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While there have been some amazing new books coming out recently, I do also like to look backwards at some classics. These books are not only Still Good but they are also Important because they are often the books that inspired today's writers. One of the books that shaped my own love of reading is The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois.

This Newbery award winner is a book that I read and loved as a child, but then forgot about for many years. Every once in a while something would remind me of it and I'd wonder, "what was that book with the volcano and the hot air balloons and the crazy houses?" but like a distant dream it had faded into the haze of my memory. I was SO pleased to rediscover it several years ago and to find out it was just as good as I had remembered it being.

The Twenty-One Balloons is an adventure story--including the aforementioned hot air balloons, volcanoes, crazy inventions, and daring escapes. The main character is Professor William Waterman Sherman, a schoolteacher who's decided he's had enough of people and wants to go on a year-long journey to nowhere in particular, as long as he's alone. He chooses to do it via a giant hot air balloon, which captures the attention and imagination of San Francisco society, and he takes off amid much fanfare. But to the surprise of the world, he is found just three weeks later floating in the Atlantic amongst the wreckage of twenty hot air balloons. What happened to his balloon? Where did the other balloons come from? And how did he get into the wrong ocean?

Readers will soon find out that Professor Sherman had ended up crash landing and was picked up by the "locals" on the island of Krakatoa (history buffs will already know how this is going to end). The population of the island is mysteriously wealthy, and is comprised of 20 families organized into a rather strange society which centers around an alphabetical culinary arrangement. Each family has been assigned a different letter of the alphabet and a country/nationality that corresponds to that letter (A-American, B-British, C-Chinese, etc.) Each family takes turns hosting dinner for everyone else at their home and of course the home and the cuisine also matches the family's assigned nationality.
Professor Sherman is welcomed, introduced to everyone, and shown around each home--noting that they are beautiful and full of ingenious inventions. Then he is let in on the island's big secret. Which I'm not going to tell you. Because you need to read the book.

Did I mention that Pene du Bois includes a lot of fun illustrations?
The magic of this book is in the way it inspires imagination. A secret island society hidden from the rest of the world; travelling across the ocean in a hot air balloon; crazy inventions to make life easier (such as a sheet roller for beds where you just turn a crank and new sheets roll onto the mattress); and who doesn't love the idea of society centered on sharing culinary inventions? (or is that just me?) I used to try to decide which nationality I'd pick if I had to decorate my home and cook in that style for the rest of my life (still can't decide, though Italian is a strong contender). In my mind this book belongs alongside the old films of The Swiss Family Robinson and Around the World in 80 Days - adventure stories involving a lot of ingenuity, danger, and exotic places.

For my own culinary foray, I decided to make something French to go along with this book. Not because of Pene du Bois' French name (he was actually American) but because Mr. F is the one who introduces Professor Sherman to Krakatoan society.

I chose to make clafoutis as it's 1. easy, 2. summery, and 3. delicious.
I used this berry clafoutis recipe by Honest Fare and to be honest (...) I didn't change it much at all.


  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • ½ cup flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla
  • ¼ teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 2 cups berries

First, mise en place.

Then, preheat your oven to 350 F (177C).

Next you pretty much just blend the ingredients. Easy peasy. In your blender (or if you're me, your Ninja) put the milk, 1/3 cup of the sugar (the rest will be used a bit later), eggs, flour, salt, vanilla, lemon zest, and cinnamon.


Mmm, custardy.
Pour a quarter inch layer of the batter in a lightly buttered baking dish (I used a small pie dish) and put it in the preheated oven until batter firms up a bit. In my oven this took about 12 minutes.

Remove from the oven (don't turn off the oven) and sprinkle all your berries over the firmed up batter. Now here's where I give a word of warning: if your berries were frozen, make sure to thaw them completely and drain them. I didn't (I knew I should, but was lazy) and ended up with quite a lot of red liquid watering things down and making it take longer to cook.
Sprinkle on the remaining sugar and then pour on the rest of the batter evenly over it all.

Bake for 45-60 minutes. The clafoutis is done when puffed up and a knife stuck in the center comes out clean.
It's absolutely mandatory to serve this with fresh whipped cream.

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.

So, I've decided to try something new. 
There are few things in life more enjoyable than curling up somewhere comfortable with a good book. But there are also few things more enjoyable than delicious baked goods. So, if you can do tea and book pairings, or even ice cream and book pairings, then why not baked goods and book pairings?

I've decided to start off my baking-book (booking?) adventure with M.G. Leonard's Beetle Boy and Beetle Queen

Although I'd heard good things about Beetle Boy it took me a while to actually read it, mostly because I'd only heard the title I had imagined it was a going to be a somewhat youngish school story about a kid who doesn't quite fit in because he likes beetles (yes, I didn't read the synopsis). While it is indeed about a boy and beetles, I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that it's actually about a kidnapping, biological experimentation, and a potential plot to take over London (and then the world?)

Beetle Boy blurb from Goodreads:
Darkus Cuttle's dad mysteriously goes missing from his job as Director of Science at the Natural History Museum. Vanished without a trace! From a locked room! So Darkus moves in with his eccentric Uncle Max and next door to Humphrey and Pickering, two lunatic cousins with an enormous beetle infestation. Darkus soon discovers that the beetles are anything but ordinary. They're an amazing, intelligent super species and they're in danger of being exterminated. It's up to Darkus and his friends to save the beetles. But they're up against an even more terrifying villain--the mad scientist of fashion, haute couture villainess Lucretia Cutter. Lucretia has an alarming interest in insects and dastardly plans for the bugs. She won't let anyone or anything stop her, including Darkus's dad, who she has locked up in her dungeons! The beetles and kids join forces to rescue Mr. Cuttle and thwart Lucretia.
Beetle Boy is a wonderfully fun read. M.G. Leonard manages to blend a bit of science in with humor, memorable characters, and a grand adventure. I really appreciated that although it is young Darkus and his friends (including a couple human ones) who save the day, the other adults in his life are still competent people who don't fall into the stereotype of "adults who ruin everything by not listening to the kids."

It is no surprise that Beetle Boy has been shortlisted, longlisted and selected for a variety of prizes including the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (winners announced in 3 days!) and the CILIP Carnegie Medal.

When thinking about what might be a tasty pairing, I kept remembering one scene in Beetle Boy where Darkus comes across a whole colony of rare beetles living in a mountain of discarded teacups in the corner of his neighbor's bedroom. It's quite a vivid scene, full of life and movement and color (also a little gross when you think about how icky leftover dishes can get.) I also thought of the person whose room it was, the unpleasant hoarder, Humphrey, who has a penchant for eating cranberry sauce by the handful. Cranberry sauce is lovely so I was a little sad to see it desecrated like that. I thought I'd redeem cranberries by making my dessert pairing cranberry-based.
So, I made apple and cranberry teacups!

First, I did some extensive research to make sure that baking in teacups or mugs is actually A Thing You Can Do.

Following the scientific method of "asking friends" I discovered that it's definitely something you can do. Or at least maybe. Well, someone heard about someone doing it once. But microwaving is definitely safe. So... 

I started with Martha Stewart's apple cranberry crumble recipe but ended up changing a bit, mostly because I wanted to use the ingredients I had on hand (laziness) and because I needed to minimize the recipe. 
For 3 mugs worth of crumble, I used:

  • 1 pound apples, peeled and thinly sliced (when baking I usually use Granny Smith apples, however they tend to be rather tart and when combined with the tartness of the cranberries it could get a little overwhelming. I recommend choosing a sweeter baking apple.)
  • 1/2 cup fresh or frozen (thawed) cranberries, coarsely chopped 
  • 1/4 cup granulated white sugar 
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
  • salt 
  • 2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, plus more for dish 
  • 1/4 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped 
  • 1/8 cup all-purpose flour 
  • 1/8 cup rolled oats
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons packed dark-brown sugar


When choosing the mugs you'll bake in, make sure they aren't made of anything delicate and don't contain anything that might melt or give off toxic fumes. Some mugs actually say "oven safe" so that's your best bet. I take no responsibility for what might happen to your mugs or oven if something goes wrong. If you're at all unsure about baking in mugs, don't do it--using ramekins can give the same cuteness factor.
First, preheat your oven to 425 degrees (220 C for the Brits). Butter the inside of the mugs/teacups/ramekins you're going to use. Cut the apples into chunks and then slice them super thin. They'll need to be smaller than you'd do for a normal crumble because they have to fit into much smaller containers.  
Fancy pink knife not required.
Don't cranberries just have the best color?
In a medium bowl mix the apples with the cranberries, granulated sugar, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt until evenly coated. 

In a separate bowl, mix up the crumble topping: the walnuts, flour, oats, brown sugar, and a pinch of salt, mixed until combined. Work in butter with your fingertips until topping is crumbly, with pea-size chunks.
Make sure the butter is very cold, or the warmth of your hands will melt it too much and you'll end up with a dough rather than a crumble :-o

Spoon the apple mixture into the prepared dishes and sprinkle them with the crumble topping (nice and thick, because we all know it's the best part).

Nom nom nom

Bake until the filling is bubbling and the topping is golden brown, 20 to 25 minutes. Let these cool before serving.

When everything is cool, grab your book (and some squirty whipped cream) and settle down for a tasty read!
No beetles in this mug!

If someone recommends a good trilogy to you, you might by default imagine it's a set of adult or YA fantasy books before hearing any more about it. Or maybe that's just me? Either way, it's probably safe to say your brain won't race to the conclusion it's a picture book. But that is just what I am about to recommend.

The Journey trilogy by Aaron Becker is a set of three gorgeously illustrated books for all ages and I can't emphasize enough how much I really mean GORGEOUS when I say it.

I mean, just look.

The first book, Journey, is the story of a lonely young girl who discovers she can draw things with a red crayon and they will come to life (remember reading Harold and the Purple Crayon for the first time? So much to inspire the imagination). She draws a door on her bedroom wall and enters through it to another world.

The page where she steps through that door and into a forest filled with lanterns was all it took for me to know I was going to love the rest of this book. What kid hasn't imagined that there is a magical world just out of sight behind something ordinary?

The story follows the girl as she adventures through a beautiful watercolor world, drawing things to help her on her way. She frees a captive, explores new lands, and eventually makes an unexpected new friend.

The following two books, Quest and Return, continue the theme as the girl and her friend have adventures and save the other world from bad guys who want to steal all the colors for themselves.

Who could resist going through a door like this?
Each page is an adventure in itself, as the world is spread before us in minute detail. One could spend ages looking at just one page, finding new details.

In addition to the illustrations, the other amazing thing about these books is that they have no words--and it works perfectly. The illustrations are detailed and magical enough to carry the story without the need of words while the lack of writing means the stories are accessible to all ages and languages.

Journey was a Caldecott Honor book in 2014 and his following two books are equally deserving.

It's a joy to follow the characters through fantastical landscapes with castles, jungles, and underwater kingdoms. Recommended for anyone who enjoys adventure and beautiful art.


These fabulous books are published by Candlewick Press in the US and Walker Books in the UK and are available at your local bookstore.

For more, check out Aaron Becker's website.

I have loved the writing of Lewis Carroll since reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a child. But I was an adult before I really was able to appreciate his humor and true brilliance with words. The Hunting of the Snark is no exception to Carroll's usual cleverness and is packed with nonsense and fun.

I recently discovered that the poem was originally published with illustrations in 1876. The version I grew up with was part of an anthology and thus sadly picture-less. However, I've now seen the illustrations and in my personal opinion the originals are a bit on the scary side (everyone but the bellman has massive heads and exaggerated features).

Original illustration by Henry Holiday. Scary scary.
I am happy to say, that The Hunting of the Snark was recently re-published by Macmillan Children's Books with beautiful new (non-scary) illustrations by children's laureate Chris Riddell.

I loved re-reading the poem alongside Riddell's imaginings of the story. The illustrations perfectly fit the absurdity of the poem, while also being in a style that will appeal to a younger audience. Each character is given a unique visual personality which helps the reader keep everyone straight. The beaver particularly caught my fancy.

Riddell doesn't just illustrate the poem. Like an actor putting a personal spin on a Shakespeare character, he manages to add his own flair by not only illustrating the story, but adding his own mini sub-plot into the images. (I won't spoil it, but I will say that the baker might not be exactly what he seems!)
I loved this image.

While the original illustrations never included an image of the snark itself, in this new version, we get not only to see what a snark looks like, but also a bandersnatch and a jubjub. What more could you ask for, really?

Not at all how I pictured a snark. Not even how I pictured a boojum.
He had bought a large map representing the sea,
   Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
   A map they could all understand.

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
   Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
   "They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
   But we've got our brave Captain to thank
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best—
   A perfect and absolute blank!"

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