A Feast of Pure Imagination: Six Recipes From Children's Literature
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Children’s books are jam-packed, stuffed to the gills with food.
The smallest toddlers begin their bookish adventures with The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Each Peach Pear Plum, a Big Pancake, an Enormous Turnips and an unstoppable Magic Porridge Pot. Roald Dahl holds young readers in thrall with a Giant Peach and a Chocolate Factory. Paddington, Pooh and Bilbo Baggins all call halt for elevenses be it marmalade sandwiches or hunny with condensed milk (hold the bread). Julian, Dick, George and Anne have unfathomable appetites for hard-boiled eggs, and who could forget Louisa May Alcott's Jo, reading and weeping while munching an apple? The fictional store cupboard, it seems, is never bare.
Given that fictional characters don’t even need to eat, why do they continually snack, forage, feed and feast?
All that food, from mid-morning snack to mid-night feast, plays an important role. Food introduces something solid and familiar, something real, into a make-believe world. Food makes the fiction more acceptable and instantly credible.
Even the youngest children understand the significance of food. They know how it feels to be hungry when they forget their packed lunch and they know the comfortable satisfaction of a full tummy. The expected meals, served at the regular times, signify normality and security. Children understand Fantastic Mr. Fox’s anxiety when he can’t feed his family. Red Riding Hood’s picnic basket, packed by Mother, is a tangible link to home. A vast banquet in the great hall signifies success, joyous celebration, a job well done. The food in books tells children what to feel.
Oftentimes, authors use food to teach lessons. A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh getting stuck in a doorway is clearly a caution against gluttony. Violet Beauregarde pays the price for her greed when she is turned into a blueberry. C.S. Lewis reveals Edmund Pevensie’s weakness when he sells out his siblings for some Turkish Delight.
Each of us has treasured memories of childhood meals. They are unique. My Granny had a way of mashing carrots that means nothing to you but which I’ve spent half my life trying, in vain, to reproduce.
What we share, as readers and bibliophiles, are those fictional food memories. Who among us hasn’t longed for a luminous lolly, "for eating in bed at night"? We have all gazed in awe at the Mad Hatter’s incredible spread. We have sat side by side, you and I, watching Harry Potter tuck into his treacle tart.
Join me, please, in a feast of pure imagination.
1. Just Right Porridge with Hunny
Ingredients (just enough for a Daddy, a Mummy and a Baby Bear):
1 cup oatmeal
3 cups boiling water
Pinch of salt
Cream and honey to serve.
Stir the oatmeal, water and salt together over a medium heat until it boils. Simmer for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally to forestall a volcanic eruption. When it is, in your opinion, just right serve with a generous splash of pouring cream and a drizzle of Pooh’s hunny.
2. Pippi Longstocking’s Pancakes
"At which she took out three eggs and flung them into the air. One of the eggs fell on her head and broke, and the yolk ran down into her eye...then she took a bath-brush, which hung on the wall and began beating the batter so that it splattered on the walls." – Astrid Lindgren
While you are welcome to take Pippi Longstocking’s avant-garde approach, I suggest a less messy method.
Ingredients (plenty for a gluttonous gang of six):
450g (1 lb) plain flour
1 tsp bread soda
½ tsp salt
600ml (1 pint) buttermilk
Butter for frying.
Mix together the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Mix together the wet ingredients in a jug. Pour the wet into the dry and stir with a balloon whisk to make a thick but lump-free batter.
Melt a knob of butter in a large flat pan. Drop the batter in splodges of approximately one large tablespoon each.
Wait until you see bubbles bursting and then flip each pancake and cook until gorgeously golden.
Serve with yoghurt, berries, more (there must always be more) of Pooh’s hunny and Pippi’s warning to,
"Eat it, eat it before it gets cold!"
3. Green Eggs and Ham
Holy smoke, Green Eggs and Ham caused a furore in my kitchen. My children argue that I have failed because the ham is pink. However, when I was sent to the butcher’s shop as a child, to buy six slices of ham for the lunch-time sandwiches, the butcher would ask, "green or smoked?" The ham I’ve used here, un-smoked, is green. So there. The eggs, I admit, are merely speckled green but they taste so good you will eat them in the rain.
"And in the dark. And on a train. And in a car. And in a tree. They are so good, so good, you see!" – Dr. Seuss
Ingredients (for one fully-grown Sam-I-am):
2 slices of green (un-smoked) ham
2 tbsps of fresh basil pesto
Butter for frying.
Crack both eggs into a small bowl. Break them up with a fork and add one table spoon of pesto. Melt a knob of butter in an omelette pan over a medium heat. Pour in the green eggy mixture and tilt the pan to spread it over the pan. Cook gently, for a minute or so, to set and flip over for just twenty seconds on the other side.
Slide the green(ish) frittata onto a plate, spread with a second spoonful of pesto and artfully drape with the pink/green ham.
"You do not like them, so you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say." – Dr. Seuss
4. Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’s Nouilles et Fromage en Casserole.
Growing up in Ireland during the 1970s, macaroni and cheese was the stuff of my wildest imaginings. We were offered a choice between tinned spaghetti hoops and baked beans on our toast and that was where our experience of pasta began and ended.
From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg may have been the first truly great book I ever read. This was the story that taught me I wasn’t restricted to living just one life. I could live as many lives and have as many adventures as I could find books to read. Claudia Kincaid fixed two ideas in my mind: I was determined to lay my eyes on a carving my Michelangelo Buonarotti and I wanted to eat, from a silver salver or otherwise, a large helping of macaroni and cheese. Both, in reality, surpassed my expectations.
Ingredients (for a family of six hungry savages):
55g (2 oz) butter
55g (2 oz) flour
600ml (1 pint) full-fat milk
220g (8 oz) grated cheddar cheese
Cook the macaroni, with a pinch of salt, in a large pot of water until just al dente.
While the pasta cooks, make the cheese sauce. First, make a roux by melting the butter and mixing in the flour. Stir over a low heat for two minutes to cook out the flour. Add the milk gradually, whisking constantly and blending any lumps. Turn up to a medium heat and keep stirring until the sauce thickens to a smooth, unctuous consistency. Take the pot off the heat and stir in half the grated cheese and the egg.
Combine the cooked macaroni with the sauce in a casserole and scatter over the remainder of the cheese. Bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 20 minutes. I like to assuage any pangs of guilt by serving this with something green on the side.
5. Treacle Tart
"As Harry helped himself to a treacle tart, the talk turned to their families." – J.K. Rowling
Ingredients (for a tea-party of eight):
220g (8 oz) plain flour
110g (4 oz) salted butter
yolk of one egg
1 tbsp ice-cold water
350g (11 oz) golden syrup
200g (7 oz) breadcrumbs
- 2 lemons
Roll out the pastry to line a 20cm (8 inch), loose-bottomed tart tin. Prick the pastry all over with a fork and then let it rest in the fridge while you make the filling.
Set the oven at 200 degrees Celsius to pre-heat.
Place a saucepan directly on your weighing scales and weigh the golden syrup directly into it. Any other method of measuring this goo will end in sticky disaster. Add the breadcrumbs, the juice of both lemons and the zest of one. Bring the mixture to the boil and stir over a medium heat for a minute. It will feel thick and promisingly gloopy.
Spread the mixture over the base. Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 10 minutes and 180 degrees Celsius for a further 20 minutes. Treacle tart is best served hot with ice-cream.
6. Lashings of Ginger Beer
I was the sixth hanger-on to The Famous Five. I escaped to Uncle Quentin‘s house, explored Kirrin Island and lingered on the edges of all those splendid picnics. For the ultimate taste of literary nostalgia it has to be ginger beer.
Ingredients (to fill three 750ml bottles, plenty for The Famous Five plus One):
110g (4 oz) fresh ginger
220g (8 oz) sugar
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
1 tsp dried yeast
small pinch of salt
2 liters of water
Finely grate the fresh ginger into a large jug using a microplane grater. Add the sugar, lemon juice and zest, yeast, salt and one liter of water. Mix well and allow the ginger to infuse for 10 minutes. Using a funnel and a fine nylon sieve, strain the beer equally between three glass bottles. Use the second liter of water to rinse your jug, again straining and dividing equally between the three bottles. This should leave a space of two inches at the top of each bottle to accommodate some gas.
Leave the bottles at room temperature for 24-36 hours by which time they should be fizzy. If you turn the bottles (gently!) you will see a few gas bubbles streaming to the top. Refrigerate the ginger beer and drink up within a week. Warning: if you don’t put the ginger beer in the fridge the bottles will explode. Don’t ask how I know that.
"I say- this has boiled up into quite an adventure, hasn't it?" – Enid Blyton.