderfully shaped, glorious trees that we met along the way, and listening to the gurgling of the sparkly river. We stopped to bask in the sunshine and admire catkins and had a very relaxed time.

And it all served to confirm several very obvious things. Sarah is adorable. Trees are gorgeous. Rivers are wonderful. Picnics are brilliant.