Book: Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling
1912, The Country Life Press
It’s been quite a hot summer here, which has led to us wishing we were at the seaside more than once. Later in August we’re going camping in Devon, but until then we just have to remember our last trip, as well as reading a lot of beachy stuff.
Our story today is from Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling: ‘How the Whale Got His Throat.’
In the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel. All the fishes he could find in all the sea he ate with his mouth–so!
As you can see, it’s a really fun story to read aloud, preferably with actions. The story concerns a Whale who eats all but one of the fish in the sea, and finally makes the mistake of eating a ship-wrecked Mariner, who is a “man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.”
But the Mariner causes so much trouble for the Whale by jumping around and dancing hornpipes where he shouldn’t, that the Whale lets him out again, and even takes him home.
While the Whale is taking him home, the Mariner cuts up his raft into a grating and drags it into the Whale’s throat:
By means of a grating
I have stopped your ating.
So after that the Whale can only eat teeny little fish
This is a fun little tale for all ages, although obviously some of the vocabulary might need to be read aloud for younger ones. It would go very well with a unit on origin myths or one on whales, baleen, overfishing or ocean life cycles.
Like the Whale, we have a big problem with overfishing in our oceans, which are already having enough problems with climate change and plastic pollution. Littler fish like sardines or mackerel are (generally speaking) more sustainable, although you should always check up on the specific brand to see how and where they source their fish.
Little Fish Cakes
2 tins sardines, mackerel, or other little fish (or fresh equivalent)
1 cup mashed potatoes or sweet potatoe
Juice of half a lemon
¼ cup sweet chili sauce
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
½ tsp ginger
Oil of choice
Salt and pepper
Mix all the ingredients together. You can use a potato masher or a fork to ensure that the fish is mashed up properly. Season to taste and then drop tablespoonfuls onto a medium-hot pan coated with your oil of choice (I recommend coconut oil). Flatten into little pikelets and fry for about 2 minutes on each side, until they are looking nice and golden and crisp.
They are nice served with sweet chili sauce, olive oil, lemon juice and a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and red onion. They’re yummy both hot and cold and are a good way to get the healthiness of oily fish for people who are a bit fussy about eating little bones and stuff.
And if you are lucky enough, little fish cakes would go really well on a seaside picnic!
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: 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.
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.