Adventures in Stories

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde

Do you know what it’s like to be completely absorbed in a book? The world around you seems dim and distant, you are totally focused on the story you’re reading, to the extent that the imagined world that you’ve entered seems almost real?

In The Eyre Affair, Fforde has created a world where it is possible to step into the stories you’re reading and interact with the characters, living in the story alongside them. The reverse is also possible; literary characters can step out of their stories and interact with their readers in the real world, or rather, the ‘real’ world created by Jasper Fforde.

This is set in an alternate version of England, sometime in the mid-1980s. This is a world of literary detectives, vampires, pet dodos and time travel. Our heroine is Thursday Next – one such literary detective, on the trail of the villain Acheron Hades who is planning to kidnap Jane Eyre from the pages of the novel and hold her to ransom. This sounds very silly, but it is also a very clever story, and that’s an irresistable combination. It really works as a thriller or crime drama, and is just as absorbing as any non-fantasy inspired thriller. It’s also on occasion laugh-out-loud funny, filled with puns, wordplay and literary references. Shakespeare and Dickens feature fairly heavily, as of course does Jane Eyre. If you’ve never read Jane Eyre before, I would recommend it before starting this book – you’ll get so much more out of it.

The Eyre Affair is one of my all-time favourite novels. I first read it over a decade ago and my enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed. Needless to say, I recommend you try this one.

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Sausage Swirls

beef pinwheels

Sausage rolls are everywhere. They can be everyday and humdrum, available in supermarkets and petrol stations, good as a snack or for lunch, or perhaps for tea with a tin of baked beans and some oven chips (yum). They’re picnic food, something easy you can grab from the supermarket if you’re heading to a potluck-style picnic in the park with friends after work. There can also be something celebratory about them, given the frequency with which they turn up on buffets at parties.

Last week, I tried a Hairy Bikers’ recipe for ‘Minced Beef Pinwheels‘ which is from Mums still know best: The Hairy Bikers’  Best-Loved Recipes – a treasure trove of good, simple home cooking. They are like sausage rolls, but rather than containing sausagemeat the filling is minced beef mixed with dried herbs, tomato puree, onion and garlic. Rather than cooking onions and garlic and allowing them to cool before mixing them into the raw meat, as the recipe suggests, I used an onion seasoning blend, which both saved time and reduced the number of dishes I had to wash. You then dollop the meat mixture onto sheets of ready-made and (if you want minimal effort) ready-rolled puff pastry and roll it up like a Swiss roll.

The result was tasty and made a nice change for lunch. They’re quick and simple to make and therefore a fun little summertime project. Their swirly, celebratory appearance also makes them perfect for a party.

Rainforests

Have you heard of the Horrible Geography series of books? The Horrible Histories TV series is well-known nowadays, but I was unaware of Horrible Geography until fairly recently. Bloomin’ Rainforests (by Anita Ganeri,  llustrated by Mike Phillips) is part of this series and provides an engaging introduction to rainforests, which, whilst being accessible to children, is also interesting for adults.

I am no geographer, but I found this book fascinating. It clearly explains what a rainforest is and contains chapters on the animals and plants that thrive there, as well as some of the people who build their lives there. The last couple of chapters are important, focusing on the future of the rainforest and the dangers facing it. Overall, the book is written in a really engaging way, including cartoon-like illustrations, quizzes and a colloquial writing style which make the content really come alive and encourage the reader to interact with it, learning more in the process.

I really enjoyed reading this book. It reminded me of things I used to know as a kid and had forgotten, and taught me a few new things as well. I learnt about lianas and rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, and that there are plants that can walk. This is a great book for kids, but I’d recommend it for adults as well – it’s a quick read and a fun, engaging way of learning more about our world.

Toasty Oats

toasty oats 1

Oats are a staple food in Scotland, and like most staple foods they are incredibly versatile. They are generally associated with frugal dishes like porridge and oatcakes, but they can also be such a treat, particularly when their texture and flavour is enhanced by toasting them. Granola is an obvious example of this, making a welcome change from a bowl of porridge. Flapjack is probably the most common way of using oats in a sweet treat and is comforting, cheap and easy to make. Toasted oats are perhaps at their best in cranachan, where their crunch provide a contrast to the soft cream and raspberries.

I’ve made a couple of oat-based traybakes recently. The first is from Roald Dahl’s Even More Revolting Recipes by Felicity Dahl, which is the companion book to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Recipes. The recipe for ‘Pishlets’ is based on The Giraffe, the Pelly and Me, which I don’t actually think I’ve ever read. They were sticky and gooey, a bit like a super-charged flapjack. Rather than golden syrup, they contain demerara sugar and include both dried fruit (I went for sultanas and cranberries) and fresh fruit (apple and pear).

When I read the recipe, I thought they would be a cross between flapjack and a fruity granola bar, but they didn’t quite turn out like that. Due to the lack of syrup, I suspect, they didn’t hold together as much as I thought they would and I ended up eating them with a spoon, so they were less useful for packed lunches than I hoped. I also found them a bit too sweet for my taste, so would next time add a little salt and perhaps some cinnamon or ginger to boost the flavour a bit. They were still tasty though, and were great for a mid-afternoon energy boost.

The second oat-based recipe I made was rhubarb strawberry crisp bars from Smitten Kitchen. I love rhubarb and have cooked with it a little, but have never before tried the popular combination of strawberry and rhubarb. These bars, which I made exactly as the recipe suggests, were a perfect treat.

Toasty oats 4

Empire Biscuits

Glacé cherries are today seen as a bit of an old-fashioned ingredient. You may be advised to avoid them and either use fresh cherries instead or use the less garish, naturally coloured ones. I prefer to enjoy the nostalgia of them. Truth be told, I’m not much of a glacé cherry eater, but enjoy them on occasion in an old-fashioned cherry and almond cake or on top of a Fat Rascal from Bettys. Of course, cherries also signify celebration. Placed on top of a Knickerbocker Glory, now itself part of British seaside nostalgia, the cherry on top signifies that extra little bit of unnecessary indulgence, like a special birthday treat.

I had a very small number of glacé cherries to use up recently, unfortunately nowhere near enough to make a cake with them, but just enough to top a few buns or biscuits. I chose to make Empire Biscuits – another old-fashioned treat. They are the sorts of things you’d find in local bakeries or at coffee mornings, rather than in the trendier coffee shops that populate Glasgow’s West End.

Empire Biscuits are basically posh jammy dodgers. Two shortbread biscuits are sandwiched with jam, glazed with glacé icing, and a glacé cherry is placed on top. The recipe I used for them was from The Hairy Bikers’ Family Cookbook: Mums Know Best! This is a great cookbook, featuring recipes from a variety of real home cooks – often the best sorts of recipes. This one is entitled ‘Mrs Miller’s Empire Biscuits’ and it is clear that Mrs Miller really knows how to make shortbread. The biscuits contain cornflour and icing sugar and, I think because of those ingredients, they really melted in the mouth. I used a homemade jam to sandwich them together (Nigella Lawson’s cranberry jam from Feast). They tasted unlike any shop-bought biscuit I’ve had before, although they were a bit messy to eat due to the generous quantity of jam and my inept and slightly clumsy icing skills. They were great for a special treat with a cup of tea, leaving me with very sticky fingers.

Gingerbread Cupcakes

Gingerbread Cupcakes

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘treacle’? I would imagine that for many people, the first thing they think of is Harry Potter’s love of treacle tart:

‘Harry was too used to their bickering to bother trying to reconcile them; he felt it was a better use of his time to eat his way steadily through his steak and kidney pie, then a large plateful of his favourite treacle tart’.

J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Treacle tart in the Harry Potter novels is warming, homely and comforting – very important given the trauma he experiences throughout the series. In real life treacle tart is as delicious as Harry says, yet the name is something of a misnomer, as it very rarely contains treacle and is instead made with large quantities of golden syrup.

On the Discworld, rather, treacle is a naturally occurring substance which comes from mines – the Watch House is located on Treacle Mine Road. When you cook with treacle, you can see why the joke works; it’s such a dark, strong-tasting ingredient.

I generally bake with treacle during the autumn and winter. It’s a key ingredient of parkin and, of course, treacle toffee, both of which are traditionally eaten in Yorkshire around Bonfire Night. The taste of treacle reminds me of these dark, smoky autumn evenings and I would never think of it as being particularly suited to this time of year.

But then I stumbled upon a recipe for Gingerbread Cupcakes in Shelly Kaldunski’s Cupcakes and decided to make them last weekend. The cake itself is highly-flavoured gingerbread, made with ground ginger, cicnnamon, allspice and nutmeg, as well as grated fresh ginger. It’s then topped with a lemon glaze, which is a glacé icing made with lemon juice and the addition of lemon zest. The tangy icing is particularly welcome – it’s less sweet than a standard glacé icing and is a nice contrast to the dense gingerbread. This, plus the fresh ginger in the cake, makes a gingerbread which is perfect for Spring.

Scarpaccia

The Hairy Bikers are two of my favourite celebrity cooks and my all-time favourite show of theirs is the Bakeation, during which they travelled around Europe, learning about the baking traditions of different countries. As I love baking, travel and languages, it was inevitable that I would enjoy the show. I firmly believe that the absolute best way of exploring another culture is by speaking the language. However, I’m aware that that is not always practical. Therefore, the second best way of exploring another culture is to the eat the food produced by its people.

I enjoy the Hairy Bikers’ travel shows so much because they seem to understand the importance of food as a means of exploring a culture. When they travel, they visit big fancy restaurants and talk to local food producers, but they are also invited into people’s homes, where they learn how to cook local food from local people. Sometimes there are pretty obvious language barriers, but they and their interviewees always seem to make it work.

Given that the Bakeation is one of my favourite TV shows, it follows that the accompanying book (The Hairy Bikers’ Big Book of Baking) is one of my favourite books. It’s divided into chapters based on the countries they visited, which include both Western Europe (France, Germany, Italy) and Eastern Europe (Hungary, Slovakia). I seem to have cooked most from the section on Hungary – the bacon scones have become a staple in our kitchen – but the recipe I tried recently is the courgette tart from the Italy chapter, otherwise known as scarpaccia. I needed to use up some extra virgin olive oil, so thought I would give this a whirl. I wasn’t really sure how this would turn out or how to eat it – reading through the recipe suggested to me that it was basically a fancy Yorkshire pudding, with the addition of courgettes, cheese and a few other flavourings baked into the batter. This wasn’t quite accurate. The batter is similar to a Yorkshire pudding, but it cooks more like a cross between an oven-cooked pancake and the filling in a quiche. I originally served it alongside roast chicken, but it worked way better as a special treat for lunch. I tend to think I know a lot about Italian food – it’s fairly well-known in the UK nowadays – but this was a completely new idea for me. This is a good example of how this book can expand my horizons regarding some of the food traditions of Europe.