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: 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: 1 is One byTasha Tudor
1986, Aladdin Books, New York.
Last Friday (August 28th) would have been Tasha Tudor’s 100th birthday, so I thought we’d have a cream tea on the weekend and read some of her books.
Tasha and her family were very much into having iced tea in the garden.
But we need some reading material. 1 is One is a little rhyming counting book. It would be great for very young children, and useful for learning how to count 1 -20.
Adults and children alike can appreciate the beautiful and detailed illustrations, in both color and black and white. The subjects of the pictures are simple and relatable.
For our Tasha Tudor tea, we had iced tea, saffron buns, clotted cream and lemon curd. I made a fancied-up version of iced tea to go with the occasion. Iced Tea
2 fruity black teabags or loose tea in a tea ball
2 Tbsp honey or sweetener of choice
4 fresh mint leaves
Add hot water to teabags. Let steep for 5 minutes, then add sweetener to taste (you could use sugar, honey, or stevia.). Cut the lemon into slices, and add the slices and a squeeze of lemon juice, as well as the mint leaves. Pour into a large jug, adding cold water to fill, and leave in the fridge for at least 4 hours.
For the lemon curd I used this recipe, but roughly halved it. I’m the only one in my house who eats dairy so it often makes sense not to make too much!
1 egg yolk
2.5 Tblsp lemon juice
2 Tblsp butter
⅓ cup sugar
1 tsp lemon zest
Whisk together all the ingredients in a metal or glass bowl. Place the bowl over the top of a pot or pan of water and bring to a simmer, whisking frequently to prevent curdling. It may take about ten minutes. Eventually the mixture will thicken enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the butter and whisk well. Transfer to a clean jar and store in the fridge.
Assemble your tea and eat in the garden (under a crab apple tree if you have one). Hopefully it will be a delectable elevenish party!