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I've just finished reading Time Travelling with a Hamster by Ross Welford. What a fun book this was! It's funny, down-to-earth, and packed with personality. It's also up-to-date and relevant to its audience, not sounding like it was written by an adult trying to identify with Kids These Days. I loved it.

Goodreads blurb:
“My dad died twice. Once when he was thirty nine and again four years later when he was twelve.

The first time had nothing to do with me. The second time definitely did, but I would never even have been there if it hadn’t been for his ‘time machine’…”

When Al Chaudhury discovers his late dad’s time machine, he finds that going back to the 1980s requires daring and imagination. It also requires lies, theft, burglary, and setting his school on fire. All without losing his pet hamster, Alan Shearer…
Time Travelling with a Hamster is a really funny book, and quite action-packed. Even though I knew from the beginning that it was going to happen, I was on the edge of my seat when I came to the scene where Al's dad dies the second time.

One thing that stood out to me in this book is how distinctly Al's voice can be heard and how believable he is as a character. Al's personality comes through clearly in first-person narrative as he makes small observations and lists the things he knows about the people in his life. His handling of difficult situations and grief also felt authentic for a twelve year old - mixing in humor and avoidance with sadness and regrets. The other characters are also very memorable: wise and quirky Grandpa Byron; boring and slightly too-into-football Steve; Carly, the goth stepsister from hell; uncool but sweet young Pye.

I loved the ending. Without spoiling it (much) I'll just say that I think if this were for an older audience it probably would have ended on a more realistic note about learning to accept circumstances etc. and while that wouldn't have been a bad thing, it's also sometimes nice to just have a fun adventure with a happy and unrealistic ending. This one was perfect.

I really liked the character of Grandpa Byron, and the idea that he constantly smelled of sweet spices (my goal in life is to constantly smell like a cookie). So for this baking/book pairing I wanted to do something with spice that was south Asian inspired. Masala chai cookies seemed to be the answer. I toyed with trying to invent my own recipe, but decided it had the potential to be Too Disastrous.

I used this wonderfully spicy recipe for Chai Spiced Sugar Cookies by My Baking Addiction. I changed very little other than the order of ingredient mixing.

  • 1 3/4 cups (350g) white sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
  • 1/4 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 1 cup (227g) unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 3/4 cups (abt 350g) all-purpose white flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda (bicarb of soda)
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat your oven to 350F / 175C.
My first mistake with this recipe (well, my only mistake, I think...) was buying whole cardamom. Now, I know it calls for ground cardamom, and I know that's a very different thing. However, I thought that, like nutmeg, it might not be too difficult to make my own ground cardamom from the seeds. Also, let's be honest, I bought it because the shop only had whole cardamom and I just didn't feel like going to another shop to try to find it ground. I can now say that this method is Not Recommended.

I've never worked with cardamom before. It turns out these tiny seed pods contain even tinier rows of seeds and look a little like micro cocoa pods. Ew.

Nail color brought to you by Essie
They're a bit difficult to open up, and once you get the TINY seeds out, you then have to find a way to grind them (not being a 16th century apothecary, I don't own a mortar and pestle). I opted for trying to use a knife to chop them as finely as possible. This was Not Easy. After about 20 pods I gave up and decided that this recipe probably doesn't need *that* much cardamom - half a teaspoon will do.  

The view of my chopped cardamom, through a microscope.
(not really)
Once the cardamom conundrum was sorted, I could get down to baking. First mix together the spices (sugar, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, allspice, pepper) in their own bowl. Measure out 1/4 cup (50g) of this spice mixture and set it aside (you'll roll the cookies in it later). Then beat the spice mixture into the butter until it is light and fluffy. This takes a couple minutes with a stand mixer because even though the ingredients will be incorporated pretty quickly, you need to let the mixer beat some fluffiness and air into it so it gets creamy.

Isn't this beautiful? I love spices. (Except for cardamom, that bastard)
Then beat in the egg and vanilla extract until well mixed. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. I actually often mix the dry ingredients in my measuring cup rather than a separate bowl, to save on washing up (lazy, or efficient? You decide). Whatever you use, you DO have to make sure the dry ingredients are mixed together into the flour before you add them to the spice/butter/egg mixture - this avoids any opportunity to end up with a patch of baking soda all mixed into just one part of your dough. Sifting them together is one of the best ways to do this.
Next slowly mix the dry ingredients into the spices/butter/egg mixture until everything is combined nicely. 
To form the cookies, grab bits of the dough and roll into 1-inch balls with your hands (it might take a little practice to know how much dough to pinch off each time) Roll each ball into the previously set-aside spice/sugar mixture and place on a cookie sheet about 1.5 inches apart.

The recipe calls for parchment paper on the baking trays, but even though I sometimes use it, I've never baked cookies where parchment paper was actually necessary, not when using a non-stock cookie sheet anyway.

Pop the tray into the oven and bake for 8-10 minutes. These tend to get very hard and crunchy after cooling, so unless you want that, take them out just as soon as you can see a little color on them. 

Let them cool on the tray for a minute or two before removing to a wire rack. This recipe makes 3-4 dozen cookies.
Enjoy with a good book (as recommended above) and a cup of tea or coffee (for dipping, obviously).

Curse you, cardamom!

I have long been fascinated by King Arthur and the legends surrounding him, from Tennyson's Idylls of the King to T.H. White's The Once and Future King (to Disney's The Sword in the Stone, remember that?)
Some of the most famous Arthurian tales came from a poet called Chrétien de Troyes who lived in the 12th century, but these aren't necessarily on today's high school reading lists. It seems that while King Arthur and his knights of the round table are arguably the coolest bunch of not-quite-historical heroes around, it can be difficult to get today's middle grade crowd into reading Arthurian romances by long-dead Frenchmen (I wonder why).

Enter: M.T. Anderson and Andrea Offermann. These two talented individuals have taken one of Chrétien de Troyes' tales of adventure, love, murder, trickery, daring rescues, and frankly odd weather, and turned it into an accessible and exciting graphic novel.

The story follows a young knight of the Round Table, Yvain, who goes off in search of adventure in the forest of Broceliande. After killing a local lord in a fight, Yvain falls desperately in love with the lord's bereaved widow, Laudine, even as she is weeping over her husband's dead body (I know, right?). He decides he must have her. After being sort of tricked into it, Laudine marries Yvain who then decides to leave her for more adventures. She makes him promise to be gone no longer than a year. Of course, he is gone longer, and Laudine sends a messenger to disown him and tell him not to bother returning ever. He then goes a little mad with grief, but after a while becomes a knight errant, wandering the land in search of people who need his knightly services. After a series of adventures (dragons, giants, monsters, etc.) and good deeds (mostly saving fair maidens), he returns to Laudine who once again is tricked and forced to "forgive" him and accept him back. And they all live happily ever after?

At the core Yvain: The Knight of the Lion is still Chrétien de Troyes' original story (in all it's slightly disturbing details) but the gorgeous illustrations and updated dialogue give it new life.

Though the core has been kept, M.T. Anderson has managed to bring a new perspective to the story, especially to the characters of the ladies, who definitely get the short end of the stick. In this version of the story you are left knowing that Yvain doesn't quite get away with jilting his wife. I loved that Laudine's anger and unhappiness is clearly shown, even in the end.

How lovely is this art?
When deciding what dessert would pair well with this graphic novel, I was inspired by the beautiful flow and swirl of the art on the cover. So, I made my cookies to match. I used this Chewy Marble Sugar Cookie recipe by Food52 to create some flows and swirls of my own.

Some of my own thoughts and methods are included here along with most of the original recipe's directions.

  • 2 ounces dark chocolate
  • 1/2 teaspoon espresso powder 
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
  • 1/4 cup light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose plain flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190C). Line 2 large sheet pans with parchment paper.
Melt the chocolate and allow to cool slightly (I find the microwave is the easiest and least-messy way of melting chocolate). Stir the espresso powder into the chocolate.

You know any recipe that starts with melting chocolate is going to be good.
Skull-headed spoon adds character. If you don't have one, I suppose it will taste okay without...

In a large mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugars together. Make sure you stop the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl regularly throughout the recipe so that all ingredients are incorporating evenly. Add vanilla and egg yolks. Beat for 1 minute. Mix flour, salt and baking soda together separately, then add to the mixing bowl. Beat until everything is well mixed.

Action shot!

Make a well in the middle of dough and pour in the melted chocolate.


Gently fold the dough over the chocolate several times with a spatula or knife until it starts to look marbled. Don't overdo it or it'll be too mixed to look marbley (a technical word).

If you have a cookie scoop, use that to scoop out evenly sized balls of dough, or just use a couple teaspoons to shape balls about an inch in diameter. Place on the cookies sheets about 1.5 inches apart. Don't press the balls down, they'll flatten out in the oven. 

The recipe says to bake for 8 - 10 minutes, but I found I had to bake for about 15 minutes because of how big I made them. Ovens will vary, so start checking on your cookies at around 8 minutes.  

May have made them a little too big?

Swirly whirly goodness
Now it's your turn.

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