Fairytale feast of recipes inspired by children's books

Caroline Hennessy creates a feast of not so fictional food: Spiced hot chocolate, Swedish ginger snaps, home baked beans, and roast eggs

Caroline Hennessy with her daughters hannah and Maya Baigent at their home near Kildorrery, Co Cork.

It may be cold and damp and dreary outside, but indoors, we can be in a different, more cosy world. Step one: cuddle up with your kids on the couch — roaring fire essential — and delve into some classic children’s books together. Step two: feed small people’s imaginations as well as their tummies and teach them valuable (and tasty!) life skills by cooking dishes inspired by the reading.

At our cottage, this is the kind of project that can keep Hannah, who is seven, and five-year-old Maya busy for hours. Food is enormously important in books for small people of every age, from the catalogue of random items eaten in The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Harriet the Spy’s tomato sandwiches and Aunt Fanny’s black treacle ginger cake in Five on a Treasure Island. One of the pure joys of doing this is the chance to revisit your own favourites. I must confess; I’ve a box of childhood treasures that I’ve hauled around for years for just such eventualities. Laura Ingalls Wilder, Arthur Ransome and Enid Blyton figure strongly, as does Elinor M Brent-Dwyer, Susan Coolidge and Philip Pullman. While some of the foods are better remaining on the page — the liniment layer cake from Anne of Green Gables, for example, or Pollyanna’s calf’s foot jelly — dishes like Heidi’s raclette-style cheese feast with her grandfather, molasses pies in What Katy Did or the treacle tart beloved by Harry Potter can also be starting points for a wander through other countries’ food traditions and flavours.

But food and books are about more than keeping the kids occupied for a damp half term afternoon. It’s a way of making memories. So ignore the mess or the fact that what you’re cooking didn’t come out quite the way you had hoped. In the end, it’s not even so much the making and the baking that’s important, but the people that you do it with. And, with any luck, you’ll also have something good for dinner.

Northern Lights, Philip Pullman

“Hello,”says the beautiful lady...”Do you like chocolate?”

“Yeah!”

“As it happens, I’ve got more chocolate than I can drink myself. Will you come and help me drink it?”

Mugs of cocoa, often around campfires, make a regular appearance as a comforting wind-down-after-adventures drink in Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome books but it takes Philip Pullman to put a sinister slant on simple hot chocolate.

A young adult novel, Northern Lights is the first of the superb His Dark Materials trilogy and tells the story of the brave and rebellious Lyra as she tries to save her friend Roger. He has been taken by child-stealers called the Gobblers, headed up by “the beautiful lady” Mrs Coulter, who uses chocolatl – an archaic Mexican word for chocolate – to entice children into her web. The books are addictive, and not just for young adults, and made me want to brew something dark, spicy and delicious.

Spiced Hot Chocolate

This is a wonderful vehicle for introducing children to spices and I choose according to the day and mood.

It’s ginger for warmth, cinnamon for comfort, a grating of fresh nutmeg to soothe and chilli to enliven. Cardamom gets a look in when I want to dream of somewhere exotic and I add a half spoonful of vanilla if small people are out of sorts. Measurements are per person.

  • 25g dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids
  • 200ml milk
  • A pinch of your spice of choice
  • Optional: whipped cream, marshmallows Put all ingredients into a small saucepan and warm over a medium heat, whisking occasionally. Bring to the boil, allow to bubble for about 5 seconds, and pour into your mug of choice. To make the hot chocolate deliciously frothy, carefully whizz it in the saucepan for a couple of minutes with an immersion blender. Feel free to add a dollop of whipped cream on top and marshmallows on the side.

Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren

“That morning Pippi was busy making pepparkakor – a kind of Swedish cookie. She had made an enormous amount of dough and rolled it out on the kitchen floor.

“Because,” said Pippi to her little monkey, “what earthly use is a baking board when one plans to make at least five hundred cookies?” And there she lay on the floor, cutting out cookie hearts for dear life.” Who wouldn’t want to play with Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmind Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking, aka Pippi Longstocking? The strongest girl in the world, this freckled nine-year-old lives in the Villa Villekulla on her own, has her own pet monkey and horse and is best friends with neighbours Tommy and Annika.

Despite not bothering with school, Pippi has plenty of common sense; she might do things that adults find strange but to a child’s eyes there’s nothing particularly odd about rolling out dough on the floor.

Swedish author Astrid Lindgren’s heroine shocks the grown ups and stretches the truth occasionally but she is loyal, lovable and comes with an enormous hunger for life and for esoteric meals of “little red-gold pears,” flying buns for a coffee party in an oak tree, and lots of cake: “...she merrily clunked cakes in her coffee cup and stuffed so many in her mouth at once that she couldn’t have uttered a word no matter how hard she tried.”

Pepparkakor (Swedish Ginger Snaps)

These thin, spicy cookies are traditional Christmas fare in Sweden.

Pippi makes hearts but there’s nothing to stop you from cutting out gingerbread men, stars, letters or even - if you roll the dough a little thicker - your very own gingerbread house. Thais is a very forgiving mixture and will put up with a lot of child-mauling before you get it into the oven. Makes about 35 cookies.

  • 125g black treacle
  • 100g butter
  • 100g caster sugar
  • 50ml milk
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
  • Zest of 1 small orange
  • 250g plain flour
  • ½ teaspoon bread soda

Preheat the oven to 180C.

Put treacle, butter, sugar, milk, spices and orange zest into a medium sized saucepan and heat over a low temperature, stirring regularly, until everything is melted. Bring to a simmer and then remove from the heat.

Sift the flour and bread soda together then tip into the saucepan.

Mix well then shape into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and chill for at least an hour.

Sprinkle some flour on your work surface (using the floor is optional) and roll out the dough to about 3mm thick. Using cutters, stamp out hearts, gingerbread men or whatever shapes you desire.

Place on baking sheets and cook for 8-10 minutes until lightly browned. Cool on a wire rack.

Little House in the Big Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder

“Laura and Mary set the table for the threshers. They put on salt-rising bread and butter, bowls of stewed pumpkin, pumpkin pies and dried berry pies and cookies, cheese and honey and pitchers of milk. Then Ma put on the boiled potatoes and cabbage and meat, the baked beans, the hot johnny-cake and the baked Hubbard squash and she poured the tea.”

After a recent Roald Dahl phase, the girls and I have moved on to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales of her pioneering childhood in the American midwest during the late 19th century. While Hannah judges some of the long descriptive passages to be a little pedantic, both children have been fascinated by the depictions of housework and pig butchery in Little House in the Big Woods.

Not a moment is wasted in any of the Little House stories. From making cheese, churning butter, mistaking a bear for the cow, hulling corn and – in her, ha!, spare time – braiding straw to make hats, Ma was the busiest mother ever written about. The two girls didn’t escape their chores either - not that I labour that point! Although the food involves much of hard work, there are rewards, especially when they harvest maple syrup and drizzle it on to platefuls of snow to make soft candy. There’s a plan for the next snowfall.

Home Baked Beans

This side of the Atlantic, baked beans come in tins - Katie Morag likes them for supper with sausages, fried mushrooms and mashed tatties- but, in children’s stories from America like the Little House series and in What Katy Did, they “sweet, mellow baked beans” are made from scratch. Serves 4.

  • 2 x 400g tins cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 onion, finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 250ml water
  • 1 tablespoon tomato purée
  • 1 tablespoon maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon molasses
  • 1 ½ teaspoons mustard powder
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 3 cloves
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 250g streaky bacon, chopped into 5cm pieces
  • Freshly ground black pepper, sea salt

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Place the beans in an ovenproof casserole dish with the onions and garlic. Whisk the water together with the tomato purée, maple syrup, molasses, mustard powder, cinnamon, smoked paprika and cloves. Pour this mixture over the beans and mix well with the bay leaf and streaky bacon. Season with pepper and cover snugly with the casserole lid or tin foil.

Bake in the preheated oven for an hour, remove the lid or foil, then return to the oven to cook uncovered for another 20 minutes so that the liquid can reduce slightly. Season to taste.

Serve on buttered toast, with fried eggs, or over baked potatoes with grated cheese.

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

“...there was a deep little hollow where you could build a sort of tiny oven with stones and roast potatoes and eggs in it. Roasted eggs were a previously unknown luxury and very hot potatoes with salt and fresh butter in them were fit for a woodland king – besides being deliciously satisfying.”

Things cooked outdoors always taste better. Smallies who would normally turn their noses up at things like eggs in a shell and baked potatoes suddenly discover – as the sickly Mary and her invalid cousin Colin do in The Secret Garden – ravenous, outdoor air appetites that enable them to do justice to such simple feasts.

Take advantage of half term before the winter sets in properly by building your very own campfire and compose a cook out, something that is documented in books from Camping with Maisy, The Molly Brett Picture Book and any of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series. To accompany your roasted eggs and potatoes, try sausages (parboiled, speared on greenwood sticks), a small saucepan of home baked beans to heat in the embers and serve the lot up on colourful enamel plates and bowls.

Toasted marshmallows, served S’more-style, squashed between two digestive biscuits, are entirely optional. Unless you make the mistake of mentioning it to the kids earlier...

Roasted eggs and potatoes

  • 1-2 eggs per person (to allow for accidents)
  • 1-2 medium baking potatoes per person (to allow for losing them in the embers)
  • Serve with salt, fresh butter and fresh milk Build a proper campfire in the back garden. Let it burn down to glowing embers.

Using a needle, puncture a small hole at either end of the eggs. Hold them under a tap to dampen the outside.

Place in the embers and cook for an hour, turning half way through. Scrub potatoes clean. Bury in a pile of hot ashes and roast for an hour or until cooked through.

Run around, gather firewood, climb trees and plant seeds while waiting.

Eat with salt, butter, mugs of fresh milk and an acute appetite.

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