Frugal January: Victorian Gruel from Oliver Twist (1837)

Straight after the usual exuberance and abundance of the festive season one feels the urgency of going on some sort of detox diet, and my January has been particularly frugal. This month’s frugality has given new importance to breakfast in my daily routine and made me more creative in my re-thinking morning porridge: oats, rye flakes, quinoa, or buckwheat, are all the rage in my water-infused morning staple together with chia seeds, linseed, dried fruits, nuts and spices. And so, as I was re-reading Charles Dickens’ classic novel Oliver Twist, I was struck by the idea that gruel perhaps would not be so unappealing to contemporary porridge-eaters as it was to Oliver and his companions, and in fact to generations of readers afterwards.

Most of you will remember the scene in the 1960s musical Oliver!, where a multitude of kids sings ‘Food, Glorious Food’, craving for sausages whilst dreading their daily meal of gruel, which the kids are indeed about to receive: a grey, insipid-looking, disgusting broth. In the novel, the scene is not as fantastic of course, but indeed gruel makes up the main staple of the poor little orphans’ diet, hence connected with bad health and abominable taste. In Dickens’ own words:


So, they established the rule, that all poor people should have the alternative […] of being starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the water-works to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays. (Chapter II, Part I)


The gruel offered to Oliver & co. is so watery and with so little flour or grain in it to be called ‘thin gruel’, indeed a soupy drink, rather than an actual meal! Later in the novel, Mr. Bumble remarks: “‘Come, Oliver! Wipe your eyes with the cuffs of your jacket, and don’t cry into your gruel; that’s a very foolish action, Oliver.’”, with the narrator’s sneering that ‘It certainly was, for there was quite enough water in [the gruel] already.’ (Chapter III, Part II) Crying into Oliver’s own gruel would add even more misery to the already poor meal in front of him: gruel is the life of these little fatherless children — bland and unpalatable.


But what was gruel like anyway? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A light, liquid food (chiefly used as an article of diet for invalids) made by boiling oatmeal (or occas. some other farinaceous substance) in water or milk, sometimes with the addition of other ingredients, as butter, sugar, spices, onions, etc.’. In A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852) by Charles Elmé Francatelli, chef to Queen Victoria, we find various recipes for gruel with different types of cereals. The first type suggested (plain gruel) is simply made with a mixture of various crushed grains (groats), mainly oats, but could have also included wheat, barley, and even maize:



Mix a table-spoonful of Robinson’s prepared groats or grits with a tea-cupful of cold water, pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, and stir it on the fire while it boils for ten minutes; strain the gruel through a sieve or colander into a basin, sweeten to taste, add a spoonful of any kind of spirits, or else season the gruel with salt and a bit of butter.’


Francatelli here makes direct reference to a popular brand of the time, as he does later on the same page, when he suggests using Brown & Polson’s Indian corn to prepare yet another kind of gruel (‘No. 184. Brown & Polson gruel’). He lists three more possibilities with oatmeal and pearl barley:


No. 185. Gruel made with oatmeal.

In the absence of groats, oatmeal furnishes the means of making excellent gruel. Mix two table-spoonfuls of oatmeal with a gill of cold water; pour this into a saucepan containing a pint of hot water, stir the gruel on the fire while it boils and a glass of wine; stir the arrow-root while it is boiling on the fire for a few minutes, and then give it to the patient.

Observe that it is essential to perfection in the preparation of arrow-root, and, indeed, of all farinaceous kinds of food, that the whole of the ingredients used in the preparation should be boiled together.


No. 189. How to make gruel with pearl barley.

Put four ounces of pearl barley in a saucepan with two quarts of cold water and a small stick of cinnamon, and set the whole to boil very gently by the side of the fire (partly covered with the lid) for two hours; then add the sugar and the wine, boil all together a few minutes longer, and then strain the gruel through a colander into a jug, to be kept in a cool place until required for use; when it can be warmed up in small quantities.

As this kind of gruel is a powerful cordial, it is to be borne in mind that it should never be administered unless ordered by a medical man.’


Francatelli also describes another gruel option, with rice, ‘for relaxed bowels’ (no. 187). Francatelli’s gruels are, however, generally intended as a remedy for the sick, something energizing and simultaneously easy on the stomach. The working class of which Francatelli is talking about twenty years later is also a slightly wealthier class than the destitute of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Barley gruel, as a powerful cordial, cooked in wine and with added sugar, would have been far from being handed out to Oliver Twist: the gruel meal he is offered every day is without any doubt a gruel made of the poorest oatmeal with more water than needed, and no sugar to give the kids energy and keep them quiet. Indeed, Dickens shows in the novel how the opposition meat/gruel is one of class management rather than one of mere taste (as it is for us today), as Mr Bumble reminds us:


‘Meat, ma’am, meat,’ replied Bumble, with stern emphasis. ‘You’ve over-fed him, ma’am. You’ve raised a[n] artificial soul and spirit in him, ma’am unbecoming a person of his condition […]. What have paupers to do with soul or spirit? It’s quite enough that we let ‘em have live bodies. If you had kept the boy on gruel, ma’am, this would never have happened.’ (Chapter VII, Part II)


Meat would elevate the poor well above their condition, both socially and morally. The prohibitive costs of meat in the Victorian times made it a food which was indeed longed for by everyone, yet only really consumed by the wealthier classes. By giving him more than just gruel, Mrs Sowerberry made Oliver believe he could aspire to more than what he has now: not only should he aspire to become a better-off individual, but also to become a truly moral being with a soul, like the rest. Funnily enough, for the early Victorians this condition seemed to be acquirable via meat rather than a vegetarian diet – indeed, quite the opposite of today’s dietary tendencies!


Cinnamon-scented gruel


This is an adaptation of Francatelli’s recipe for barley gruel. I love barley’s comforting texture and taste but it takes quite long to cook so it is not for rushed meals, although it can be cooked in advance. With the addition of wine, though, it makes more of a pudding or evening treat than anything consumable before 12 noon!



50g pearl barley

25ml water

1 cinnamon stick

½ glass of red wine

1 tsp of sugar



  • Rinse barley with cold water.
  • Place barley and cinnamon stick in a saucepan with 900ml water.
  • Bring to boil and then cook on a low heat for nearly two hours (or until water has been absorbed).
  • Add half a glass of red wine and a teaspoon of sugar to the barley and cook for ten more minutes.
  • Strain the barley and serve hot or leave aside to cool down and re-heat later.



Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Francatelli, Charles Elmé. A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1852). Stroud: The History Press, 2010.

Updating Miss Havisham

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Summer is the time when my (Amy’s) social media feeds fill up with pictures of weddings and everyone seems to be talking about the bride & groom’s choice of venue, colours, food, music… This summer the theme seems to be DIY weddings involving hand-crafted invitations, favours, decorations and – of course – cakes. I can now write that I have made my first cake for a wedding celebration, and that there are only a few crumbs of it left. Fortunately, this particular celebration was much happier than the aborted wedding I am writing about today: that is, Miss Havisham’s unsuccessful engagement to Mr Compeyson in Dickens’s Great Expectations.

As a beautifully decorated cake is at the centre of any wedding feast, it is to this that Dickens immediately draws the reader’s attention when they enter the gothic decay of Miss Havisham’s banqueting-chamber.

The most prominent object was a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite undistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies running home to it, and running out from it, as if some circumstances of the greatest public importance had just transpired in the spider community.


“What do you think that is?” she asked me, again point with her stick; “that, where those cobwebs are?”

“I can’t guess what it is, ma’am.”

“It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!”

As Great Expectations progresses, the “rotted bride-cake” comes to represent Miss Havisham’s rotted, ruined heart. Although inanimate, the cake is brought into a dreadful, fungoid life, whilst its owner, although still alive, approaches the condition of a corpse. The hint of Dickensian humour (‘greatest public importance’) does little to alleviate the horror Pip describes as he witnesses this ghoulish object. Miss Havisham’s wedding cake is a travesty of the many other cakes which we find at the centre of Dickensian festivities (such as the Twelfth cake in A Christmas Carol), whilst the jilted bride is a tortured echo of the happy couples at the conclusions of David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers, and Bleak House (to name just a few).

In a blog post on cakes in fiction, the Guardian’s John Dugdale takes the symbolism of the “rotted bride-cake” one step further: “the way Dickens dwells on the grotesque details of decay implies that it depicts more than just Havisham herself, conceivably encompassing a Victorian Britain paralysed and made rotten by its sexual taboos”.  To these taboos can be added the rusted machinery of the social hierarchy Miss Havisham is trapped within. It is the same social, patriarchal structure which condemns Bleak House’s Lady Dedlock to face a similar fate of death-in-life.

I’m sure many parallels can be made between Dickens’s England and our current post-referendum UK – but I’ve had enough of politics in the last week to clearly formulate or articulate such links. Instead, I want to celebrate the many marriages of my friends which have taken or are going to take place in 2016. And for that reason, the recipe below is for decorating an updated, modern wedding-cake which will replace any memories of Miss Havisham’s decaying feast. Marriage, of course, is Dickens’s ultimate symbol for the resolution of social tensions, the eradication of past mistakes, and a positive outlook on the future.


Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

John Dugdale, ‘Books best bakes: cakes in fiction from Dickens to George RR Martin’, The Guardian, 8 October 2015,



Below I am only going to give instructions for icing a 20cm diameter wedding cake. This is an extremely easy method and does not require any specialist equipment beyond a few cutters. If you want to see a recipe for the fruitcake itself, visit this blogpost.

500g marzipan
2 tbsp apricot jam
800g shop-bought fondant icing
A range of food colourings, preferably gel rather than liquid
Icing sugar for dusting
1.       Turn the fruitcake upside down to give a flat surface for icing. I prefer to ice in-situ – so I put my cake on the cake stand.
2.       Heat the apricot jam in a pan with a teaspoon of water. Use a pastry brush to brush onto the outside of the cake – this is the glue that will hold on the marzipan.
3.       Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead the marzipan to soften, then roll it out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the marzipan round your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Press the marzipan into place, using a knife to smooth any ripples, and cut to size. (Eat the spare marzipan 😉 .)
4.       If possible, leave the cake to sit for a day so that the jam has cooled and the marzipan dried out.
5.       Lightly moisten the surface of the marzipan with water.
6.       Lightly dust your work surface with icing sugar. Knead 600g of the fondant icing until soft, then roll out into a circle about 30 cm diameter. Roll the icing onto your rolling pin, then roll off onto the cake. Smooth into place and cut off the excess.
7.       Divide the remaining fondant icing into 4 blocks of about 50g each. Knead your selected food colourings into each block until even colours are reached. You should have 4 different coloured blocks.
8.       Lightly dust the work surface with icing sugar and roll out your 4 colours. Using the cutters, cut your desired shapes (I used the cutters in the pictures above).
9.       I cut my icing into different sizes of flowers. I then layered the flowers, using a bit of water mixed with icing sugar as glue to hold them together. Let these dry for about 10 minutes.
10.   To attach the flowers around the base of the cake, mix a little water and icing sugar to act as glue. Put some of this mixture on the back of each flower and stick onto the cake.
11.   Add more flowers to the top of the cake to complete the decoration.





Happy 1st Birthday! With a Gingerbread House from Brothers Grimm’s Fairytale ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (1812)


This year I feel the countdown to Christmas has completely slipped through my fingers: even with the aid of a beautiful advent calendar, a couple of trips to Christmas markets, and mince pies distributed to my students on the very last day of term, I feel I have reached Christmas rather unprepared: just the time to hop on a flight, with some gifts still to wrap in sparkly Christmas gift paper, and not to mention the ones still to buy! Normally, I would do quite a lot of baking in the time before and during Christmas: to me, there is no candle or home fragrance which can beat the actual smell of vanilla, cinnamon, ginger and candied fruit to sweeten up the air in preparation of Christmas – some of you will remember Capote’s fruitcake I made last Christmas. This year, Amy made our Christmas preparation, a most beautiful gingerbread house, and I was lucky enough to come back home yesterday and find I was surrounded by other, equally delicious gingerbread biscuits prepared by my mother.

Why do we associate gingerbread with home comfort now? Why do we look for spices in the dark time of the year? Most European countries have a traditional variant of gingerbread: England has a type of gingerbread which is effectively as moist and sponge-like as a cake (a variation called parkin is also popular in the North of England); in France you can find a similar product called pain d’epices (“spice bread”), while Germany has popular Lebkuchen (often covered with chocolate or icing, and famously from Nuremberg); at Ikea you will find Swedish pepparkakor, and similar biscuits are baked in the rest of Scandinavia and the Baltic; Switzerland has a few variations of this recipe, too. The South of Europe seems to lack its own take on the gingerbread, and to have borrowed an international recipe for gingerbread men: gingerbread cookie cutters are now sold everywhere, and gingerbread biscuits can now be considered a common, cross-cultural Christmas sweet. I still remember trying to imagine the flavour of imaginary biscotti allo zenzero (‘ginger biscuits’) as found in some translated children’s story, and failing to: I would be left toying with the sound of word only, with its double cutting, sharp, spiced ‘z’ having my tongue tip twice against my palate – quite an exotic rarity.

I had no idea then that these biscuits would commonly come in man-shaped form. There is something almost uncanny in the idea of making (and eating) man-shaped biscuits, and also in their popularity across the globe, which takes us back precisely to the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The witch’s house in the story is commonly associated with gingerbread, although in fact there is actually no textual evidence for the material of which the house is made:


‘[Hansel and Gretel] followed [the bird] until they came to a little cottage of which it settled itself.

When they got quite near, they saw that the little house was made of bread, and it was roofed with cake; the windows were transparent sugar. […]

Hansel stretched up and broke off a piece of the roof to try what it was like. Gretel went to the window and nibbled at that.’ (p. 103)


As the two children encounter the witch’s house in the woods, they immediately start munching on it: it is clearly all made of edible, sweet ingredients, but nowhere it is specified as gingerbread. The children nibble at the house creepily, and are then captured and fed to satiety by the witch: the whole house is indeed the physical actualization of temptations (it is a huge dessert, after all) and the witch forces the children to eat so as to make them plumper, and savour them. In the end, as we all know, the children manage to escape this dreadful end and it is the witch that ends up in the oven and dies, while baking like a gingerbread biscuit. So, ultimately, we somehow perpetuate this fairytale again and again by eating the gingerbread man: it somehow satisfies our most hidden gluttonous desires by making its spiced flavour tingle upon our palate, as well as its crispy texture linger in our mouth. We have eaten the evil witch turned into gingerbread – only the gingerbread man is sweeter, and innocent, and smiling, nearly a sin to eat it!

Before leaving you with Amy’s gingerbread (biscuit) recipe, and with the pictures of our creation, Amy and I would like to thank my mother (Nico) for sewing these beautiful blog-inspired tea towels to celebrate the blog’s first year of life back in November! Happy Christmas everyone 🙂

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Amy’s Gingerbread Recipe and Instructions on how to build a Gingerbread House:

400g plain flour
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
4 tbsp golden syrup
200g muscovado/light brown sugar
200g butter
2tsp ground ginger
200g icing sugar
3 boiled sweets
1 large bag chocolate buttons
Midget gems
1.       Melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a large pan.
2.       Remove from the heat and add the flour, bicarbonate and ginger. Mix into a dough.
3.       Wrap the dough in cling film and put in the fridge for 15 minutes.
4.       When chilled, roll out the dough to about 0.5cm thick and cut using a gingerbread house template.
5.       Put shapes on oven trays lined with baking paper and return to the fridge for 10 minutes (this helps the dough keep its shape when baking).
6.       If adding stained glass windows, crush the boiled sweets using a rolling pin and put about half a sweet in each window. These will melt during baking.
7.       Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
8.       Bake the gingerbread for 15 minutes. It should be well baked and have a rich brown colour.
9.       Cool the gingerbread on the tray, then remove to a cooling rack. Make sure it is completely cold before assembling the house.
10.    Mix the icing sugar with a little cold water. It should be thick, but still able to pipe.
11.    Stick the walls of the house together using the icing. It is easier to do this on the plate or cake stand you are going to use! Let them set.
12.    Cover the roof in icing and stick on chocolate buttons and sweets. Again, leave so that the icing sets.
13.    Use icing to stick the roof on to the walls. You may need to have something at hand to hold the roof in place while the icing hardens. We used a stacks of cups!
14.    Add any final touches, such as icicles or more sweets.
15.    Enjoy!

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The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Edgar Lucas. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1909.

Feeling winter coming on? Time to read ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ (1874) and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ (1886)

Hardy Bread 1

I recently saw the 2015 film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd in the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast (a quick plug for what might be the world’s most comfortable cinema), and was struck by Hardy’s obsession with the relentless ferocity of the natural world. More accurately, perhaps, I was reminded of being struck by this theme when reading Hardy’s novels. (The film itself being considerably less gritty, rather more idyllic, and much less challenging than Hardy’s original.) Nature’s hostility to mankind is a theme which runs throughout Hardy’s fiction and poetry: cold, exposed, rural scenes, in which storms batter crops or people, are frequent in his novels.

In on such scene in Far from the Madding Crowd, Hardy hammers home the point that the very lives of the novel’s characters depend on the successful safekeeping and sale of the harvest:

‘Apparently there was to be a thunderstorm, and afterwards a cold continuous rain. […] This complication of weathers being uncommon, was all the more to be feared. Oak returned to the stack-yard. All was silent here, and the conical tips of the ricks jutted darkly into the sky.’

It is the evening of the farm-owners’ (the aptly named Bathsheba and her new husband, Sergeant Troy) return from honeymoon, and Troy does not want to be bothered with prophecies of a storm. But Hardy’s audience – being familiar with the vagaries of food production, Malthusian predictions of shortages, and news of famines in Ireland and Scotland – would have seen all the warning signals. The uncovered ricks are extremely vulnerable to the weather and a whole years’ income could be lost in a few hours:

‘[The harvest ricks were worth] Seven hundred and fifty pounds in the divinest form that money can wear – that of necessary food for man and beast: should the risk be run of deteriorating this bulk of corn to less than half its value, because of the instability of a woman?’

Here, Hardy reverses the usual Romantic equation; instead of seeing god in nature, Oak sees something divine in the connection he makes between money and corn. There is little hint of any appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of nature we might expect in a novel set in rural south-west England.

Hardy Bread 2

The rise and fall of the availability and the price of cereal products is central to a later novel by Hardy, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Although this might seem like a topic more suited to a financial or agricultural publication, Hardy illustrates how the social, economic, and gastric wellbeing of Casterbridge’s population depends entirely on the growing of corn. The first time the reader encounters this Wessex town, the people complain voraciously about the poor quality of the bread that season:

‘the dough ran all over the ovens like quicksilver; so that the loaves be flat as toads, and like suet pudden inside’.

I think it was the second time that I made bread (and forgot to add the key ingredient of salt) that it was as flat and inedible as a toad. Fortunately, it was only myself and my husband who had to suffer it. In the close-knit community of The Mayor of Casterbridge a failure in one part of the supply chain affects everybody, but particularly the poor. According to one character, the ‘poor volks’ insides [are] plim like blowed bladders this week’. At the tea-tables of the wealthy there is white bread and butter instead (see my recipe based on Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’).

Hardy does allow his characters some respite from their battle to eke out existence, and the inhabitants of Casterbridge do eat bread. One of the things I appreciate about reading Hardy is that I can never predict how a novel is going to end. I am always wondering whether he is going to let the lovers find some sort of happiness, or suddenly let his readers walk off an emotional cliff-edge. So I’m going to stop here before I spoil the plots, and leave you instead with a recipe for a delicious farmhouse loaf. Enjoy!

Hardy Bread 3


250g strong white bread flour
250g wholemeal bread flour
1 tsp yeast
1 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp. oil
300-350ml warm water (not hot!)
1 tsp poppy seeds
1 tsp sunflower seeds

Mix the dried ingredients together and then add the oil and water.
Using your hands, bring together into a rough dough.
Turn out onto the work-surface and knead for 10 minutes (or use a dough hook on a food mixer for 5 minutes!).
Return to the bowl and cover with clingfilm or a damp teatowel. Leave in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size.
Knock the air out of the dough and knead for 5 minutes, then place in a 900g loaf tin and leave to prove in a warm place. It should be covered and double in size again. This takes about 1 hour.
In the meantime, heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius.
Bake the break for 30 minutes and serve warm with butter!


Forbidden Fruit: Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1860) (Spoiler Alert!)

Collins Fruit Tart 2

If you read this blog regularly, you will know that I (Amy) love a good Gothic novel. Even in the height of summer (ok, so it’s 15 degrees and raining right now in Durham, but it is still August), I can’t wait to curl up on the sofa to lose myself in tales of mystery, murder, forbidden love, supernatural beings, multiple narrative voices, and the tangled web of inheritance law (much more interesting than it sounds!). And even though the ‘good’ characters are generally rewarded in the end, in a good Gothic novel there remain fascinating and unresolved undercurrents which trouble the smooth waters of the conclusion. Will the ghosts at the conclusion of Wuthering Heights return more forcefully to haunt the happy couple? Why does Jane Eyre think of St John and not Rochester at the very end of her narrative? Will Emily’s subliminal attraction to villainy undermine her superficially happy marriage in The Mysteries of Udolpho?

Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is much more than a regurgitation of these well-known plot devices; as Collins writes in the 1861 preface, the ‘only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers is a narrative which interests them about men and women’. And it is the enigmatic and rather greedy character of Count Fosco which interests me the most.

In many ways, Fosco reminds me of Milton’s Satan. He is the perfect foil to Victorian gentility. Colourful, dynamic, exotic attractive, repulsive, devious, Fosco is above all a consummate manipulator of words. Entering the ring to fight on behalf of the arguably rather dull characters of God and Adam, C.S. Lewis argues that Satan is ‘the best drawn of Milton’s characters’ only because ‘he is incomparably the easiest to draw’. Lewis contests that bringing Satan to life in poetry is an easier task than depicting divine goodness – because Milton merely had to stretch his imagination as far as the furthest reaches of human wickedness. Perhaps Count Fosco is one of Collins’ best drawn characters for this very reason. He is certainly preferable to the novel’s love interest (the interminably weak Laura; I find the weakness of many women in Gothic novels incredibly troubling), and to the rather sanctimonious Marian.

Collins Fruit Tart 1

Like Satan, Fosco is linked with fruit. His frequent consumption of entire fruit tarts is just one of the many playful hints that he is not what he seems. During one scene found early in The Woman in White, the full extent of Fosco’s villainy has not been revealed and the ‘dear ladies’ are still duped. Here, he appears in the role of an eccentric, Europeanised, wealthy womaniser with a rather large appetite:

“Luncheon-time came and Sir Percival did not return. The Count [Fosco] took his friend’s place at the table, plaintively devoured the greater part of a fruit tart, submerged under a whole jugful of cream, and explained the full merit of the achievement to us as soon as he had done. ‘A taste for sweets,’ he said in his softest tones and his tenderest manner, ‘is the innocent taste of women and children. I love to share it with them – it is another bond, dear ladies, between you and me.’”

The serpent spoke to Eve this softly and ingratiatingly. A taste for sweets made with fruit is, perhaps, not so innocent after all. (See the post I wrote about fruit in Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ for more of my perambulations on this topic.) And significantly, it is Fosco, and not the innocent ladies, who are enticed to devour numerous fruit tarts. Rather, Laura’s emotional distress is manifested in a loss of appetite.

Fosco is particularly fussy when it comes to pastry:

‘Much crust, if you please – much crisp crust, my dear, that melts and crumbles delicious in the mouth’.

I hope I have achieved this in my recipe for fruit tart.

Collins Fruit Tart 3

Raspberry and Alpine Strawberry Tart


100g plain flour
1 tbsp caster sugar
50g ground almonds
1 tbsp water
4 tbsp butter
Crème Patisserie
150 ml full fat milk
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp sugar
1 tbsp plain flour
1 tsp vanilla essence
Fresh summer fruits
1 x 15cm tart tin


1.       Rub the butter, sugar, almonds and flour together until it is like fine breadcrumbs.
2.       Add a little water and work together to make a dough.
3.       Wrap the dough in clingfilm and put in the fridge for at least 1 hour.
4.       Grease the 15cm tin and then roll out the pastry and use it to line the tin. The pastry should slightly overhand the tin. Return to the fridge for 30 minutes.
5.       Remove the pastry from the fridge and fill with baking beans (or rice on a piece of greaseproof paper. This helps the pastry keep its shape whilst baking). Bake it in an oven pre-heated to 180 degrees for 20 minutes.
6.       Leave to cool, and then trim the edges with a knife. Remove from the tin.
Crème Patisserie
7.       Heat the milk and vanilla in a pan.
8.       Whisk the egg yolks, sugar and plain flour until pale and thick.
9.       Pour the milk into the egg mixture and whisk thoroughly.
10.   Pour the whole mixture back into the pan and cook on a low heat, stirring constantly.
11.   When the mixture thickens, pour it into a clean bowl and leave to cool.
12.   When the crème pat is cool, pour it into the pastry case and top with fresh fruit.


C.S. Lewis, ‘On Satan’, in John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. by Gordon Teskey (London: Norton, 2005) pp.401-407 (p.405)

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (London: Penguin, 1994)


Kneading bread: temptation in Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’ (1862)

The nursery rhyme sounds of Christina Rossetti’s most famous poem, ‘Goblin Market’, chimed through my childhood and were probably among the earliest sources of my interest in poetry. Yet this ambivalent tale is underpinned by darkness, rhythmic instability, and contradictory interpretations. The narrative is simple: two sisters, Laura and Lizzie, hear goblins calling them to buy mysterious fruit. But they know they shouldn’t eat it. Laura’s willpower breaks and she consumes the fruit, leaving Lizzie to rescue her fallen sister. This tale of transgressive consumption has fascinated readers since the poem’s initial publication in 1862. Is it a straightforward morality tale? What is the meaning of the Biblical echoes of the book of Genesis? Does Laura represent Eve who plucked the fruit in the Garden of Eden? Does Lizzie redeem Laura in a Christ-like fashion by resisting the goblins? Is the poem about the dangers of sex? Does Rossetti wish to warn female readers about the dangers of art (words and food are linked throughout the poem)? Should the poem be interpreted as feminist or antifeminist? More recently, there have been Marxist interpretations based on Rossetti’s use of the word ‘market’.

As this debate has been going on for upwards of a hundred years, I am not even going to try to attempt to resolve it here. Instead, I am interested in the neglected foodstuff of the poem: the ‘kneaded cakes of whitest wheat, / Cakes for dainty mouths to eat’. (This most likely refers to a kind of sweetened bread which uses yeast as the rising agent.) In a poem composed of pairings and opposites (innocence and experience, two sisters, life and death, light and dark, inside and outside) the cakes are contrasted with the succulent fruits on offer on the goblins’ platters. Lizzie and Laura make the cakes indoors as part of their domestic duties, whilst the fruits are sold outside. The cakes are an innocent white, the fruits are sensual red and purple. The cakes are produced by human effort (kneading), whilst the fruit is lifted all too easily from the hands of the deceptive goblins. White bread is emblematic of the Eucharist, whilst the fruit is reminiscent of the tree in the Garden of Eden. In Christianity, the former is linked with redemption and the latter with the fall from perfection.

So Rossetti seems to present us with a simple black and white parable: reject the sensual attractions of the material world in favour of virtuousness and innocence. However, Rossetti blurs the lines between these categories by emphasising the whiteness of the flour used by Lizzie and Laura. Other white objects in the poem include lilies, flowers which symbolise chastity but are also connected with funerals. Also note that the word ‘dainty’ is used twice in the poem. The first time it describes the mouths which will consume the cakes, whilst the second time it denotes the supernatural fruit. On a historical note, Susan Honeyman points out that the white flour is bleached and processed, ‘which is an important contrast to the otherwise natural fruits’ offered by the goblins. A whole gamut of industrial processes were being developed during the Victorian period in order to rid flour of its impurities – and, consequently, of much of its nutritional value. The pastoral space occupied by the sisters is not under threat just from goblins, but from the factories which were creeping into rural spaces. So Rossetti introduces a conflict between nature (goblins, desire and fruit) and technology (white flour). Furthermore, for the contemporary reader, the mention of white cakes would have conjured up ideas of elegance and expense: these were a foodstuff produced mainly for the elite. Lizzie and Laura do not appear to be virtuous in their spending.

The cakes introduce troubling ideas into a poem which is already ambivalent in its attitude to femininity, marriage, material pleasures, and nature. But I hope they won’t introduce trouble into your kitchens! The recipe below is adapted from Mrs Beeton’s ‘Common Cake’ and is for a simple enriched bread. Slice and serve with butter when warm from the oven, or toast for breakfast with a dash of marmalade for a hint of goblin-esque luxury.



500g strong white bread flour
1 tsp or 7g dried active yeast
60 butter
125g caster sugar
250g currants
280ml milk (very gently warmed – not fridge temperature)
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp spices (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice as you prefer)
½ tsp salt

1. Rub the butter into the flour
2. Add the dry ingredients and mix well
3. Add the milk and bring the ingredients together into a rough dough
4. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes (or 5
minutes in a machine with a dough hook)
5. Return to the mixing bowl and leave for 1 hour in a warm place until doubled in
size (ideally between 18 and 21 degrees centigrade – I turned my oven on for a couple of minutes and then put the bread in). Don’t forget to cover with a damp teatowel or clingfilm
6. Turn the dough out and knead for a few minutes
7. Put the dough in a greased tin and cover
8. Leave for about an hour or until doubled in size
9. Bake for 35 minutes in an oven preheated to 180 degrees centigrade

Susan Honeyman, ‘Gingerbread Wishes and Candy(Land) Dreams: The Lure of Food in
Cautionary Tales of Consumption’, Marvels and Tales, 21.2 (2007), pp. 195-215, p. 205

Christina Rossetti, Poems, ed. by Jan Marsh (London: J.M. Dent, 1996)

How to ‘keep Christmas well’: The Pickwick Papers (1836-37) and A Christmas Carol (1843)


To paraphrase Dickens’s description of the four Pickwickian adventurers, over the past week I have been running around as brisk as a bee, if not altogether as light as a fairy, towards Christmas Day. I have left behind me a trail of opened envelopes, empty mulled wine glasses, cake crumbs, sheets of piano music, and receipts. Despite my rush, there is one aspect of Christmas which I have taken the time to savour: my first reading of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Although I have seen the Muppets version so many times that I can repeat the dialogue verbatim, to my shame this is the first time I have actually read this magnificent celebration of the seasonal spirit. I have also made my first foray into the expansive pages of The Pickwick Papers.

The idealised image of the festive season which is now embedded within British culture owes much to Dickens. Among other Dickensian works, A Christmas Carol celebrates opportunities for spending time with family and friends, for being generous to the poor, and – above all – for feasting. Dickens revels in descriptions of festive food, heaping up small mountains of savoury and sweet treats for the characters to enjoy. When the Ghost of Christmas Present first appears on the scene, he is sitting on a throne of ‘turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth cakes, and seething bowls of punch’. The contrast with Scrooge’s mean bowl of gruel (the food famously eaten by the eponymous Oliver Twist) is stark. Equally striking is the fact that when Scrooge undergoes a revolutionary change of character, he marks this by sending a prize turkey to Bob Cratchit.

Unlike in A Christmas Carol, in The Pickwick Papers Dickens paints the Christmas dining table in broad strokes. We gain a sense of the sheer volume of ‘choice morsels’ on offer, but few foods are specifically named. One item which is mentioned is that ‘marmite food’ (you either love it or hate it): the mince pie. As I was researching this blogpost I discovered that the history of the mince pie was longer and more complex than I had realised. Food historian Joan Alcock tells us that they originated in the ‘shred pie’ of the medieval period, so called because the ingredients included shredded fat (suet) and various types of meat. These were preserved for winter months by being baked with a mixture of fruit, brandy, and spices. The pie’s traditional oval shape was linked with the Biblical manger and the cases were often decorated with a pastry Jesus – and were therefore denounced as idolatrous by the Puritans in the seventeenth century. By the time of the publication of Pickwick (1836-7), A Christmas Carol (1843), and the compilation of Mrs. Beeton’s formidable Book of Household Management (1861) the pies were generally sweet and meatless.

Dickens does not refrain from emphasising the pure sensory enjoyment his characters (and particularly Cratchit’s children) gain from eating at Christmas time. As the servant in Pickwick slips a mince pie from the dining table, Dickens’s narrator relishes the fact that it was a ‘particularly fine’ specimen. Indeed, honest delight in food seems to be a virtue in Dickens’s world. In contrast, characters who are denigrated by Dickens often seem to have a negative relationship with food. Bleak House’s Mr Skimpole indulges in exotic fruit whilst unpaid tradesmen bang on the door. Mr Bumble’s portly belly is tellingly juxtaposed with Oliver Twist’s skinny frame. When Pip first meets Magwich in Great Expectations, the ex-convict violently gobbles the stolen food. The moralist in Dickens would have his readers enjoy and share food this Christmas, rather than indulge as selfishly as Skimpole, Bumble, and Magwich. And of course, mince pies are perfect for sharing. We hope you have fun making and eating the recipe below, which is adapted from Mrs Beeton’s advice for ‘excellent mincemeat’. And so we wish you a very Merry Christmas and hope to see you in the Literary Kitchen in the New Year for Fitzgerald, Rossetti, Ciaran Carson, and more!


Mincemeat ingredients:

1 apple
700g dried fruit (a mixture of raisin, currants, dried peel)
100g butter or suet
200g muscovado sugar (if you are on a budget, caster or granulated will do!)
2tsp mixed spice (or a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg to taste)
1 teacupful (Mrs.Beeton’s measurement!) of brandy (I actually used orange juice for an alcohol-free version)


N.B. If you are going to go to the trouble of making your own mincemeat, it is probably worth making quite a lot! This recipe will probably make about 48. However, you can easily scale down the quantities.


Pastry ingredients:

200g plain flour
100g butter
1 egg yolk
1 tbsp caster sugar
Cold water
1 whisked egg white (for glazing)


N.B. This pastry will make 12 pies.



1 greased muffin/cupcake tray
Circular and star cutters



  1. Heat the mincemeat ingredients in a large pan and simmer for 10 minutes. It is best to do this at least the day before. However, you can make this is and store in sterilised, sealed jars several weeks beforehand. You can also buy ready-made mincemeat!
  2. Make the pastry. Mix the flour and sugar and rub in the butter. Add the egg yolk and bring the dough together. Add a little cold water if necessary to make the dough hold together. Wrap in clingfilm and put in fridge for 20 minutes.
  3. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees centigrade.
  4. Roll the pastry to about 5mm thick and cut out 12 pastry circles. Press these into the greased muffin tray and fill with mincemeat.
  5. Re-roll the pastry and cut out 12 stars (or whatever decoration you prefer). Put these on top of the mincemeat and glaze with the egg white.
  6. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes.




Mrs Beeton, TheBook of Household Management (1859-61). Available on Project Gutenberg.

Joan Alcock, ‘The Ambiguity of Authenticity’, in Authenticity in the Kitchen, ed. by Richard Hosking (Totnes: Prospect Books, 2006), pp. 33-43.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings (London: Penguin, 2003)

The Pickwick Papers (Oxford: OUP, 1948)


Photo credit: Peter Thompson


The ‘bitten macaroon’: Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879)

In the world famous Norwegian play A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen has Nora, the protagonist, eat macaroons from the very first scene: Nora has just got back home from her Christmas shopping, and stealthily eats some macaroons — with this very small yet important action, the audience immediately understands that the macaroons hide more relevance than that they actually show. Our attention is drawn to these small Christmas sweets, which appear at the beginning of the play, uncovering important aspects of Nora’s personality, and then they disappear — and yet it is precisely the flavour of those macaroons which we can taste throughout A Doll’s House: the intense flavour of a person’s search for, and finally discovery of, their identity.

When I first read the play in school, years ago, and consequently saw it performed, I did not give much thought about what these “macaroons” might have been: for a long time I probably thought they should be macarons – the French, colourful meringue-based sandwich biscuits. Recently, I found myself re-reading this play in preparation for some teaching, and in a conversation with Amy (which lay the foundation for the creation of this blog!), we could not help wondering, what kind of macaroons does Nora actually eat in A Doll’s House? In the English-speaking world, there seem to be at least two types of macaroons: almond macaroons, and coconut macaroons. Even in the original text, Ibsen says makroner, namely the generic term for ‘macaroons’ in Norwegian, and so Ibsen interestingly avoids using the specific terms kokosmakroner (coconut macaroons), or mandelmakroner (almond macaroons). Nowadays, kokosmakroner (coconut macaroons) are a typical Norwegian Christmas sweet, and so, since A Doll’s House is set a few days before Christmas, it would not be entirely wrong to suppose that Nora should be eating coconut macaroons, after all: if so, what does this tell us about the characterization of Nora, and the play’s setting? Coconuts, obviously, are not native to Norway, and how common would they have been even in Oslo, in 1879? The French decadent poet, Charles Baudelaire, about 20 years earlier, spoke of ‘Les cocotiers absents de la superbe Afrique’ (‘Le Cygne’, ‘The Swan’, II, l. 43): the absent coconut trees of splendid Africa, which Baudelaire’s beautiful ‘négresse’ (not such a politically correct term these days!) seeks out in Paris, missing in her heart her home land, and its familiar scenery. In the poem by Baudelaire, the coconut trees have always carried, to my mind, a sensual element, both in the sound of the French word itself, and in the fact that the African woman of the poem could have missed anything else from her home land: animals (camels? elephants?), or any other tree (papyrus?), and the choice of coconuts, more than anything else, does revive the image of their luxurious leaves in one’s mind, as well as the unmistakable combination of its sweet and yet thirst-quenching flavour with its chewy flesh in one’s mouth.

According to the Cambridge World History of Food (2000), coconut first became known in Europe as early as 1500, and even if nowadays it is very easy to purchase coconuts and coconut derivates in Europe, both in its fresh and desiccated version, and coconut milk and water are becoming increasingly popular, it is still something we associate with hot countries, and the Tropics: the association of Norway with coconuts is not one spontaneously springing to mind. Yet, desiccated coconut was first produced in the early 1880s, when it started being manufactured. If the play was written in 1879, though, then Nora cannot be eating macaroons made with coconut, after all – preparing them with freshly grated coconut would have been (if at all possible) rather expensive. Almonds, on the contrary, had been cultivated in Europe for centuries by then, are mentioned in the Old Testament, and almond flour appears in many European recipes from the Middle Ages. In our indecision, we decided to make both recipes, hoping that at least one of the two would be the one in Ibsen’s mind (and mouth) when writing A Doll’s House..

Almond macaroons (makes about 15):

125g ground almonds

175g caster sugar

1 tablespoon cornflour

2 medium free-range egg whites

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

flaked almonds to decorate

  1. Mix the ground almonds with the sugar and the cornflour in a bowl.
  2. Whisk the egg whites with the vanilla extract, in another bowl, until frothy.
  3. Add the whites to the dry ingredients, and stir together with a wooden spoon.
  4. Spoon the mixture onto the baking tray (don’t forget to line it with some edible rice paper, according to the original recipe, or we used Teflon, a non-stick coating, which worked fabulously! Extensive experiments have demonstrated it is better not to use silicone sheet, or baking parchment) to form roughly 15 discs, no wider than 5cm across, as they tend to spread while baking. Place an almond flake in the centre of each disc.
  5. Heat the over to 160°C and bake the macaroons for 20 minutes, or until they become golden.

Coconut macaroons (makes about 12):

400g desiccated coconut

1 egg white

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

a pinch of salt

300ml coconut milk

100g dark chocolate

  1. Whisk the egg white with the vanilla and salt until frothy.
  2. Add the desiccated coconut.
  3. Add the coconut milk and mix with a wooden spoon.
  4. Leave to stand for half an hour. In the meantime, heat the oven to 180°C.
  5. Stir the mixture again and then wet your fingers with cold water and make small pyramids with the coconut dough and lie them onto the baking sheet, lined with baking paper.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes until the peaks are golden brown. Leave the macaroons to cool and dip the bases in melted chocolate.
  7. Leave to set on some non-stick baking paper.