Until now I haven’t written about children’s literature – mainly because I thought this was an area I would move on to once I had exhausted food in the adult classics of English Literature (if I ever do!). But with my thoughts turning to Christmas, I remembered Dylan Thomas’s charming A Child’s Christmas In Wales and its references to seasonal fare.
Thomas’s prose work, which was originally written for radio in 1952, is an affectionate nostalgic recollection of Welsh childhood Christmases. A loosely-structured collection of anecdotes in Thomas’s lyrical and sensuous language, the work features snow as a recurring motif in order to convey the fairy-tale like wonder of remembered childhood Christmases:
Years and years ago, when I was a boy…it snowed and it snowed. …Our snow was not only shaken from whitewash buckets down the sky, it came shawling out of the ground and swam and drifted out of the arms and hands and bodies of the trees; snow grew overnight on the roofs of the houses like a pure and grandfather moss, minutely white-ivied the walls and settled on the postman, opening the gate, like a dumb, numb thunderstorm of white, torn Christmas cards.
And as with many childhood memories, food plays a significant role. The narrator recalls “the gravy smell of the dinners of others, the bird smell, the brandy, the pudding and mince, coiling up to my nostrils“, the sight of people whose “cheeks bulged with goose“, and his own Christmas dinner of “turkey and blazing pudding“. And there are sweets, which fall into the narrator’s category of “Useless Presents” (as opposed to the “Useful Presents” of “mufflers,…mittens…scarfs…balaclavas“):
Hardboileds, toffee, fudge and allsorts, crunches, cracknels, humbugs, glaciers, marzipan and butterwelsh
Perhaps precisely because they are “useless” there is something particularly delightful about making sweets at Christmas time. And fudge was one of the first things I learned to cook as a young child. Living in a big old North Devon Victorian vicarage, with a rayburn that never managed to reach a very high heat, my fudge was destined to remain sticky and never set properly – and thankfully I was also probably saved a few burns and scalds. Now I have a gas hob, and a sugar thermometer, I can heat the mixture to the requisite 115C, making myself and my family some delicious fudge and earning myself a few scalds and burns at the same time.
A CHILD’S CHRISTMAS FUDGE (though best made by an adult, or with an adult in close attendance at all time!)
Ingredients (makes 16 pieces approx):
300ml milk (I used semi-skimmed, but you can use full-fat and also substitute some of the milk with cream if you want an even creamier fudge)
350g caster sugar
100g unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Grease and line a 18cm square cake tin or a 20cm diameter round sandwich cake tin.
Put the milk, sugar and butter in a heavy-based saucepan and heat, stirring all the time, until the sugar has dissolved and the butter has melted. Don’t panic if the milk starts to form little clumps of milk solids – they will dissolve as the mixture heats up.
Bring to the boil, and boil for 15-20 minutes stirring all the time, until the ‘soft ball’ stage is reached. If you have a sugar thermometer this is 115C; if you don’t have one you can test if the mixture is ready by dropping 1 teaspoon of the mixture into a bowl of cold water. If the mixture forms a ball in the water, but then flattens on being removed from the water, it has reached the ‘soft ball’ stage and is ready.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the vanilla essence. Leave to cool slightly – for no more than 5 minutes. Then using a wooden spoon beat the mixture until it starts to thicken and lose its gloss.
Pour into the prepared tin and leave to cool overnight – do not put in the fridge. When cooled, cut into small squares and store in an airtight container.