All Join In: Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Banana Cake

crocus
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.
daffodils
AJIa
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.
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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.
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‘Sorting Out the Kitchen Pans’ is about some more helpful children who take up the noisy task of…sorting kitchen pans.
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‘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.
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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.
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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.

or maybe not...
or maybe not…

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.
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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
3 eggs
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


cfbc1Method
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.
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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.
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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.
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My kitchen table IRL after making this — anyone wanting to JOIN IN tidying it up??

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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.
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ajih

Snow White: Damson Kissel

Book:
Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, freely translated from the German by Paul Heins, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
1974, Little, Brown & Co.
Autumn foraging

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.

blackberries

 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.

Damsons

From A Time To Keep by Tasha Tudor
From A Time To Keep by Tasha Tudor, 1977, Rand McNally & Co.

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.

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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.”

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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.
Sw5After 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.

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.  Sw8
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.

The end!

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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.
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Damson Kissel

Ingredients
1 lb damsons
4 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp potato flour, cornflour or arrowroot
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Method
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.

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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.
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Happy Hallowe’en!

Brambly Hedge: Honey Creams

Book:
The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge by  Jill Barklem
1990, Philomel Books

dahliaWe 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.

 

BHSaBy the banks of the stream was the dairy mill, powered by the flowing water.  Poppy Eyebright looked after the Dairy Stump.
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BHSdFurther down the stream was the flour mill, run by Dusty Dogwood.

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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.
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Brambly Hedge Wedding Menu:
Cold watercress soup
Fresh dandelion salad
Honey creams
Syllabubs
Merengues.
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.

BHSf
BHSgThe 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”.
honeycream8Summer 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 was this one, which reveals honey creams to be a sort of ice cream.

honeycreams1Honey Creams

Ingredients:
4 Tbsp thick honey
4 egg yolks
Half a pint whipping cream
1 Tbsp honey liqueur (optional)

The original recipe calls for grated chocolate, but i didn’t use it because I don’t think they have chocolate in Brambly Hedge.

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Method:
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.

honeycream7Without 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.

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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.


 

 

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Summer Party: Fairy Bread and Bubble Tea

Book: 
Summer Party  by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Wendy Anderson Halperin
2002, Aladdin Paperbacks
Poem:
Fairy Bread by Robert Louis Stevenson
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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.
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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.
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Here is their menu:
Pink lemonade with colored ice
Cookie cutter sandwiches
Lemon cookies
Fudge
A punch called the Cousins’ Crayon Concoction
SPcThe 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!
SPfThis 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.
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Cookie Cutter Fairy Bread Sandwiches

Ingredients
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
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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!

Yes I made Stegosaurus fairy bread.
Yes I made Stegosaurus fairy bread.

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.
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Cousins’ Crayon Concoction Bubble Tea

Ingredients
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.

The uncooked tapioca pearls
The uncooked tapioca pearls

Method
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.

The cooked tapioca pearls
The cooked tapioca pearls

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.

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And if you are me, you then add whipped cream and sprinkles, just because!


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.
SP_strawberriesThe only thing to remember is that you might need less sugar if the strawberries are very sweet.

The full spread!
The full spread!

Enjoy your Summer party and remember, there is so much to look forward to!

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Brambly Hedge: Rhubarb Crumble

Books:
The Four Seasons of Brambly Hedge by  Jill Barklem
1990, Philomel Books

yellowflowersThe 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.


bh2I 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.
BH7The 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.
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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.
bh3You can see this thought and attention in the lovely illustrations, which are fun to pore over to try to see every little minute detail.
bh5I 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.
bh4But 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.

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The mice seem to really like jam tarts.

Just some of the things described in this story are: bread and bramble jelly, buns, cheese, bramble brandy, hazelnut cake with cream, and primrose puddings.  Bread and jam, buns, cake, and cheese are all great picnic foods.  And it would certainly be interesting to make a primrose pudding! BH6However, without a community of people to carry the picnic, and without access to such ingredients as primroses or clover flour, I think it’s better to pack something simpler.  Here are two picnic menus that can be carried by one person.
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Picnic 1: Cream Tea
(serves 2 )

  • Small jar of jam
  • Small jar of clotted or thick cream
  • 4 crumpets, toasted
  • 2 hard-boiled eggs
  • A pinch of coarse salt in a screw of wax paper
  • A bottle of raspberry cordial
  • A bottle of May wine

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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.


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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.


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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.
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But you can also bring a book, which is another benefit of having a hamper.

englishfolksongs
English Folk Songs edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams & A.L. Lloyd, Penguin Books Ltd., 2009

I brought a book of folk songs because it seemed appropriate for a country show in May.
robinhood&thepedlarFor 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

Ingredients
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)

Rhubarb has such pretty Springy colors.
Rhubarb has such pretty Springy colors.

Method
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).
rhubarbramekin
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.
rhubarbramekin2


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.


 

 

Evening in a Sugar Orchard: Maple Ganache

Book:
A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor
1977, Rand McNally & Company.
Poem:
Evening in a Sugar Orchard by Robert Frost.

mar1Goodbye March!  Thankfully, it’s going out like a lamb, as it should, since it came in like a lion.
maplesyrup
March is sugaring season, when thawing days and freezing nights make the sap run in the trees.  Here is a beautiful poem about it by Robert Frost:
branchesThis poem can be read by anyone, but older children could really get into what Frost is doing with his use of language, rhyme, imagery, and his various references.  It’s also a fun poem to memorize and recite.  I particularly love the image of the sparks making constellations in the branches.  You could even go outside on a clear night and try to see  Leo, Orion, and the Pleiades.
TTKmar1Maple syrup is a wonderful and versatile sweetener which can be used in so many ways. In Tasha Tudor’s A Time to Keep, she shows what a big event sugaring used to be, with everyone pitching in to help, and then having a big open air feast at the end.  Many of you may not be able to  go sugaring, but if you can, you should!  I had to get mine from a bottle, but it was still great.  I used it to make a chocolate ganache.
tTKmar2ganache1
Maple Ganache

Ingredients
Dark chocolate
Cream
Maple syrup
Note: To make a thick ganache, chocolate and cream should be in a 1:1 ratio or equal parts. However, I substituted a quarter of the cream with maple syrup. To make enough to frost a small cake, I used two 180g (about 6 oz) bars of chocolate, melted, 270g (about 9 oz) cream, and 90g (about 3 oz) maple syrup.

Method
Melt the chocolate.  You can use the microwave, or you can rig up a double boiler by putting a metal or Pyrex bowl into a pan of water and bringing the water to a simmer, then putting the chocolate in the bowl, stirring occasionally until it is melted.  Remove from heat and slowly add cream and syrup, stirring until it is a glossy, even mixture.  Refrigerate for at least several hours, until set.  After this you can roll it into truffles, or eat it with a spoon.  Or refrigerate it only till cool, and frost a cake.
ganache2ganache3cake
Bring your cake to a sugaring-off party (and have sugar on snow for a treat)!
TTKMar3

Happy Spring!
Happy Spring!


The Willow Flute: Beef Daube and Butter Tea

Book:
The Willow Flute: a North Country Tale written and illustrated by D. William Johnson
1975,  Little, Brown and Company.

Goodbye Winter!  Many flowers are out now: snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils.  The mornings and evenings are lighter.  Now when I have to get up before 6 am there is a slight brightness to the sky, which makes it a lot easier to drag myself out of bed!

crocusesHowever, it is still very, very cold — colder than it was in December (we’ve had a very weird Winter here).  So here is a book for cold weather that looks forward to Spring.

wf1The Willow Flute tells the story of Lewis Shrew, who lives in a great forest.  One March evening, Lewis puts on his “boots and his old overcoat, his muffler and his mittens” to go out into “the white woods” to gather twigs for firewood.

When he goes out into the woods and sniffs the air, the woods seem different, even though they are still covered in ice and snow.  But “a hint of springtime swirled in the wind.”  After gathering twigs, Lewis sits down to rest and falls asleep.  When he wakes he is disoriented by the night and cold, and he longs for his house and a cheery fire.

wf3Lost and scared to go out on the surface because of owls, he starts to tunnel under the snow.  His clothes are soon torn and he loses his muffler.

wf5
Eventually he finds shelter in an abandoned cabin.  There he finds a willow flute and plays it.

wf6
As he plays, the world begins to warm and thaw.  Rain falls and melts the snow, and Lewis can now see his own house.  It’s a very interesting moment when Lewis begins to play the flute, as the black and white illustrations begin to have color, starting with himself:

wf7 wf8
This is a strange little book.  The writing is simple and straightforward:
“He paused to breathe the good air.  The sun sparkled through the trees and caught on the wonderful flute; a robin landed in a pine tree and green things were thinking of growing.”

But the illustrations are idiosyncratic and striking, done in a very bold and graphic style in black & white, with the interesting choice to bring color in gradually with the arrival of Spring.  Older children could explore these stylistic choices in art, with the creative use of hatching and crosshatching, detail and negative space, and other techniques to create an interesting image with just pen and ink.

wf9
Another interesting idea would be to explore the story itself, as the author makes the interesting choice to not really explain many things — whose cabin is it?  How does the magic flute work?  What is the meaning of the cryptic sign (“The bird, whistle please”) which is on the cabin door?  Who put it there?  Why?  These could all be good prompts for creative writing.

This is a very interesting book in and of itself, and suitable for all ages.  I myself have certainly had the experience of going out of doors in late Winter and finding that something is subtly different — a hint of Springtime is in the air.  I have felt that this year already, but right now it is cold!  It may well be where you are too.  So here are some cold weather recipes.

Maybe my number one comfort food is beef stew.  Daube is a French version, which is cheap, healthy and super comforting.  I’ve added ox cheek, which is full of collagen to make it extra unctuous and amazing.

daube2

Beef Daube

Ingredients
5 garlic cloves, chopped, or 2 Tbsp garlic paste
1/2 lb stewing beef
1 ox cheek (optional, you can replace it with more steak or chuck, but it’s well worth it if you’ve got it!)
1 cup carrots, chopped
2 cups onions, chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
1 Tbsp thyme
1 tsp rosemary
1 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cup red wine

Method
Chuck all the ingredients into a large Dutch oven or casserole dish with a lid.  You can brown the meat and onions first, but I never bother, because who has the time?  Cover and put in the oven at about 300 degrees F (that’s about 150 C).  Bake for 2 1/2 to 2 hours (but check on it now and again to make sure the liquid isn’t drying out, and top up with water if it is).  Once the meat is fork-tender, it is done!  Serve on its own, or with egg noodles (I had mine with vareniki).

daube1
Since we could probably do with a hot drink, too, here is a recipe for Butter Tea!  Butter tea (or po cha) is common in Tibet and neighboring countries, and is a good alternative for people who want to try Bulletproof-type coffee but don’t like coffee!  It is very rich and nourishing.

buttertea1

Butter Tea

Ingredients
2 cups water
2 black teabags, or loose equivalent (I used chai)
1/4 tsp salt
1 Tbsp butter (yak butter is traditional, but if, like me, you haven’t got it, use some good yellow grass-fed butter)
1/2 cup cream or whole milk
1 tsp honey (optional)
buttertea2
Method
Boil the water and then steep the tea.  Steep for at least  3 minutes so it’s nice and strong.  Add the cream, salt, and butter.  If you have a churn or a blender you can use those, or shake in a jar.  But be careful — hot liquids can expand and leak!  Personally, I use a tiny whisk that I can roll between my hands — almost as quick as an electric mixer and I don’t have to plug it in!  I have found that the butter emulsifies wonderfully.  Drink while nice and hot!  Note: it may be an acquired taste for those not used to it.  You can add a teaspoon of honey, which changes it from salty to salty/sweet.  Not necessarily authentic, but this recipe isn’t very authentic to begin with!

buttertea3

Drink by your cheery fire, and think of Spring!

 

Mr. Putter & Tabby and Henry & Mudge: Chicken Soup

Books: 
Mr. Putter & Tabby Catch the Cold  by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Arthur Howard
2002, Harcourt, Inc.
Henry and Mudge get the Cold Shivers by Cynthia Rylant; illustrated by Suçie Stevenson
1989, The Trumpet Club

We're back!
We’re back!

Well, here we are again!  I’m very sorry for the big gap in posts.  I was so busy and tired that I just couldn’t keep up.  However, I’ve since changed jobs and have much more time and energy.  And I have a lot to catch up on!
Being so tired and stressed took a big toll on me, and I spent a long time being pretty sick.  But this time of year many of us suffer from that one cold that goes around and gets everyone (especially if you have/work with kids).  So I thought we’d start with a couple of books by Cynthia Rylant for sick days.
Mr. Putter & Tabby Catch the Cold is part of the Mr. Putter & Tabby series.  Mr Putter is an older gentleman who lives with his cat, Tabby.  It would be suitable for kids of any age, but it would be good for those who are just starting to read chapter books, as it has four short, easy chapters and fairly simple text.
mptccIt takes place during Winter.  Mr Putter and Tabby love the snow and they love being cozy.  They really know what to do on a snowy day: make tea and muffins, light the fire and watch the snow fall.  Perfect!
mptcc2But then Mr Putter catches a cold by going out to get the newspaper funnies without a hat.
mptcc3When Mr Putter was a child, colds were fun.  His mother brought him soup and tea and adventure books.  But the plight of a grownup with a cold is different.  You have nobody to look after you (and usually you have to take a lot of cold medicine and go to work…yuck).  You can’t lie in bed with toys, soup, tea, and The Call of the Wild.
The rest of the story is about how Mr Putter’s neighbor, Mrs Teaberry, and her dog Zeke, help Mr Putter to get his soup, tea, and adventure book.  Zeke brings Mr Putter a Thermos of chicken soup, and another with peppermint tea and honey sticks.


Mr Putter ends up having a great day, and goes to sleep “full of soup and tea and adventure”.
This book is a good read for a wintry day.  The illustrations are fluid and charming.  Sadly, we have not got a single flake of snow here this year, and I enjoyed looking at the pictures of the snow.  If you are lucky enough to have snow, and have some time off, then light the fire, make some soup, muffins, and tea, get cozy, and watch the flakes fall.  Still, even if we can’t spend the day in bed, minty tea and adventure books are something almost any of us can enjoy, at home or even during lunch at work.
mptcc5Another book by the same author on a similar theme is Henry and Mudge get the Cold Shivers: The Seventh Book of Their Adventures.  Instead of a man and his cat, this series is about a boy and his dog.  It has three short chapters and is similar in style and tone.
hmcsHenry’s big dog Mudge likes it when Henry has a sick day and gets to stay home in bed.  Nobody thinks Mudge can get sick, but one day he does, and he has to go to the vet.  Henry is worried about Mudge, and the pages where he is sitting in the waiting room are actually quite sad.


It turns out that Mudge just has a cold, and the previous description of Henry’s sick days (Popsicles, comic books, and crackers) are contrasted with Mudge’s (ice cubes, a rubber hamburger, and crackers).  Of course Mudge gets well and there is a happy ending.
hmcs4This is a fun book which actually does address how scared kids can be when their pet is ill.  Having read this to a bunch of six year olds, they really liked it, particularly Mudge himself.  The only food in the book is the Popsicles and crackers.  I never had Popsicles when sick as a child, but I did have crackers in my soup.  So here is my family’s recipe for classic chicken soup.
chickensoup1
Chicken Soup

Ingredients
1 chicken (preferably free-range or pastured), giblets removed
2 stalks celery
3 carrots
Method
Put a big pot of water on the stove on high heat.  You could cut up the chicken here, but I never bother.  A 3 lb/1kg-ish chicken fits right in my big pot.  The water does not need to fill the pot, it just needs to cover the chicken.   Bring to boil and then reduce heat to simmer. As the chicken simmers, ‘scum’ will rise to the top. Get a big spoon and skim it off.  This is mostly cosmetic, so I often don’t bother with this either.  If you want a clear broth, you can always strain it later.  Cut up carrots and celery into vaguely 1 inch pieces and add them to the pot.  Cook, simmering, for about 1 to 2 hours, covered, or mostly covered. When the soup is done cooking, take the chicken out of the soup, cool chicken on a plate, then separate chicken meat from bones and skin. Put meat back into soup. Season to taste with salt.  You can re-use the chicken bones by putting them in a crockpot with more water to make bone broth.
This soup should be a mild broth.  It’s full of goodness and vitamins and will definitely make you feel better!  You could add cooked rice or noodles, or have it with crackers.

Of course, if you are sick, and like Mr Putter have nobody to cook for you, soup from scratch might be too much work:

Lazy Chicken Soup
Method
Prepare chicken and vegetables as above, put them in a crockpot with a little water, set to low, and go back to it in eight hours!  Dilute the broth with water and serve as above.

Extra Lazy Chicken Soup
Method
Use bought chicken broth and chicken.  Whatever, you’re not feeling well!

chickensoup

Put on your flannel pajamas, crawl into bed with some comic books, and get some rest!

Squashed Part 1: Spiced Maple Apple Cider

Books:
Squashed by Joan Bauer
1996, Orion Children’s Books
A Time to Keep by Tasha Tudor
1977, Rand McNally & Company

autumnleavesHappy Autumn!   I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since my last post!  I recently got a new job which is keeping me terribly busy and tired.  Too tired to really enjoy many of the delights of my favorite time of year.  But just because I can’t do everything I want to this Fall, it doesn’t mean I can’t do the most important things.

apple tree 2squashedUndoubtably my most reread book of all time is Squashed by Joan Bauer.  I read it every October.   This is obviously a book for somewhat older children and teens.  It deals with a lot of the issues of young adulthood, but in a very lighthearted and humorous way.  The protagonist is Ellie Morgan, a 16-year-old girl in a small town in Iowa, whose dream is to grow a giant pumpkin big enough to win first prize at her local fair.  Along the way she has to deal with a father who doesn’t understand her ambition, her struggle with her weight, the death of her mother, pumpkin thieves, and competition with her rival giant pumpkin grower, the “deeply despicable” Cyril Pool.  It’s nice to have a well-written female protagonist with such a specific and unusual passion as pumpkin growing.

sqashed2

The novel begins in August, with forty-six days to go until the annual Rock River Pumpkin Weigh-In and Harvest Fair.  I’m not sure how accurate the descriptions of giant pumpkin growing are (do people really feed their squash buttermilk?), but the writing is incredibly engaging and funny, particularly when Ellie is talking about her pumpkin, Max:

Noble Max, whose ancestors sustained the Pilgrims through their first winter in America.
That first winter must have been a bust, and you can bet the pumpkins weren’t appreciated right off.  Vegetables never are.  The Pilgrim children were probably crabbing by December (‘Oh no, pumpkin again!’), never realizing a pumpkin had all those disease-fighting nutrients and was a key dietary staple since it was too big to be lugged off the settlement by wild, rabid bears.  It just goes to show you that even ancient people couldn’t appreciate something right under their noses, which is probably why the Pilgrims went extinct.  There’s a lesson here for all of us, especially my father.
(p.15)

Ellie is also a great cook, and there are lots of descriptions of food to choose from: Irish soda bread slathered in plum preserves, butter pecan seven-layer cake, baking powder cheese biscuits, split pea soup with sausage, and sautéed cinnamon apples.

However, since this last weekend was our local Apple Day,  I’ve got a big thermos full of fresh apple cider to use up: the ultimate October treat.  Cider is always a sensitive subject for me, since here in the UK you cannot find cider in the American sense.  “Cider” is alcoholic cider.  They have imported the Pumpkin Spice Latte, but not the Caramel Apple Spice…and I don’t like coffee!  Misery!

ciderThe good news is that if you can get yourself to an Apple Day there will no doubt be someone with an apple press squeezing out delicious, unpasteurized, unfiltered apple cider.  I usually wait a day for it to ferment just a little, and then it’s time to enjoy it — hot, cold, mulled.

apple day

spices
Spiced Maple Apple Cider

Ingredients
Spices to taste: cloves, nutmeg, allspice, star anise, ginger, cardamom
Cinnamon stick
1/2 cup extra-thick or whipped cream (optional)
2 pints fresh apple cider (or cloudy apple juice if you can’t find it)
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup maple syrup

Method
Pour the syrup into a medium hot pan with a dash of water.  Add the vanilla.  If your spices are whole, crush them slightly with a pestle or something heavy.  You can add them to the pan as they are, or put them in a tea ball and then add.  Finally, pour in the cider and bring to a simmer.  Strain into a jar.  If your spices are in a tea ball you can continue to steep them.  When cool enough to drink, top with whipped cream if desired.

DSCF2051Enjoy hot in the most cozy fashion you can manage! 
shopping apples
This October, see if you can find an Apple Day, visit an orchard or a PYO farm, or go scrumping for wild apples!

A Time to Keep‘s October section shows how little the wholesome activity of cider-making has changed:

ttkmaking cider

apple treeTo add to the coziness, my husband made a split pea soup.  Not with sausage, like Ellie’s, but still warming and hearty.  He used this recipe, from a book we got last Christmas:

ttkapplebobbing
Looking forward to Hallowe’en! Who has a costume picked out?

 

Best of British Summer 2015

Poem:
The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear

One thing that we do a couple of times a year is what we call Best of British.  This started one day years ago when we were in a pub.  We saw that they were having a little food festival called Best of British.  But it was rather expensive.  I said, “I could make us all that for a lot less!”  So I did, and we’ve been doing it ever since.  Anyone could do it with their local cuisine, and it’s a lot of fun if you like to cook.  Here is this Summer’s menu.

menus

bob2015starterAs you can see the first one is quince-themed, and as we’ve been talking about “The Owl and the Pussycat”, we read that poem at dinner (sorry about the ham, Pig Robinson).  It’s one of the more accessible Lear poems, and has a lot of fun wordplay and evocative imagery.  It’s also very easy to memorize.

Here is a recipe for the piccalilli, which is a nice old-fashioned pickle.

Easy Piccalilli

Ingredients
1/2 Tbsp vinegar
3 Tbsp mustard powder
1 Tbsp whole grain mustard
1/2 Tbsp sugar
3 tsp garlic paste
1/3 of a zucchini (courgette), diced
1 onion, diced
1 sweet pepper, diced,
1 carrot, diced
1 cup broccoli & cauliflower, broken into florets

Method
Put the mustard, vinegar, garlic and sugar in a pan and simmer .  Add the vegetables and allow to soften only slightly.  Then take off the heat and allow to cool, stirring now and then. Store in a jar in the fridge.

Eat with quince and dance by the light of the moon!

pr5
From The Tale of Pig Robinson