Books: i-SPY Creepy Crawlies and i-SPY Trees
2016, Collins Poem: A Calendar of Sonnets: March by Helen Hunt Jackson
How is Spring where you are? Here it is in full bloom and today we finally had a properly warm day. It’s so nice to be able to hang the washing on the line again!
Here is what we’ve been up to lately.
Currently I’m reading a couple of mysteries, but we’ve also been going about looking for signs of Spring with some i-SPY books.
These are particularly fun because you earn points for each species you spot, but there are many nature guides/books out there. The RSPB Handbook of British Birds comes out whenever we see a strange bird on the feeder. If you want a book to read rather than use as a field guide, my husband has been reading The Wood for the Trees: The Long View of Nature from a Small Wood by Richard Fortey. I’ll get back to you if he has any thoughts on it. So far this Spring I have spotted, among others: a wren, dunnocks, robins, goldfinches, honey bees, bumblebees, snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, violets, primroses, and various flowering trees including cherry, apple, and blackthorn.
It’s a great time to go for a walk and see what you can spot! Even small spaces like lawns, hedges and flowerpots will have an amazing world of minibeasts waking up and starting to roam about. And even if you are still snowed in, if you look closely the trees should be budding and birds returning.
The other day my husband made marmalade, which we have never done before. It was quite a production, but now we have a row of gleaming jars full of citrusy goodness. I personally don’t like marmalade, but if you, like my husband and Paddington Bear, are a fan, it’s one of the easier preserves to make.
Marmalade is nice on a toasted tea cake or even hot cross bun on one of those still-chilly mornings. And if you don’t like it, you could have lemon curd instead. Citrus fruits are really nice to have in the colder months, when there are fewer fruits around.
Right now our windowsills are just covered in a variety of seedlings, gathering their strength indoors before they face the cold. There are rows of dahlias, citruses, Black-eyed Susans, and even a little maple grown from seed.
No doubt it will be cold and blustery again tomorrow, but the seedlings are a cheerful sight and fill us with expectation for the Summer.
What have you been reading/eating/doing this March?
Book: All Join In by Quentin Blake
1998, Random House
March is a funny month. It’s still cold (and, in some places, snowy), but the daffodils and crocuses are pushing up, the snowdrops are already blooming, and the trees are all covered in catkins and buds.
Now is a great time to put on your wellies and go for a muddy walk to look for signs of Spring.
Today’s book is All Join In, a book of seven poems written and illustrated by Quentin Blake. They are loosely related in theme, but all relate to a motley group of family/friends who get up to all sorts of activities, usually noisily and messily, but with great enthusiasm. All Join In is all about making music…or just noise.
‘The Hooter Song’ concerns a pair of children who thoughtfully ‘help’ various adults by surprising them with bicycle horns.
‘Nice Weather for Ducks’ is about a muddy walk and joining in the duck song.
‘Sliding’ concerns various means of going downhill quickly: banister, sled, etc.
‘Sorting Out the Kitchen Pans’ is about some more helpful children who take up the noisy task of…sorting kitchen pans.
‘Bedtime Song’ is not a lullaby, but about joining in with yowling cats.
‘All Join In’ (part two) is just about all the various ways the family and/or friends all join in, whether with cleaning, painting, or eating a chocolate fudge banana cake.
These poems are fun for anyone, but they would be particularly fun for younger children, because they are meant to be read aloud. Little children love repetition that they can join in with, and each of these poems has that. They are often fun things to shout out, as well, such as BEEP-BEEP or QUACK QUACK QUACK! They also have the benefit of a simple but effective rhyme scheme which is good for demonstrating how rhyming and poetry work. I certainly know what I will be bringing to class for World Book Day.
The illustrations, of course, are typical Quentin Blake: very lively, fun, and fluid, with lots of funny little details to find. They complement the messy, noisy poems very well and make the characters seem like people you’d love to hang out with.
The downside is that many children would probably be inspired by these poems to start sorting out the kitchen pans! But that could be fun too. So get together in a group, make some noise, walk through mud, do some Spring cleaning, or go sledding, and when that’s tired you out, enjoy a slice of Ferdinand’s chocolate fudge banana cake. Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Banana Cake (grain-free)
Ingredients For the cake:
1 greenish banana, thickly sliced
3 cups peanut butter (or almond, cashew, sunflower or other nut or seed butter)
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
1.5 cup plain cocoa powder
⅔ cup grated coconut
1 cup maple syrup
1.5 Tbsp brown sugar
1 ½ teaspoon vanilla
1.5 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
For the frosting/topping:
2 cups dark chocolate, roughly chopped
2 cups cream
1 Tbsp coconut oil
1 banana, thickly sliced
2 cups grated coconut
Mix together all of the cake ingredients except for 1 cup of the chopped chocolate. Put greaseproof paper in a round 8 inch cake tin and sprinkle in some of the chocolate you put aside. Then pour in half of the batter and spread with a spatula to cover the bottom of the pan. Sprinkle over some more chocolate and then put your banana slices on top of that. Try to place them on their sides so that when the cake is cut they will be more visible.
After that, pour over the rest of the batter and top with the rest of the chocolate. Bake at 180 C/356 F for 25 – 30 minutes, checking after 20 to make sure it is not getting overdone. It’s OK (and in fact, desirable), for the cake to be a bit squidgy, like a brownie. When the cake is done, wait for it to cool and turn it out. While it is cooling you can make the frosting, which is a basic ganache.
Melt the 2 cups of chopped dark chocolate very gently in a double boiler (you can rig one by using a metal or Pyrex bowl in a saucepan of simmering water). Remove from heat and then slowly whisk in the cream and coconut oil. Put in the fridge for 10 – 20 minutes to cool — you want it to be pourable but not too runny. Meanwhile, put your banana slices on top of the cake (you could try whole bananas like Ferdinand, but I suspected that would end in disaster). Then pour the ganache over the cake. Bananas are quite difficult to coat, it turns out, so you may have to melt some extra chocolate and dip them in. Lastly cover in shredded coconut — because if we’re having chocolate, fudge, and banana we might as well have peanut butter and coconut too.
And it’s OK if it looks super messy because that’s what we’re going for, right?
Also this is only a small cake but then again I’m not feeding five adults, twenty-one children, a cat, and a duck.
This is the perfect treat to enjoy with a glass of milk after a walk in the cold March air. And although Pancake Tuesday is over, we might as well have a couple of days more of a carnival atmosphere of noise and rich food. Especially if it’s raining.
Book: Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, freely translated from the German by Paul Heins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
1974, Little, Brown & Co.
Yesterday we went out into the fields to do our last foraging of the Autumn. We found blackberries, rose hips, haws, sloes, and damsons. Now is the time of year to finish storing up all the bounty you’ve gathered in for the Winter.
I think it’s fun to really get involved in each season. The time around Hallowe’en, Bonfire Night, and their less-remembered cousins, All Saints’, All Souls’, Samhain, and Winternights, are a reminder of how people used to view this time of year. It was a liminal time, when it was no longer safe to go out late, because of the spirits, elves or goblins which might be about. So instead it was the perfect time to stay in and be festive and cozy with your friends and family, and enjoy the fruits of the year.
This Hallowe’en I plan to spend doing just that. I don’t like anything too creepy, but I think it’s a nice time to read some of the older fairy tales, which certainly had their share of darkness and weirdness. If you look for the original Grimm’s tales, for example, they are a lot different from the ones we are familiar with.
This version of Snow White is translated from the original German and retains all of the darker elements from the folktale. I think we all know the basic story of Snow White, so I will focus on the ways in which it differs from the modern version.
The story opens immediately with some evocative imagery:
Once in the middle of winter, when snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a Queen sat sewing by a window, and its frame was of black ebony. As she sewed, she glanced up at the snow and stuck her finger with the needle and three drops of blood fell into the snow. Since the red seemed so beautiful against the white, she thought to herself, “If only I had a child as white, as snow, as red as blood, and as dark as ebony.”
The story carries on with the birth of Snow White, the death of the Queen, and the introduction of the evil stepmother Queen and her obsession with being the fairest in the land. When she sends the huntsman to kill Snow White, however, she asks for her lungs and liver. And when she receives what she believes to be them (the huntsman actually kills a boar), she eats them.
Snow White finds the house of the Seven Dwarfs, where there is a nice little reverse Goldilocks sequence where she eats and drinks a little bit from each of the seven plates/cups because she doesn’t want to take too much from any one person. She then tries out several beds before she finds one the right size for her. The dwarfs come home and perform the three bears part of the sequence by exclaiming “who has been eating from my little plate?” and “who has been lying in my bed?” It would be interesting to find out whether this influenced The Three Bears, or the other way around, or if it was a common story trope at the time. After that the evil Queen comes after Snow White, of course, except in this version she does it three times. The first time she comes selling lacings for corsets. She pulls the laces so tight that Snow White cannot breath and falls down as if dead, but when the dwarfs loosen the laces she is fine again. The second time the Queen comes selling combs, which are poisoned so that when it is stuck into Snow White’s hair she again falls down as if dead. But the dwarfs remove the comb and she is fine. Each time the dwarfs warn Snow White to never, ever let anyone in when they are away, and to not take anything from anyone. It makes Snow White seem not too bright that she keeps doing this, but the story emphasises that she is young and trusting.
Evil Queen, beein’ spooky
The final time, the Queen makes the poisoned apple. This one is more clever though, as she predicts that Snow White will be more cautious after being nearly murdered twice. So she makes one side of the apple red and poisonous, and one side white and harmless. She shows Snow White that she will eat half the apple herself, so it must be safe. Of course Snow White gets the red half, and falls down dead.
This time, although the dwarfs try everything, they cannot wake her, so they make the glass coffin for her and keep watch over it.
Interestingly, in this version the Prince does not wake Snow White with a kiss, which is good, but instead asks the dwarfs if he can take her away with him so he can always look at her, which is also a bit creepy, but then again she’s dead so it hardly matters to her where her coffin is.
Except when the Prince’s men are carrying the coffin away, they stumble and jostle it, and the piece of apple is dislodged from Snow White’s throat. She wakes up, the Prince immediately proposes, which she is apparently perfectly happy with, and the wedding is arranged. There is a bit of a different ending, however. The Queen is invited to the wedding, but when she arrives, she is made to dance in red hot shoes of iron until she is dead.
Obviously this book is not for very young children, even though it is a picture book with fairly simple text. But older children can enjoy the creepiness and discuss why tales like this were told long ago. It is clearly a cautionary tale for young people about letting in strangers or accepting gifts, but also an aspirational story about being rewarded for kindness. It perhaps also is about the perils of being obsessed with physical beauty.
The illustrations, by Trina Schart Hyman, have a great moody, dark quality to them which complements the story. They are fun to pore over on a gloomy evening, to see all the details she put in.
To go with a dark story, I have made a dessert which is both red as blood and dark as ebony. It is not made with apples, but with damsons. If you cannot find damsons, you can use any other dark fruit instead, but you may have to thicken it more and adjust the sugar (as damsons are very tart). Kissel is a sort of syrup, popular in Eastern Europe and Russia, which can be either a drink, or a dessert with pancakes, ice cream, or cream.
Wash the damsons and put into a pan. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then simmer until the fruit is soft. Push through a sieve or squeeze in a cheesecloth or jelly bag to remove the stones and skins. At this point I had about 2 cups of purée. Add the sugar and warm in a pan until the sugar is dissolved. Put the cornflour or substitute into a bowl and dissolve in tablespoon or so of warm water, add it to the fruit puree and stir over a low heat until it is like a thick syrup. Pour into bowls and serve at room temperature, with yogurt, cream, pancakes, porridge, or milk kissel, which is pretty much the same thing but made with milk instead of fruit.
If you use a bit less cornstarch, this would be a very fun, slightly gruesome-looking drink for Hallowe’en! And as a syrup there are so many uses for it.
Book: Seven Keys to Baldpate by Earl Derr Biggers
2015, Clue Publishing Poem: Old October by Thomas Constable
So where have I been? Well, I’ve been moving house. We moved from one county to another, as well. As I’m sure you guys know, moving house is THE WORST, we’re still living out of boxes, and so I haven’t been reading a lot or making much food that doesn’t come out of a box or a tin.
However, I thought a little update was in order. So here is what I have been up to lately.
I don’t know if I ever mentioned it, but my favourite thing to read, besides kid’s books, is a good Golden Age mystery. And while I do prefer paper books, the Kindle app can be useful during busy times. I’m currently reading this:
I’m only a couple of chapters in, and I’m not sure what I think of it yet. While it’s hugely entertaining and has a great tone and sense of humour, I’m not quite sure where it’s going. It was written in 1913, and one of the chapters seems to be anti-suffragists, but that’s a risk you run with old books. Also, that chapter is narrated by a character who may be being made fun of by the author himself, so you never can tell. I am still really enjoying it, but I am thinking of waiting to finish it until the Winter, because I like my books to be seasonal, and it has a great snowed-in atmosphere.
I do recommend reading mysteries in the Fall. They are an inexhaustible resource; even when you have got through Christie and Sayers there are so many more obscure authors to read, and you might find a hidden gem. Seven Keys to Baldpate, for example, is free on the Kindle app, and you never know what you might find cheap by having a nose around Amazon or your library book sale.
We are having to be very frugal in our new circumstances, but two things which are cheap and comforting are tea and oatmeal. If you don’t eat oats I still recommend the lovely comfort of a hot bowl of something: soup or broth, for example. And tea is the best for making you feel like you are treating yourself! It does not need to be fancy. Here I am having Good Earth Sweet & Spicy tea which is maybe the yummiest tea ever made. And for bedtime you cannot beat Sleepytime.
As I said, moving takes over everything so we haven’t had time for much. But we have made time to explore the countryside around our new house. We are so lucky to be able to live in the cutest little village now, with lots of fields and hedgerows. But no matter where you are, there is usually a field or a park or a pick your own or a community garden where you can:
It’s a bit late in the year and a lot has been picked over, but we found rose hips, haws, sloes, bullace, damsons, and of course blackberries. There will hopefully be enough to make at least one jar of hedgerow jam or chutney for the Winter. And it is just fun to do!
What are you reading/eating/doing this October?
I will hopefully be back with another post before the end of October, as things settle in. As soon as the books are unpacked I will have to have another read of Squashed, for sure!
I’ll leave you with a poem for those of us who are all about this time of year and the coziness it brings!
Book: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, illustrated by Garth Williams
1971, Harper & Row
August is the month of first harvests. The 1st of August is Lammas, or Loaf Mass, when people used to bless loaves of bread made from the first crops. Although this is in some ways the longest, sleepiest month of Summer, we are already looking forward to Autumn, and gathering in the rest of the harvest.If you go out into the fields now you can see what is growing. Around here it is oats and barley.
Nowadays we don’t usually see the full process that turns these grains into flour. In Little House in the Big Woods, however, harvest, like everything else, was very hands on. In the chapter entitled “Harvest”, it describes how Pa Ingalls harvested the oats.
Pa Ingalls and Uncle Henry helped each other with their harvests. They cut the oats with a tool called a cradle, tied each bundle with a band of oats, stood five bundles together and then covered with two more bundles, spreading the stalks to make a roof and shelter the five underneath. This is called a shock (as in, “the fodder’s in the shock”.). All this had to be done before dark when the dew would fall.
The main drama of this chapter is how the disobedient Cousin Charley gets stung a by a load of yellow jackets. However, I think the grueling description of the harvesting of the oats is more interesting. In the next chapter, “The Wonderful Machine,” Pa sends for a newfangled horsepowered separator to help with the wheat harvest. Pa, who is “all for progress”, is very pleased with this modernisation.
But while the oat harvest was hard work, I’m sure the result was much appreciated.
One of the best aspects of the Little House books, and one which is perhaps best enjoyed by older readers, is the detailed description of life back then. It really is fascinating to see the hard work which used to go into every little part of life. It provides useful perspective on our own lives.
Little House in the Big Woods is a fun and interesting read. It is a bit long, with some technical/historical language, so it would be difficult for under eights to read on their own. Reading with an adult would also be helpful to deal with some of the harsher realities of that time period. For example, Laura’s family lives with the danger of wild animals actually killing them, there is a quite detailed description of hog butchery, and there is also corporal punishment, when Laura is hit with a strap for slapping her sister. But I think all of these things are not negatives in and of themselves, they just have to be discussed and put into the context of the time period and situation.
Personally, I am certainly not going to be harvesting my own grain anytime soon. My family doesn’t usually eat bread, either. But if you are going to, homemade is best, because you can choose what goes into it. And more important than the bread, to my mind, is what goes on top. One of the nicest things to go on bread is honey, and that is also something that the Ingalls family harvested for the Winter. In the chapter “Summertime”, Pa finds a bee tree, and comes running back to grab his ax, the two wash tubs, and all the pails and buckets they have. He has to scare a bear away first, but he then is able to chop down the tree and split it open, and bring home lots and lots of honeycomb. It should be remembered that store-bought sugar was a real luxury in those days, so everyone must have been very excited to have all that honey!
Laura is sorry for the bees, but Pa says that he has left lots of honey there, and there was another hollow tree nearby. The bees would take the old honey, turn it into new, and store it up for the winter. If you can it’s best to buy local, raw honey, that still has all of its goodness. Honeycomb is a bonus! Honey is really lovely with butter, and that is another thing which the Ingalls family had to make all by themselves. This time it was Ma Ingalls who did all the work. The chapter “Winter Days” describes what happened every Thursday, which was the day of the week for churning. Because it takes place in Winter, the cream wasn’t yellow as it was in Summer (when the cows were eating fresh grass). Because Ma liked everything to be pretty, she colored the butter with a carrot that she grated on the bottom of a pan that Pa had punched full of nail-holes for her. She put the grated carrot into hot milk, poured it into a cloth, and squeezed the yellow milk into the crockery churn full of cream which had been put it by the stove to warm. After that Laura and Mary eat the grated carrot as a treat! Next, Ma scalded the wooden churn-dash, put it in the churn, and dropped the churn-cover on top. She would have to churn for a long time, as the cream began to look grainy, and finally there would be a big lump of butter in buttermilk. Ma then took out the butter with a wooden paddle, and washed it many times in cold water, working it with the paddle until the water ran clear. Then the butter was salted. Ma had a butter-mold with a strawberry and its leaves on the bottom.
Laura and Mary watched, breathless…while the golden little butter-pats, each with its strawberry on top, dropped on to the plate…Then Ma gave them each a drink of good, fresh buttermilk.
I would love to have a butter-mold! But even without one you can make butter at home. And you don’t need a churn either.
1/2 pint heavy (double) cream
Salt to taste
There are various ways to churn the butter. You can use a mixer or a blender, but my preferred method is the good old-fashioned jar. Just pour your cream into a jar which is big enough to leave at least a third of the jar empty. Screw the lid on tightly and shake! It’s a bit of a workout, but it actually only takes a few minutes before you will feel that the cream is not sloshing around anymore. When you check, you’ll find the cream has thickened right up. Keep going a little longer, and you will see the cream has become granular. This is normal: those are actually tiny grains of butter! Eventually they will coalesce into larger lumps and a milky-looking liquid.
Book: The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem
1990, Philomel Books
We are in the dog days of Summer. The garden is a jungle, and the freezer is full of popsicles. In The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge, the Summer Story begins with a description of how the mice spend their time by the stream to keep cool.
By the banks of the stream was the dairy mill, powered by the flowing water. Poppy Eyebright looked after the Dairy Stump. Further down the stream was the flour mill, run by Dusty Dogwood.
The two meet walking by the stream and eventually get engaged. What follows is the story of the preparations for the wedding, which is on Midsummer’s Day.
Brambly Hedge Wedding Menu:
Cold watercress soup
Fresh dandelion salad
Huge baskets of wild strawberries
Primrose, meadowsweet and and elderflower wine
The first drama of the story is when the groom (“Dusty by name, dusty by nature”) accidentally gets flour all over himself and his best man. But of course, as in real weddings, once everything gets started those sort of things don’t matter.
The wedding is held on the stream on a bark raft. The second drama is that during the reception the enthusiastic dancing causes the raft’s moorings to break and they drift in to the stream. But this doesn’t cause alarm either, the dancing carries on and eventually they catch on some rushes and forget-me-nots and are able to tie up again. When evening falls, the party breaks up and heads home Poppy and Dusty slip away to the primrose woods, to a cottage surrounded by wild roses and honeysuckle, “the perfect place for a honeymoon”. Summer Story is a sweet little story and the perfect representation of an old-fashioned Summer wedding. Like Spring Story, it is suitable for all ages and has very interesting illustrations. The flour mill and the dairy mill pages in particular are fun to pore over, trying to see how they work.
Poppy and Dusty’s wedding menu of “cool summer foods” offers a lot to choose from, but I decided to make honey creams, because I had never heard of them. It turns out most people haven’t! In the end the only recipe I found wasthis one, which reveals honey creams to be a sort of ice cream.
The original recipe calls for grated chocolate, but i didn’t use it because I don’t think they have chocolate in Brambly Hedge.
Heat the honey in a pan until it is a bit runny. Let it cool slightly. Beat the egg yolks and drizzle in the honey, mixing until it is a bit thick and pale yellow. Whip the cream. You could use pre-whipped cream or thick cream as well, depending on how light you want your creams to be. I just put it in a jar and shook it until it was thick, which led to very set ice cream.
Whip together the egg yolk mixture and the cream mixture. At this point you can choose whether to add the liqueur. The original recipe calls for 4 Tbsp of whiskey, but I omitted that in case people wanted a less boozy dessert. I divided the mixture in two and made a plain a version and one with 1 Tbsp of honey liqueur. Divide into ramekins. I used silicone cupcake moulds for ease of removal. Freeze for at least 4 hours, until set.
Without the booze, this is definitely ice cream. I have never made a proper ice cream with egg yolks before, and the combination of the rich custard with the honey is delicious. Be aware that this does contain raw eggs. Here in the UK most eggs are safe raw, but be careful anyway.
The way I made them (without proper whipped cream) the honey creams are very dense, like those ice cream blocks you can buy for ice cream cakes, but they only take a couple of minutes to thaw enough to eat, and in fact melt pretty quickly, so if you are bringing these somewhere you will need a portable cooler. They are very sweet and taste strongly of honey, so I might recommend only using 3 Tbsp honey if you don’t have a sweet tooth. Both the plain and the liqueur version are equally nice.
You could add any topping you want; I added blueberries. Overall they are an amazing and luxurious Summer treat, perfect for a day on the river.
Take your ice cream outside and enjoy it in the Sun, preferably by a body of water, or even a paddling pool to rest your feet in.
Book: Summer Party by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
2002, Aladdin Paperbacks Poem: Fairy Breadby Robert Louis Stevenson
How is everyone’s Summer? We haven’t had many nice days here. It’s been rather cold. But Summer is fleeting and you have to make the best of it! We have had a couple of barbecues and similar festivities. One Sunday we even got out the pool but it was too chilly!
Recently I read a book about making the best of things. Summer Party is about Lily, Rosie, and Tess (a pair of sisters and their cousin, all aged nine) who live with their Aunt Lucy for a year while their parents are travelling with the ballet. They get to live in an attic and it’s all very bohemian and charming.
Although this is a short book, a lot of detail is put into every character. Rosie is the most sentimental, Lily writes poems, Tess wants to be an actress, etc. Aunt Lucy has a flower shop, and her boyfriend Michael, who is from a wealthy family but is studying to be a botanist, always looks a bit shy and crumpled.
As the story opens the girls are all quite sad because when their parents get back they will have to leave their aunt and each other. They are feeling very conflicted and weepy in the first couple of chapters.
But their aunt and Michael try to help them cheer up, not by ignoring their feelings, but by addressing them in an active way. Their aunt says that a good way to do this is to find something to look forward to and make plans for the future. The girls realise that they will be able to have reunions with each other and the whole family every year. They are also encouraged to do something fun now, and so they plan a summer party. The girls plan the food and the entertainment as well. Lily writes a poem, Tess plans a song, and they make little funny fortunes to go at each table place. Rosie wants to make “little vegetable people” although she eventually changes her mind, thinking they will wilt. Here is their menu:
Pink lemonade with colored ice
Cookie cutter sandwiches
A punch called the Cousins’ Crayon Concoction The girls are nervous to see their parents after so long, but when they arrive everyone is happy. The party is a great success, and at the end Michael proposes to Lucy. Although everyone is still sad to say goodbye, the last line of the book is “There was so much to look forward to!” This is quite a fun little book. It is not long, but it is a chapter book and might be difficult for under sevens to read on their own. The subject matter is interesting and could be helpful in discussing with children how to deal with sadness, particularly that of a friend moving away, or themselves moving away. The children’s feelings are acknowledged, and they are helped to think of things that they do have control over, such as making the party and arranging meetings in the future. Aunt Lucy’s mantra of “Be brave. Have hope. Make plans for the future!” is pretty good advice for that stressful situation (and many others). Since we are moving house in a couple of months, it was certainly helpful for me to think about.
And if it is cold outside I think it is perfectly fine to have a Summer Party inside! I was inspired by the cousins’ menu but made a few changes. I didn’t make the little vegetable people, although that would be fun, particularly with children. To make the cookie cutter sandwiches even prettier, I made fairy bread. For anyone unfamiliar, fairy bread is just bread with sprinkles on top. I made some the usual way (as in just one slice), and some as sandwiches with the sprinkles then added to the top. Cookie Cutter Fairy Bread Sandwiches
Bread of choice (I used Schär’s gluten free seeded loaf)
Sandwich filling of choice (I used Nutella)
Sprinkles of choice (these should be small and colorful. Too big and they won’t provide even coverage)
Whipped cream Method
First make the sandwiches (I figure you all know how to do that!). Then cut out desired shapes using cookie cutters. You may have to be very careful extracting the sandwich from the cutter if it is a complicated shape. Don’t waste the crusts you cut off, just save them for bread pudding or something! Then spread the whipped cream on the top of the sandwich. Butter is traditional but I wanted something that would preserve the white color of the bread and also spread very easily, without being soggy. You need a thin, even layer all over the top slice. Then cover with sprinkles!
The second idea that I had was to attempt the Cousins’ Crayon Concoction. Presuming this does not contain actual crayons, I wanted to create something that contained multiple bright colors, and the only way I could think to do that was bubble tea. Cousins’ Crayon Concoction Bubble Tea
3 black tea bags or equivalent in loose tea
4 cups milk, almond milk or coconut milk
3 -4 Tbsp honey to taste
1 1/2 cups colored tapioca pearls or boba, preferably multicolored.
First make the milk tea. Boil a cup of water and steep the tea for 5 – 10 minutes. Remove the teabags, add honey to taste, and let the tea cool for another 15 minutes or so. Then add the tea and the milk (I used coconut milk, but if you prefer it not to taste coconutty, then use something different) into a large container with a lid. As you may guess this makes a very weak tea, but I did not want the color of the tea to interfere with the color of the boba, so I intentionally made it pale. You can make it stronger by using less milk or steeping the tea longer. Put the tea in the fridge to cool for a couple of hours. You could add ice and have it ready right away, but I prefer it this way. While the tea is cooling make the boba or tapioca pearls (If you can’t find multicolored ones I would recommend looking in an Asian grocer or online, but any color will do). Boil a large pot of water, add the pearls slowly, and stir. In a minute or so they will float to the surface of the water. Cover the pot and cook on medium heat for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and simmer another 2 -3 minutes. Strain the tapioca and rest in cold water for half a minute, then strain out and roll in a little sugar or honey.
Next, take out your cold tea and give it a good shake. You can use a cocktail shaker, froth it with a mixer or just shake it in the jar. Put a portion of tapioca pearls in the bottom of each glass and top up with the tea.
And lastly, the pink lemonade. I used this recipe from last Summer, but I added 1 1/2 cups pureed strawberries. You can use a blender, but if the strawberries are ripe you can also use a mortar and pestle. I personally like to have a little strawberry pulp in there. The only thing to remember is that you might need less sugar if the strawberries are very sweet.
Enjoy your Summer party and remember, there is so much to look forward to!
Books: The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem
1990, Philomel Books
The other day we went to the first country show of the year. It’s always a lot of fun, with tractor and hedgelaying displays, dogs, falconry, sheep shearing, sheep herding, and much more.
I was excited to see that the May was in bloom, which means it really is properly Springtime!
Where we live it takes a long time for the warm weather to arrive, and even when it does, you can never trust it to stay nice, so we take advantage of the sunshine whenever we can. And one of the best ways to do that is to have a picnic, like the mice do in the “Spring Story” in The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge. The Brambly Hedge stories involve the daily lives of a community of mice. Kind of like Redwall, but without the fighting and violence. The edition of Four Seasons that I read has an interesting introduction which includes the author’s description of how she came to write these stories. She says that one of her favorite pastimes as a child was to observe the tiny lives of little creatures in the grass, which is something that I used to do as well. Another interesting point is that she cites Arthur Rackham and Leonardo da Vinci as her main influences. Arthur Rackham is a wonderful illustrator, but it was da Vinci who inspired her architectural and technical interests.
Apparently all the various dwellings and technology in Brambly Hedge was designed to actually work in real life, “apart from the occasional problem of scale.” Everything the mice use could in theory be provided by the countryside in which they live. You can see this thought and attention in the lovely illustrations, which are fun to pore over to try to see every little minute detail. I thought the introduction was very interesting, and while the stories themselves are obviously for younger children, older children who are interested in illustration, writing, or general world building might find it useful. But on to the story! “Spring Story” is the tale of what happens in the mouse community on a Spring day which happens to be the birthday of young Wilfred Toadflax. The rest of the mice conspire to make a surprise picnic for him. That is the gist of the plot, but the appeal is in the details of the various characters, their homes, and the exciting comestibles they come up with for the picnic.
This chapter is a fun read, and while the text may be difficult for under sevens to read on their own, the pictures are really the star of the show anyway and should be interesting for all ages. And it would be good inspiration for young children to invent their own world, maybe inspired by watching the minibeasts in the grass. It is certainly a great inspiration for a picnic.
Pack in a hamper with two spoons, cloth napkins, and a container for the egg shells. May wine (or Maiwein or Waldmeisterbowle) is a wine steeped with sweet woodruff which might be difficult to get hold of outside of mainland Europe, plus it is not for the kids, obviously. You could substitute any other floral drink like elderflower cordial.
Picnic 2: Sausages & Crumble
(serves 1 )
Italian sausages fried with onions & peppers, and topped with fresh basil
Rhubarb crumble cooked in a mini ramekin with a lid
Bottle of water or apple juice
Pack the sausages, onions and peppers in a ramekin or tiffin with a flat lid. Put the rhubarb ramekin on top of the other tiffin. If you don’t have these exact containers you could use any sort of stackable containers. Put the stacked containers and cutlery (a spork is most useful) on top of a large cloth napkin and tie two corners tightly on top, and then the other two corners over again, like a furoshiki. This is really convenient and easy to carry.
Another thing to consider is entertainment. In Brambly Hedge, after the picnic the grown-ups napped while the children played hide-and-seek, which is totally valid depending upon the circumstances.
But you can also bring a book, which is another benefit of having a hamper.
I brought a book of folk songs because it seemed appropriate for a country show in May. For the second picnic I packed a rhubarb crumble, which is definitely seasonal and an easy dessert. This one is grain-free.
Grain-Free Rhubarb Crumble
4 stalks of rhubarb, chopped
2 1/2 Tbsp butter or other fat
1 cup ground almonds
1/3 cup raw honey or sweetener of choice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground ginger
1/3 c. coconut sugar or other coarse sugar
2 Tbsp gooseberry liqueur or gooseberry jam (optional)
Put the chopped rhubarb in a baking dish (you can also put some in little ramekins like I did for the picnic; everything else is the same, it just cooks in about a 3rd of the time).
Dust with the ginger and dot with the honey. Drizzle over the vanilla and the liqueur or jam if using. Put the rhubarb in the oven under the grill for 5 minutes, just until it starts to soften a bit. For the topping, mix the butter into the almond meal with your fingers until it is fully incorporated, then add the sugar. Sprinkle over the top of your rhubarb. This makes a soft, English-style crumble, if you prefer crunchy you could add flaked almonds, coconut flakes or oats. Bake at 175 C or 345 F for 20 to 30 minutes (10 to 15 for a ramekin). The crumble is done when it is golden and a little bubbly.
With Summer on the way and a long weekend this week both in the UK and the US, now is a great time to pack up your picnic of choice and go find someplace to enjoy the sun.
Books: Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter
1997, Frederick Warne Citrus and Spice: A Year of Flavour by Sybil Kapoor
2008, Simon & Schuster
To further explore the verdant theme and make use of all the cress now growing on my kitchen windowsill, I reread The Tale of Jeremy Fisher, which is an extremely watery, green sort of story, perfect for a rainy day. The story concerns Mr Jeremy Fisher (a frog), who lives in a “damp house amongst the buttercups at the edge of a pond.” So close to the edge, in fact, that the water gets into his larder, but Jeremy Fisher doesn’t mind that; he likes getting his feet wet. He also is pleased when he sees that it’s beginning to rain.
“I will get some worms and go fishing and catch a dish of minnows for my dinner,” said Mr. Jeremy Fisher. “If I catch more than five fish, I will invite my friends Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise and Sir Isaac Newton. The Alderman, however, eats salad.”
Jeremy Fisher does indeed go fishing, but the rest of the story is a series of misadventures. He fails to catch anything for a long time, so he decides to have his lunch of a butterfly sandwich (!). But while he is eating he is pinched by a water-beetle and hears a mysterious splash which he is afraid might be a rat. Then he catches, instead of a minnow, Jack Sharp the stickleback, who flaps around with his prickly spines, and a shoal of other little fish laugh at Mr Jeremy Fisher. Worst of all, Jeremy is then eaten by a big trout. Thankfully, the trout doesn’t like the taste of Jeremy’s a mackintosh and it spits him out.
Poor Mr Jeremy Fisher can’t offer his friends minnows for dinner, but it turns out all right in the end. Mr. Alderman Ptolemy Tortoise brings a salad in a string bag, and Jeremy serves roasted grasshopper with lady-bird sauce, on the subject of which the author comments:
“which frogs consider a beautiful treat ; but I think it must have been nasty.”
This story is fun for all ages, although it does have a little bit of peril for Mr Fisher. Though he had a bad day, he managed to persevere, adapt and make a nice dinner for his friends anyway.
2 slices sourdough bread (I used Schär gluten free seeded loaf)
2 eggs (duck eggs if you can get them)
2 handfuls mixed baby spring greens
2 large snips of cress or mustard & cress
1 tin sardines
2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp good butter
2 Tbsp young leeks, sliced.
1 sheet nori or kombu
4 fillets anchovies
Squeeze of lemon juice
Mustard and hot sauce to taste Method
First make the salad: arrange baby spring greens on two plates, and top with cress, chives, and a couple of anchovy fillets (these are very salty so use caution!). Then cut the nori into one inch strips and sprinkle on top (these are salty too so you only need two or three). If you like you can cut them into shapes — I cut them to look like butterfly wings. Drizzle with the extra virgin olive oil. Next fry the leeks and slices of bread in the butter on medium heat, or you can also use olive oil.
When the bread is golden, set aside and fry the sardines. Be careful with the sardines as they may fall apart if handled roughly. After a couple of minutes, when they are hot and slightly crisp, remove them and the leeks to a hot plate and fry the eggs. Duck eggs are preferable because they are very rich. They also should take only a minute or two to cook. Try to keep the yolk a bit runny. Add the fried bread to the plates with the salad, and top each slice with a couple of sardines. Then put an egg on top of the sardines. Sprinkle with a bit more cress and chives. At this point you can add a squeeze of lemon, although my sardines came in a tin with lemons, so I just drizzled a little of the lemony oil onto my eggs. Serve immediately with hot sauce and mustard.
Of course, maybe your guest is more like Ptolemy Tortoise and doesn’t want fish. In that case, you could make this cute mini stacked omelet. Cheese & Cress Omelet
1 handful baby spring greens
1-2 Tbsp cheese of choice (I used unpasteurized Red Leicester), grated
1 Tbsp milk or cream
A dash salt and pepper to taste
1 snip cress or mustard & cress
2 eggs (preferably duck eggs)
1 tsp butter or olive oil for frying Method
First add the spring greens with a dash of oil or butter to a medium pan to wilt. This should take less than a minute. Remove and set aside. Add the cream to the eggs, and salt and pepper to taste. Whisk them up and pour half the mixture onto a medium hot pan. If you have a mini frying pan you can use that, or you can pour the eggs into a metal cookie cutter to help them keep their shape. Flip the omelet when it starts to bubble in the middle (it should only take about a minute). After another minute, remove the omelet to a hot plate and pour the second half of the egg mixture onto the pan.
While this is cooking, top the first omelet with the wilted greens, cress, and cheese. When the second omelet is cooked, place on top of the first and scatter with a bit more cress, cheese, and baby greens. Serve at once. If Jeremy Fisher’s misadventures don’t put you off, never mind the rain and go fishing!
Whether you fish or not, have friends round for dinner, and cook something with a lot of green. It doesn’t have to be grasshoppers!