Sunday, 19 September 2021

Cookery Book: The Little Library Cookbook


At the end of the summer holidays, I spent a very happy couple of weeks cooking my way through a beautiful cookery book: The Little Library Cookbook: 100 recipes from our favourite stories by Kate Young. It is a lovely book, full of recipes inspired by fictional meals in literature, some famous, some not so much. I love both cooking and reading - my favourite part of any book is when the author describes what the characters are eating - and I knew I would like this book, and I did. It would make a really good gift for anyone who enjoys both reading and pottering in the kitchen. 

The book itself is arranged loosely around meal times and types, but with extra chapters tantalisingly entitled "midnight feasts" and "parties and celebrations".

I worked my way through the book, trying to cook something from every chapter, although I didn't have much use for the Christmas or party food section in August. As ever, I am hoping for more ideas for everyday weeknight dinners, always the element of cooking that I least enjoy.

I began with the chapter "before noon", containing delights such as marmalade (Paddington), pancakes (Pippi Longstocking), baked beans (Little House on the Prairie) and cold apple pie (The Railway Children). I chose Green Eggs and Ham (Dr Seuss, of course) which is basically pesto scrambled eggs on toast with ham.

Now, I love pesto and I love scrambled eggs, but I have never thought to put them together. I made parsley pesto (parsley, parmesan, oil, garlic and almonds) and stirred this into the eggs just before they were cooked.

What a revelation! The result looks a lot like avocado, but with a million times more flavour. It is completely delicious, and a really easy way to add something to simple scrambled eggs on toast. Definitely something to make again.

From the afternoon tea chapter, I could have made every recipe. I enjoyed trying these Anzac cookies, a cross between flapjacks and cookies, chewy with oats and coconut. They were perfect for mid-morning or afternoon snacks with a tea or coffee and kept really well in the tin for ages. (Inspired by the book Possum Magic by Mem Fox, these cookies are well known and were originally made and sent to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, or Anzacs, during the First and Second World Wars. Kate Young lives in the UK now but grew up in Australia, hence the connection.)

I tried hunny and rosemary cakes (Winnie-the-Pooh), which were rather grown-up cupcakes, made with dark brown sugar, honey and chopped rosemary, before being finished with a cream cheese frosting.

Next time I would line the muffin tin with cupcake cases though, as despite greasing and flouring the tin, they did require a bit of persuasion to leave the tin in one piece.

I definitely had to try the madeleines (In Search of Lost Time by Proust, who else?), if only to get out my not-much-used madeleine tin. 

Madeleines are tiny sponge cakes with a crispy shell and soft sponge. You have to chill the batter for a couple of hours with madeleines - to help the sponge rise into the little peak I believe - but otherwise they are very easy to make and even easier to eat. 

From the dinner table chapter, we tried lots of things. There was "a fine curry", (Vanity Fair) for which we substituted the goat for lamb. 

I like my curries to have a little more punch and flavour than this one, which felt more like a spiced stew. However, the kids really loved it. 

We tried spaghetti and meatballs (The Godfather) which I knew we would all like but I was curious to try a different recipe. These involved making meatballs from scratch before lightly rolling them in flour and chilling them in the fridge. Normally I buy a pack of ready made ones from the supermarket and make my own sauce.

You fry them, remove them while you make the tomato sauce, then add them back in to simmer while the spaghetti is cooking.

There was something mindful and enjoyable about making the meatballs from scratch, rolling the balls in my hands, lining them all up on the baking tray. Nice cooking to do on a weekend afternoon when you're not in a hurry.

We tried spanakopita (from Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides). This involved emptying a 1 kg bag of frozen spinach into a pan and frying until it's all hot and you've removed as much water as possible. After that you drain it in a sieve and it's amazing how much more liquid keeps appearing as you squeeze the mixture. Once it's as water-free as possible (to avoid soggy pastry) you add the feta cheese. I could have just eaten this mixture from the bowl as it was.

Spanakopita requires filo pastry which I don't use much because, I don't know, I just think puff or shortcrust are nicer. But I layered my shop-bought sheets with melted butter and filled it with spinach, and tried to roll it up into a coil, as per the recipe, but it broke into two big sausage shapes. I decided to bake them like that and they were really good despite the unappealing presentation. John and I shared half each of the smaller pie for dinner with some salad, and the larger one I chopped into pieces which I then ate for lunch and it was still delicious. I would add more feta next time though. 

From the chapter entitled "midnight feasts" we tried sausage rolls and ramen, neither of which we ate at midnight. The sausage rolls (from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) were really good and very easy, simply a well seasoned and flavoured mixture of sausage meat, pork mince and vegetables inside puff pastry. Easy to make, fun to assemble with the children, and easy to eat for lunch. Good hot and cold. 

We had to try the ramen recipe (inspired by Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto) because Bella is obsessed with ramen and would eat it every night for dinner. I have never gotten near creating a ramen stock as flavourful as one I have eaten in a restaurant, so don't make it very often. 

This was one of the best recipes I've tried though - I think it was the addition of shitake mushrooms to the stock - and completely, wonderfully delicious. Angus doesn't really enjoy ramen ("I can't tell if it's a stir fry or a soup!") so I tend to serve his with hardly any stock, but the rest of us loved it. I also need to invest in some proper ramen bowls and spoons, as pasta bowls and soup spoons don't really work that well. 

So, altogether, a delightful book which is as lovely to cook from as it is to simply read in bed. It had the added bonus of making me think about books I hadn't done for a long time, such as Kitchen by Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto. I loved this book when I read it twenty years ago, and have a few of hers, and think it's time for a re-read. Plus all the hundreds of books out there which I really want to read at some point, old and new. I would love to know if you have any favourite food-related fiction books or authors you would recommend. 

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Endings and Beginnings

I have been trying to put this post together for a couple of weeks. It was going to be all about the end of August, those last long days of the holiday, but then life took over, and that feels like a long time ago now. 

The last weeks of the summer break were slow for a couple of reasons: my sore back (which is much better now) prevented me from doing jobs I wanted to do, like decorating, and coffees and dinners and all sorts of social things were cancelled by covid or people isolating. To be honest it was relief when the holidays ended and we could just get back to some routine. 

Conscious that it had not been the most exciting summer holiday for the children, we planned a trip to London. (We did have days out and short stays with friends and family, but no "proper holiday", and six weeks is a long time to fill.) We went to the Design Museum to see an exhibition all about trainers, went to Five Guys for burgers for lunch and wandered through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park. We popped into Covent Garden and lots of shops along the way. This was the children's first visit to London for a couple of years and it was fun seeing it through Bella's teenage eyes - clothes shops in particular were much more appealing than they were a few years ago.

The garden has changed a lot in the last few weeks but the dahlias are still going strong. I planted all these from seed (seed!) back in March with very low expectations of being able to keep anything alive, but they are doing so well. 

They're not going to win any awards, and the slugs seem to love them, but I can hardly keep up with picking them.

Inspired by our trip to Hinton Ampner during the holidays, I bought a white hydrangea for the garden. I will plant it into a much bigger pot (I will have a huge terracotta pot soon when I move the fig tree into the border) and keep it well watered.

The other hydrangea making me happy is this lacecap variety in the front garden. It spent years hidden by brambles but is now pruned, watered regularly and a prolific producer of flowers in pinks, blues and purples.

Our walks reflect the softening of the landscape and the changing weather.

I am always a bit surprised to see a photo of blue skies from the summer holiday because it was mostly cloudy. Overcast and humid or overcast and cool, but never hot and never rain. So we didn't get any beach days AND I still had to water the garden......

Typically, it was really warm and sunny when everyone was back at school. I'm not bitter. But the lack of rain means that some of the trees are already starting to change colour and it's all looking a bit dusty.

I did manage to pick some blackberries at the end of the holidays, one of my favourite summer rituals.

I made about eight jars of bramble jelly. We get through loads of this as the children seem to prefer it to jam. I love the tartness, and especially like it on toast or dolloped on top of homemade rice pudding.

I kept a few berries back to make some compote to spoon over porridge and yogurt. It is nice but the blackberries to go a bit hard when cooked with sugar (even for a short amount of time), reminding me why jelly is always a better bet than jam with blackberries.

And of course I have a few bags of blackberries in the freezer, ready for blackberry and apple crumbles, one of the best, and easiest, puddings you can make.

Outside of the kitchen, crafting and reading continue in the background, crochet especially keeping me calm and providing me with a bit of mindful activity (providing I can keep my eyes open in the evenings). I am crocheting this top although at my current rate, I don't think I'll get much wear out of it this year, it might have to wait till next spring.

My Stitch a Day project is continuing to provide much joy, and I am excited now that the wheel is moving towards the orange tones of September and October.

August's stitches are full of our travels and trips to different parts of the UK: the Angel of the North, fountains at Alnwick Garden, the Yorkshire Rose, Durham Cathedral, Longleat Safari Park (the jeep), Hinton Ampner, Southsea Pier, London and watching Banger Racing. There are lots of flowers, including ragwort, agrimony, sunflowers and dahlias, and blackberries, corn and barley reflecting the changing seasonal food. There's also everyday memories like cleaning, crochet, laundry and scissors to represent haircuts for Bella and I.

Now the summer holidays are firmly behind us, and we have just finished our first week back at school/work. I don't think the children are thrilled to be back, but equally they are happy to be seeing their friends and I think it's good that they are stretching their brains, although I'm sure they disagree. My first week of teaching has gone well overall. My class are really, really lovely and while it is all very overwhelming and exhausting, I feel like on balance it's good. Just unbelievably tiring.

Now that the alarm goes off at 6am again, I am noticing the morning sunrises as I stumble around blearily filling the kettle. It's getting darker earlier. Autumn is coming.