Mince Pies and Festive Cheer

December 11, 2011 at 11:18 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Joan the Cook | 1 Comment
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Another year, another mince pie recipe. I’m officially in love with Dan Lepard’s new book, Short and Sweet. Lots of detail on how to make the perfect loaf of bread but also many wondrous and unusual cake and biscuit recipes. I wonder what Joan the Cook would make of peach & saffron cake or banana blondies?

For a small festive shindig today I made mince pies, using Dan’s almond pastry, plus some dairy and wheat-free walnut, cranberry and chocolate biscuits (for a vegan guest). Both were delicious, if I do say so myself (Dan takes all the credit, not me – I was just following his sterling advice).

Clementines or some other small orange citrus fruit are also essential foodstuffs at this time of year. My local greengrocers was selling boxes of clementines, leaves and all, for a mere £2.50 so I couldn’t resist a box of these too. It was a tiny bit of a challenge to get them home on my bike but I did manage it. Eating a couple of these made me feel a tad less guilty about wolfing huge quantities of biscuits and pies. Short and Sweet also contains a recipe for clementine and oat muffins so perhaps I’ll try these next…

I hope everyone is getting as excited about Christmas as I am! x


A Famous Five High Tea

May 3, 2010 at 10:34 pm | Posted in Eating and Drinking, Joan the Cook | 1 Comment
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A chilly Bank Holiday Monday (too cold, wet and windy for a picnic) offers up the perfect opportunity to make a Famous Five High Tea. I don’t think you can be too prescriptive about what constitutes high tea, as opposed to afternoon tea, but I would say that it is more substantial as it can double up for dinner as well, and is therefore served slightly later (between 5-6 o’clock, rather than the 3-5 o’clock for afternoon tea). The Tea Council of Great Britain (yes, there really is a Tea Council of Great Britain) suggests that high tea generally consists of bread, meat and cakes, served with hot tea.

The Tea Council offers a historical overview of the practice of taking tea in this country, tracing the ritual of afternoon tea back to Anna Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford (left) who is said to have originated it in the early 1800s. As tea became more and more popular (often as a substitute for gin and other alcoholic beverages), working and farming communities began to have high tea, ‘a cross between the delicate afternoon meal enjoyed in the ladies’ drawing rooms and the dinner enjoyed in houses of the gentry at seven or eight in the evening.’

There are high teas aplenty in the Famous Five books (to say nothing of the extreme high teas of the Willow and Cherry Tree Farm books), although these are not always accompanied by cups of tea. After their hard day’s cycle to Billycock Farm, Mrs Thomas (mother of Julian and Dick’s friend Toby) prepares the children a substantial tea:

‘The four visitors wished they had not had such a big lunch! A large ham sat on the table, and there were crusty loaves of new bread. Crisp lettuces, dewy and cool, and red radishes were side by side in a big glass dish. On the sideboard was an enormous cake, and beside it a dish of scones. Great slabs of butter and jugs of creamy milk were there, too, with honey and home-made jam.’

It’s a hot day and the children all plump for milk rather than tea, feeling that ‘nothing could be nicer than icy-cold, creamy farm milk from the dairy on a hot day like this’ (conversely, the Tea Council’s FAQs highlight the scientifically-proven refreshing qualities of a cup of tea when it is warm outside). Mrs Thomas serves up another tea at the end of Billycock Hill, after an adventure which has involved stolen airplanes, an intrepid ‘pigling’ and a pair of ‘queer’ butterfly men. In the words of her son Toby this is so good it ‘isn’t a meal – it’s a BANQUET!’

As Samuel Pepys observed in his famous diaries, it is ‘strange to see how a good dinner and feasting reconciles everyone’ (9 November 1665), and the concept of the post-adventure feast crops up frequently in the FF books. I have referenced the memorable breakfast in Five on a Hike Together and Joan the Cook’s well-appreciated Secret Trail dinner in previous posts; both of these repasts give the children the opportunity to replenish themselves after various excitement and hardships, and debrief each other and/or their parents on what has gone before. Today has actually been relatively adventure-free but as I’ve been out of town for a day or two it’s nice to catch up with friends while making them eat retro and slightly kitsch foodstuffs. So, here is my suggestion for:

A Famous Five High Tea

First up, Joan the Cook’s stuffed tomatoes from Five on a Secret Trail. The recipe for this comes from Lucy H Yates’ The Country Housewife’s Book, first published in 1934 [my variations in brackets].

‘Take half a dozen ripe, but not over-ripe tomatoes [or one giant ‘Jack Hawkins’ (yes!) or similar tomato per person]. Cut in halves and remove the seeds. Prepare a forcemeat of a breakfastcupful of breadcrumbs and one tablespoonful each of grated cheese, chopped onions [or spring onions] and kitchen herbs (parsley, with basil or lemon thyme) [plus some of the flesh of the tomatoes, but no seeds]; moisten with one egg. Stuff the tomatoes; breadcrumb them and crown each with a nut of butter, or a few drops of olive oil. Fry or place in a baking dish or a quick oven.’ [220°c for about 20 mins]

Serve with new bread and butter, and salad. Technically this should be the Secret Trail salad but quite frankly, I think this is just too much, the Secret Trail salad being a small meal in itself. We ate our tomatoes with spinach, rocket, watercress and avocado with ricotta, a squeeze of lemon, a splash of white balsamic vinegar and a drizzle of olive oil. Incidentally, and perhaps ironically, I wouldn’t recommend tea with this and would instead opt for a glass of wine.

For afters, Carnation Milk Strawberry Jelly. Nestlé’s milk (in this context please pronounce ‘nessels’ rather than ‘neslay’) is a staple foodstuff for many of Blyton’s adventuring children, so even though I’ve not yet come across the Kirrins eating this particular dish, I think it has a place in a Famous Five High Tea.

Dissolve one packet of strawberry jelly (other flavours – lime for instance – would work well too) in 150ml of very hot water. When it has cooled down, slowly add one tin of evaporated milk, whisking gently as you do so. Pour the mixture into small dishes and leave to set for 2 hours. Garnish with fruit and gratings of chocolate [NB if you avoid Nestlé’s milk for moral reasons, many supermarkets sell own brand evaporated milk].


February 6, 2010 at 9:22 am | Posted in Aunt Fanny, Dick, Eating and Drinking, George, Joan the Cook | Leave a comment
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Residual guilt over Christmas indulgence and a pathetic lack of cycling in recent weeks have prevented me attempting Dan Lepard’s recipe for ginger beer scones, published in the Saturday Guardian a couple of weeks ago. A non canonical recipe, no doubt, but given the Five’s penchant for unusual combinations of food, I suspect they might like the idea of getting their daily ginger beer and scone fix in one convenient package (washed down with yet more ginger beer?). So I’ll return to this one in the near future…

Meanwhile, in the spirit of detoxification that seems to be taking over now that January is finally over (who can give up comfort food during this long, dark month?), this post is about soap. I was given Five Fall into Adventure for Christmas. This is the novel in which the Five first meet ragamuffin Jo, one of the few child characters to recur across a number of the FF stories. I’ll leave aside some of less PC elements of this book but note that the rather dirty and smelly Jo receives a number of good scrubbings at the hands of Joan the Cook. Cleanliness is next to Godliness as they say, and once Jo samples Joan’s food, and dons some of George’s clean and well-worn old togs (to say nothing of developing a serious crush on Dick), she gives up a life of petty criminality and, to keep going with the bath metaphors, throws her towel in with the Kirrins.

For me, old fashioned soap means Pears. Invented by Andrew Pears in a factory in London’s Soho in 1789, this lovely amber tablet was purportedly the world’s first transparent soap. Mr Pears developed it as a gentle product that would stand in contrast to the lead and arsenic in other soaps of the time, and he gave it a traditional, yet subtly exotic, country fragrance by using rosemary, thyme and the all-important and mysterious ‘Pears Fragrance Essence’. I bought a bar of Pears recently and thought it seemed different to how I remembered it – little did I know there had a been a recent outcry over changes to its 200 year old recipe. The original contained just 8 natural ingredients; the new formula has over 20 chemical ones. Due to protests, including a facebook group no less, this new version will soon be withdrawn, with the traditional Pears back in the shops come March.

One company selling stocks of the old Pears is the super Carbolic Soap Company. Their product range includes these delightfully lurid pink carbolic soaps (left), as well as washboards, scrubbing brushes, wooden clothes pegs and Mitchell’s wool fat soap – in short, everything Aunt Fanny and Joan need to keep Kirrin Cottage and its inhabitants sparkling and clean.

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