Kate Atkinson's Life After Life was made for this blog. Never before have I been so spoiled for choices for what to make for bookcooker. The novel is set in England, from about 1910 to after WWII and includes countless references to very British sounding dishes - roly poly, rose madder, windsor brown, lump cookies, milk fadge, cabinet pudding, picallili, bakewell tart, iced fancy. The list could go on. In addition, there is a brief detour in Germany - Pfannkuchen, Schokolade, Palatschniken, Schawrtzwalder kirschtorte. How could I possibly decide what to make? I landed on Egyptian pudding, which I think was the first reference in the book to a fabulous English dessert. It was Mrs. Glover, the housekeeper to the Todd family makes after the birth of the book's protagonist - Ursula Todd. The shear volume of interesting British dishes is a result of the novel's unique narrative device - throughout the book Ursula Todd is born, dies and then born again - each time making it a little farther into her life. Atkinson starts over and over again, starting the story from the same place - Ursula's birth, and each time some disaester befalls her. I thought this might bore me (the same stuff over and over again), but it really is a fascinating story every time - a little different every time. The effect of this unique narrative device was truly dazzling, and the Egyptian Pudding rocked too.
Poor Ursula Todd, Kate Atkinson really puts her heroine through the ringer in Life After Life, killing Ursula over and over again. First Ursula, born as the second daughter to a moderately wealthy family living in an idylic country cottage, dies at birth during a snow storm, her mother home alone with the house staff. Next she makes it a little longer, in the end Ursula dies of many causes - influenza, falling out of a window, suicide, by bomb during the WWII blitz. Ursula learns from her mistakes each new life she gets - after she dies as a child chasing a doll her brother throws out the window, the next time she ignores her brothers taunting. After she is murdered by a mysterious stranger on her walk home, next life she walks home a different way with a boy in tow. As the book progresses from the first world war, where her father serves, to the second, where her brothers serve, Ursula's corrections become more urgent. She is aware of her special gift, she is always haunted by a sense of deja vu. The second world war takes too many lives of those she loves, it becomes her mission to stop it. Atkinson has the chutzpah to take Ursula to Germany, to have her befriend Eva Braun, getting close to Hitler himself - this is how she can stop the cycle, she must stop Hitler. Giving Ursula this impossible task is what makes the novel so riveting. Who among us wouldn't like a second chance, a third chance to do things differently in our lives. Atkinson makes this a reality. She also creates characters that are fully realized - Ursula's parents, a loving father and cold, difficult mother, charming younger brothers who drive her efforts to change the court of history. This book was satisfying on multiple levels - the loving and charming family story (with countless cute named sweets), a funny coming of age story and a sci-fi thriller. Bravo!
Egyptian Pudding, adapted from Honest Cooking
Like most of the treats and other dishes mentioned in Life After Life, I did not know what "Eygptian Pudding" was, but it sounded intringuing to me. Atkinson's references to food are often done through the eye rolling thoughts of Ursula's mother Sylvie, commentary of the culinary endevours of the family cook, Mrs. Glover. Many of the dishes had a comforting, nursery feel - roly poly, milk fadge, lump cookies. But Egyptian Pudding sounded downright exotic. Google revealed that Egyptian Pudding is also called Om alli, and is often made with filo as a stand in for bread in a bread pudding type of dish. I thought the recipe below, using puff pastry, seemed closer to what Mrs. Glover would have likely made. This is a simple bread pudding, made special with the puff pastry and slightly exotic fruits and nuts. This came together easily into something rich and special.
1 package of puff pastry, rolled out into 1 inch and cut into smaller squares
4 cups milk
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cardamon
3/4 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup sultanas
1/4 cup pistachios
1/4 cup shredded coconut
1/4 cup chopped almonds
- Defrost puff pastry. Roll out to 1 inch thick and cut into small squares.
- Preheat the oven to 400.
- Place the puff pastry squares on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake in oven until puffed and golden, about 10 - 15 minutes. Allow to cool and then crumble into smaller pieces.
- Meanwhile, heat the milk over medium heat in a medium saucepan until just scalded, whisk in the sugar until it dissolves.
- Take a little of the hot milk and whisk together with the egg in a small bowl.
- Return the egg and milk mixture to the milk/sugar in the pan. Whisk together and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the vanilla and spices. Take off the heat,whisk in the cream.
- Spray small ramekins or a large baking dish with cooking spray.
- Add a layer of puff pastry crumbs to your baking dish(es). Add on top some of the nuts, sultanas and coconuts. Add another layer of puff pastry crumbs. [Optional - top with more nuts, fruits and coconut).
- Once you have a crumb, nuts, crumb sandwich, ladle the mik/cream mixture over the ramekins until covered. Let rest until the liquid is absorbed. Add more milk/cream - there should be a little loose liquid in the baking dish.
- Place the ramekins or baking dish of a cookie sheet. Bake until puffed and golden, about 10 - 15 minutes.
- Top with grated pistachio.