Saturday 14 March 2009

Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer, Jane Brocket

I certainly didn't think, when I started this blog, I would be writing about a cookery book, but that was before I found Jane Brocket's collection of treasures: Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer. The premise of this book is to recreate the sort of food that was eaten in the golden age of children's literature. I discovered it on the shelf at work, and its very title evoked a Famous Five adventure, with "lashings of ginger beer" (a phrase that is not actually known to appear in any of Enid Blyton's novels, but describes them perfectly.) I looked at this book, and thought, "Surely not? Surely it's just the children's literature obessive in me that makes me think it could be a book about Enid Blyton's love of describing food?" It had a lovely, old-fashioned cover, and looking closely at the illustration I thought it looked suspiciously like Milly-Molly-Mandy. Looking inside, I realised this wasn't just about Enid Blyton, but food in children's literature down the ages. Of course, the first thing I looked for was to see whether there were any recipes from Anne of Green Gables, in particular, for Raspberry Cordial. There it was: "Marilla Cuthbert's Zero-Alcohol Raspberry Cordial." Along the way, I saw recipes also from Swallows and Amazons and, of course, Enid Blyton.

At that point, I realised I was not being paid to stand around reading books all day, so put it back, but my appetite was whetted. I wanted that book so badly! It looked to me as though Ms Brocket had reached into my childhood and made an edible version of it - for the books I mention here were more than just stories I read and forgot. Sometimes, looking back, I have such nostalgia for them that it takes a bit of effort to separate what I did as a child, and what I read about. Out of curiosity, I made a list of the ten most influential childhood books and series, and checked Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer to see how many featured. I expected several. I did not expect them all. But not one of my top ten was excluded. Not one! "This," I thought to myself, "Is a woman who's read all the right books."

Anne of Green Gables, as I may have mentioned before, was the series that was most influential. I found in Anne a "kindred spirit," one who was like me in ways no one in the real world was. She was a dreamer, constantly making believe and telling stories in her mind, if not to others. I have already made the Anne recipes from Cherry Cake... two items of food and drink that involve similar mistakes on the behalf of Anne: the raspberry cordial that Anne meant to give Diana when she came to tea, and the layer cake that was unfortunately flavoured with anodyne liniment. I replaced the liniment with vanilla flavouring, however, not being quite sure what anodyne liniment was when it was at home. Googling the word implies that it is some kind of antiseptic or painkilling medicine - tasty(!) I was very happy with how that turned out. Ms Brocket's recipe was unashamedly going for recreating the childhood fancy of a "layer cake" rather than realism, which was probably nothing grander than a Victoria sandwich. The recipe here was for some kind of strawberries and cream gateau, and allowed one to double the proportions for four layers. Because we had slightly smaller tins than the recipe suggested, I made a three-layer cake, sandwiched together with strawberries and cream. I also used plain flour with baking-powder, rather than self-raising, because in Anne, the heroine at first blames the baking-powder for the disaster, to which Marilla returns, "Baking-powder, fiddlesticks!" I cannot think of the word "Baking-powder" without the word "fiddlesticks" on the end. I have to say, it was the best sponge cake I'd ever made, and it did indeed come out of the oven "as light and feathery as golden foam," thanks to mum's gluten-free flour.

Have also made raspberry cordial, a drink so sweet and indulgent that you (at least, I) wonder that it features - I tend to think of Marilla as keeping a kitchen full of plain, simple, wholesome food, whereas Raspberry Cordial (not to be mistaken for currant wine) is simply delicious! I unfortunately dropped about a quarter of the jug over the kitchen floor, and it looked rather as though I'd committed a murder.

This afternoon, I had a Swallows and Amazons themed baking session. This is the ideal holiday adventure series - not as outlandish as Enid Blyton's Famous Five series, but escapism nonetheless. The series captures a less paranoid time when children would be allowed to go sailing and camping without adult supervision, with a father who reasons that his children are "better drowned than duffers, if not duffers, won't drown." It too is a wonderful world of make-believe, with the town (I visited there when I was younger, but I can't remember what it was called,) renamed Rio, and the Old Man of Coniston (that I do remember) christened Kanchenjunga. The series is well-written because it doesn't talk down to the children, but reports the stories with the same juxtaposition of reality and fantasy as they would use, not having to explain what is "real" and what is make-believe, because we just know. The Swallows and the Amazons (and later the D's) also enjoy lashings of ginger beer, but they call it grog.

I made "Bunloaf," a nice, thick, rich fruit cake, and "Seedcake," which is a funny, old-fashioned recipe, a sponge cake with caraway seeds which I'd never used before but which have a peculiar flavour. Tasty, but a bit dry, so best eaten with plenty of grog to wash it down. Seedcake is a thing I associate with the Secret Seven as well, though I don't know whether it ever made an appearance in the Seven's clubroom. But I have clear memories of play-acting Secret Seven, and even that it was George who brought it as a meeting snack. That was before I was conscious that seed-cake really existed. It just sounded like something the Seven would eat.

The very first recipe I tried out, even before the liniment layer cake, was Debby's Jumbles from What Katy Did at School. They appear in perhaps the most evocative description of luscious food in children's literature; a chapter called "Christmas Boxes." The girls, Katy and Clover, stay at their boarding school over Christmas, but are not forgotten by their family, who send them enough cakes, fruit and sweets to feed them and all their friends. One of these cakes, which I had always wondered about, was the jumble, which was descibed as a round, crumbly cake. I had always thought of them as rather like doughnuts, but they turned out to be half-biscuitty, half-cakey, and could be flavoured with any number of things. This time I made them with lemon zest, but I wonder what they would be like with cinnamon. Hmm... perhaps next time...

In case you were wondering, the ten series to which I was referring were:
Anne of Green Gables,
What Katy Did
Little House on the Prairie (I am yet to make any of these recipes. Am tempted by cornbread but have not yet located cornmeal in Isle of Wight shops.)
Swallows and Amazons
The Chronicles of Narnia (somehow, I never really thought of these in the same category of "food" novels, probably because there was so much else going on. Sardines on toast, though, will always be associated with Mr Tumnus.)
The Chalet School (When I went to stay with my Aunt in Germany a few years back, I was pleased to discover that kaffee und kuchen really does seem to exist as a meal - so much more honest than English afternoon tea - you skip the bread and butter and go straight onto the cake.)
The Famous Five
The Secret Seven
Malory Towers

These are the books that, one way or another, I seemed to live more than just read, whether it was by writing fill-in fan-fiction in my little blue folder (none of those stories ever got further than a page or two, but the intent was there) or played make-believe (on my own, generally. My school friends, at eight, were far too sophisticated to act out these books when I wanted to, so I had to play all seven members of the Secret Seven. Or I just read them over and over until I knew them backwards, and fictional incidents seem clearer than my own memories. And for me to find a book that has found all of these and extracted the edible parts of them - why, it's almost too good to be true. It's strange to think that anyone else could have written a cookbook that was so completely and entirely targetted at me.
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