As Josephine looked mutinous, Edith added: 'We'll go into Longbridge and have an ice cream soda.'
Josephine's eyes brightened and she said: 'Two.'
Crooked House, Agatha Christie
Whenever I talk with someone about what I do, I am invariably asked what my favourite book is. The answer changes constantly, of course - sometimes a book I've just read briefly trumps those I've loved for years (84 Charing Cross Road managed to, as did Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day). More often than not, it will be a book I've read countless times since childhood: The Secret Garden, or Northern Lights, or I Capture the Castle. And sometimes, it will be Crooked House.
I have spoken before of my love for Agatha Christie. I've been reading her books since childhood - pulling them down from mum's bookshelves, and scaring myself silly with stories set in large, creaking houses, where all the inhabitants harbour dark secrets. My school library had a solid collection, and I use to borrow a pile of them in the final week of school each term, so I could devour them over the holidays. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I had worked my way through the full canon. Years later, memories of my favourite ones, the ones that made an impact, are still fresh in my mind. I can still picture the flowered wallpaper inside the built-in-wardrobes in Sleeping Murder, could recite the poem foreshadowing the deaths (in order) from And Then There Were None, and draw a family tree for the Leonides family, around whom Crooked House is set.
It is a book without the comforting presence of Miss Marple, or Hercule Poirot but, despite my love for them both, I don't miss them too much here. We instead find ourselves quickly on side with the central protagonists: Sophia and her fiancée Charles. Like all Christie's best, it's focussed tightly on one family, is full of red herrings, and is genuinely shocking and chilling in its dénouement. It's one of her own favourites from her extensive oeuvre. If you've never read one of her books (or have only seen the TV/film adaptations), it's one I wholeheartedly suggest you start with.
While the characters regularly sit down around a table for a meal, details of what's on their plate are few and far between. But this moment, towards the end of the book, is one I remember from my very first read. I loved ice cream floats (spiders, in Australia) and milkshakes growing up - and loved the sound of an ice cream soda. In the interests of full disclosure, I loved the sharp fizz of the soda, but the kids actually preferred the ice cream on its own, or with milk. But honestly, if I'd just squirted spray cream directly into their mouths, they would have been pretty thrilled with that too.
Ice Cream Sodas
Makes at least 6
400ml double cream
200ml whole milk
1tsp vanilla extract
Pinch flaky sea salt
6 egg yolks
80g icing sugar
125g milk chocolate
1tbsp cocoa powder
125ml whole milk
4tbsp icing sugar
2tbsp cocoa powder
1tsp vanilla extract
150ml whole milk
Bottle soda water
6 large milkshake glasses
1. First make the ice cream. Bring the cream and milk to simmering point over a low heat. Add the vanilla and the salt to the pan. Whisk the egg yolks and sugar together, until light and creamy. Whisking constantly, so as not to scramble the eggs, pour the hot cream and milk into the bowl.
2. Wash out the pan, and pour the custard into it. Place over a low heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Remove from the heat, pour into a bowl, cover with a sheet of cling film, and refrigerate until cool.
3. Melt the chocolate over a bain marie, or in a microwave. Stir the cocoa into it, and then whisk this into the cooled custard.
4. Transfer the ice cream into the freezer for 90 minutes, then whisk it vigorously to break up the ice crystals. Freeze for another hour, then whisk again, and repeat after another hour.
5. To make the chocolate syrup, simmer the milk, icing sugar, cocoa, and vanilla, over a low heat, until thickened. Allow to cool.
6. Pour some syrup into the bottom of each glass, and add a splash of milk. Drop in a scoop of ice cream, and top up the glass with soda water. Add cream and a cherry to the top. Serve immediately.