For the Love of Christie
Welcome to my new series For the Love of Christie! These posts will usually cover several books at once, in chronological order with an English recipe to celebrate. The focus will not be on the books as much as it will be on why they were written, what Christie used from her real life in them, and what we can cook from the books.
Everyone has their Agatha Christie favorites. I’m not going to do this series to argue what they should be or to present a mandatory top ten list. Of course, I have my favorites, but they aren’t the usuals. I urge you to try the books that aren’t the accepted dogma of her best writing. You will find jewels, just as I did.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles, 1920
This is the first published book of Agatha Christie. Do we base all others on this beginning? Do readers use a sliding scale? Since I’m reading the rest in chronological order will there be a bell curve?
Taken as a whole, this book doesn’t stand out too much from other Poirot books, but as the first book for an author? What a beginning! This book was written by a girl who admitted to be a terrible speller, and who hated penmanship. In fact, Christie excelled at math at a young age. However, her true passion was her imagination. She loved making up stories and that is what makes a Christie, a Christie.
Her childhood memories are of her imaginary world. By her own accounts that world was just as real to her as her nursery and nanny. You could say her ultimate gift wasn’t so much writing as it was her imagination (although she is a very good writer). She had the rare quality of a human in that she brought her imagination with her into adulthood. I believe this is why we see such a well-developed plot, characters, and mystery from a brand-new writer. She had been writing books in her head her whole life.
Christie had many imaginary friends as essentially she was an only child. Agatha was late-in-life baby for her mother and father with two older siblings. Some of her favorites were the kittens and the girls of whom she carried with her into her adult life; sometimes wondering what one of the friends would do in her situations.
The setting for The Mysterious Affair at Styles will be used over and over, but never get old: an old country house (named, not addressed) very similar to her childhood home and with similar background characters of servants and villagers. The main characters and motives vary, but you can be sure of having a hard time keeping track of them!
Here, the Cavendishes are the family Christie chose as her problem in this puzzle. Who will be her imaginary friends by her side to help her solve it? It turns out to be very mature, male versions of her imaginary playmates- the Belgian policeman and detective, Hercule Poirot, who is a refugee during WWI, and his new friend, Captain Hastings. Thankfully Hastings provides us with an outlet to helping solve the mystery. He is us- asking questions we would ask, coming to conclusions we might. He is never too smart you see. Christie doesn’t want to hurt our feelings too badly when Poirot, who is really Christie’s genius in persona, proves him wrong so easily.
The pictures above show Agatha as a young woman. She was a nurse and worked in a hospital pharmacy in WWI. Her experience at the dispensary gave her a wealth of knowledge of poisons, which she drew on for her stories. She was fond of croquet and devoted to her home and parents.
The Matron Cavendish, in an odd reversing of primogeniture, has complete control over her family’s fortune and estate after being widowed. She then remarries and one of her children wants to inherit before the new husband gets everything. Mater is then poisoned in the night. But what if is her snivelling little husband? Her will leaves the bulk of her fortune to him. Another will is found and Mater’s closest friend is killed next. The lovely clues pile up and up until you are relieved for Poirot to come and bring the case to an end. And he does, in a fashion that would end almost every Poirot book- by bringing everyone out and teasing us with his theories that we think to ourselves- we knew it! And then dashing us to the ground with evidence otherwise.
The endings to Christie’s books always surprise me. I had hoped that on reading them again I would remember and have some feeling (even cheating a little) of what it would be like to be as genius as Agatha Christie herself, or at least to solve a case a little better than Hastings. But other than vague feelings that I knew who did it I could not remember unless the book was a favorite, or I had re-read it within the last few years or watched a movie of it. However, this did not dampen my delight. I recently finished #30 and have very much enjoyed going on the adventures all over again and not knowing until the end.
My very favorite Agatha Christie book just happens to be Agatha Christie: An Autobiography. I have read it many times. Her lovely Victorian childhood and determination to overcome hardships later in her life have inspired to me to make the most of my life and to choose to be happy. Here, she writes like no other, weaving a beautiful Persian rug of the stories of her life.
In the beginning she states that her first memory is of her third birthday: a tea with cakes, her birthday cake, and eclairs. She says she remembers a white tablecloth outside and a tiny red spider running across it, to which her mother told her was a lucky spider. A lovely genteel memory that encapsulates her beautiful upbringing.
To celebrate her first book we are going to make the birthday eclairs and have them with tea. The eclairs are French with Belgian chocolate to celebrate the birth of Poirot, and English tea was a staple of the Christie household (ok, every English household!). It is a favorite in our American house too.
1/2 Cup water
1/2 Cup milk
8 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon regular sugar
1 Cup regular flour
4 large eggs
Pre-heat your oven to 425- do this first! It takes about 30 minutes for most ovens to get this hot.
This is your choux dough. Put the water, milk, butter, and sugar in a saucepan and heat until butter is melted and the mixture is simmering. Take off the heat and quickly mix in the cup of flour. Keep stirring with a spoon while heating the pan on medium, until the dough comes together in a loose ball and it leaves a film on the bottom of the pan. It might take a little longer than you think.
Put the mixture in a bowl and use a hand or stand mixer to mix it for a couple of minutes until it cools off. It has to be cool enough for when you add the eggs. You don’t want scrambled eggs in your choux! Next, mix in one egg at a time. Then put your mixture into a ziplock bag and snip a bit off the end.
Now pipe, onto a silicone or parchment covered cookie sheet, eclairs about 3/4″ wide and about 5″ long. You will get about 18-20 eclairs from this recipe. They will not be big like the long-johns in your local doughnut shop. Think more like skinny twinkies.
The eclairs are a three-part recipe. After you pastries are baked, you can take a break and store them until the next day, covered, but not in an airtight container, then fill and top them.
Bake for 10 minutes at 425, then, without opening your oven (you want that lovely steam build-up), turn it down to 325 and continue to bake for 30 more minutes. When done, the eclairs will be golden brown. When you break them open they are hollow inside. This is where the custard will be. Work on your custard as soon as you put your pastries in the oven because you want it to be cooled off.
1/2 Cup sugar
8 teaspoons cornstarch
2 Cups milk
2 egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
In a medium saucepan, mix the sugar and cornstarch together. Then, while mixing, pour in the milk slowly so the cornstarch doesn’t get lumpy. Add the 2 eggs yolks and the vanilla. Bring the mixture to a boil while stirring. Cook about a minute. Then pour custard into a wide bowl (so it will cool off), cover, and put in the fridge. Resist the urge to eat all of it!
Easy Chocolate Dip
2/3 Cup chocolate chips
1/2 Cup heavy cream
Put chocolate chips in a heat-proof bowl. Boil heavy cream in a small pan. Pour cream into bowl with chips. Let stand about 2 minutes. Stir from the middle until a lovely dark sauce is formed.
Now to put everything together! Poke 3 spaced holes in the bottom of every eclair with a pastry tip. I use the same tip that I’m going to fill them with the custard. When done put your custard in a ziplock or pastry bag with the tip and pipe the custard into the holes at the bottom. It will be messy. I just used the cookie sheet as a work space. Leave them face-down with the holes up. When done dip the top of the eclair into the chocolate dip and put bottom down on to the cookie sheet. Let them rest until the chocolate is kind of set up.
My family ate most of them before the chocolate set up! Store covered, but not airtight in the fridge. You want them to stay crisp! Enjoy them with a cup of tea, or just guilty-like hiding from your kids!