Kate Young’s The Little Library Cookbook is a book I wish I had written. Like Young, I’ve always had food and books on the brain, and her joyful collection of recipes and stories combines the two in way that takes me on a literary journey as well as a culinary one.
For a couple of years, Young has explored the connections between books, food and memory in her blog The Little Library Café and fortnightly columns in the Guardian. Now, it’s apposite and lovely that her literature-inspired recipes should come together in a gorgeous volume, a book to snuggle up with and leaf through, as well as cook from.
For me, the recipes trigger an avalanche of memories. Sticky marmalade roll from CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, takes me back to reading the book to my children when they were very small – a time that now, in itself, seems a magical world away. There are crumpets from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book I haven’t read for decades, but remains one of my favourites; the romance of Manderley on its windswept English coastline was one of many fictional magnets that first drew me to the UK from Australia. Steak and onions from Graham Green’s The End of The Affair, is bittersweet, reminding me of how much I loved reading it when I was in my mid 20s, but at a particularly unhappy point in my own romantic timeline.
Young's recipe for Bread, Butter & Honey from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In The Castle got me thinking about the food that appears in my own favourite books. I didn’t read Jackson’s classic until relatively recently, when I realised I had missed out many quintessentially English novels. I spent my teenage years immersed in Australian fiction, books like Picnic At Hanging Rock, Seven Little Australians (oh Judy, my lip still trembles for you!), My Brother Jack, The Harp In The South, I Can Jump Puddles, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith, The Getting of Wisdom and The Thorn Birds (pilfered from my mother’s bookshelf, I mainly read it for the sexy bits).
The book that resonated most in my 13-year-old head and heart was Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, the tale of rebellious misfit Sybylla, who yearned for a life beyond the confines of outback NSW, and shunned romance to be a writer. I related to her in so many ways it was painful. Food in literature wasn't a major draw for me then, but I do remember clearly Sybylla nibbling on apricots and figs as she endlessly read and wrote. (I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but Franklin was associating reading as nourishment of the soul as well literal nourishment through food, a point made in Susan K. Martin’s essay on the book).
Sybylla ate her fruit freshly plucked from trees in the garden of Caddagat, the genteel property on which she stays and where she falls in love with wealthy landowner Harold Beecham. I like to think that maybe, in times of glut, she might have eaten this figgy bread and butter pudding. It's adapted from my new book Roasting Tray Magic, simply substituting figs for the strawberries and rhubarb.
Figgy bread and butter pudding
Serves: 6-8 | Takes: 1 hour 20 minutes
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
2 tablespoons runny honey
10 ripe figs, quartered
50g caster sugar
4 large eggs
400ml double cream
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthways, seeds scraped out
grated zest of 1 orange
1 large brioche loaf, cut
Preheat the oven to 170C//325F and lightly butter a 30 x 20 x 5-cm roasting tray or dish.
Heat the 2 tablespoons butter and the honey in a large frying pan and when foaming add the figs cut-side down. Fry for a couple of minutes until golden, then turn and cook the other cut side. Transfer the figs and their sticky buttery juice to the roasting tray, spreading them out evenly.
Mix the eggs, cream, milk, the remaining sugar, the vanilla seeds and orange zest together in a jug.
Working one slice at a time, dip the brioche into the cream mixture until thoroughly soaked and arrange on top of the fruit, slightly overlapping. Pour any of the remaining mixture over the top, and set aside for 15 minutes while the bread soaks.
Bake for 40–45 minutes, or until puffed and golden.