Wibbly wobbly jelly baby
This week is the 50th birthday of a British icon; a much cherished eccentric whose adventures from curmudgeonly older gent to floppy haired youthful enthusiast, and quite possibly back again, have captivated generations of children, occasionally by all accounts from behind the sofa. Yes, the BBC’s flagship family fantasy adventure Doctor Who hits 50 this weekend and the entire channel and its spin-offs has gone into full on celebration mode.
Since it first aired on 23rd November 1963 (underperforming thanks to being broadcast in the week of the Kennedy assassination), and despite its cardboard sets, aliens that are just blokes in tin foil, and the sense that all of time and space looks like a quarry in Wales, Doctor Who has endured and regenerated impressively through the passing generations. The storytelling possibilities are as wildly variable as some of the quality of the writing and this has enabled the series to remain fresh even through rocky periods and a gap of over 15 years with nothing but a TV movie, as has the smart ability to recast its leading man to appeal to its current audience.
It’s a testament to Doctor Who‘s status that, even though it wasn’t airing when I grew up and I didn’t become a regular viewer until its 2005 reboot starring Christopher Eccleston, I would have had no trouble recognising a dalek or the Tardis. While in other countries Doctor Who may have been looked upon as the same kind of fringe geek interest as other now newly mainstream products like Star Trek, in its home nation it is part of the universally recognised cultural climate, a character with the same status as an institution as Sherlock Holmes or James Bond.
It really shouldn’t surprise us about a character whose principle nemesis looks like a pepper pot with a whisk stuck to the front that the Doctor is a food enthusiast. In the early days the Tardis appeared to come with the sort of food dispensing machine that is a bit of a sci-fi staple. It provided the characters with essentially any food they wanted in the form of a food bar – sort of half Heston Blumenthal egg and bacon ice cream, half Willy Wonka three course dinner chewing gum. It’s an element of the Tardis that hasn’t been seen much since, but, given its inherent bigger-on-the-inside-ishness, it’s probably still around there somewhere.
Food tastes have been pretty oddball in many of the various personas that the Doctor has adopted. It’s always a useful way of the writers reminding the audience that, for all he may look like a TV actor in a wacky costume, he’s definitely really a two-hearted alien with his own strange preferences. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening scenes of the first episode to feature the Doctor’s current incarnation played by Matt Smith.
On crashing the Tardis in rural England, the newly regenerated Doctor runs into young Amelia Pond (an excellent performance from Caitlin Blackwood, cousin to Karen Gillan who played the regular, grown up version of the character). In the course of trying out and adapting to his new body he develops some truly bizarre pregnancy style food cravings that young Amelia seems quite happy to cater to.
This was a good fun introduction to the new version of the character and, in the Doctor’s dish of choice – fish fingers and custard – gave the fans something new to fixate on. Smith later claimed both that he was really eating fish fingers dipped in custard in this sequence and that he enjoyed the taste very much. While the former is probably true, the latter seems a bit harder to believe.
I was happy to make a take on “fish fingers and custard” to celebrate the Doctor Who anniversary, but struggled to perceive that this might be a successful combination in and of itself. Looking round the internet, it seemed that there were two ways that people had approached their own versions of the Doctor’s dinner of choice: a savoury dish of fish fingers with a “custard” of mayonnaise or salad cream, or a sweet dish of biscuits to resemble “fish fingers” and a proper custard. The former, with real fish fingers rather than real custard, appealed more so I decided to go for that.
Inspired by the concept of Doctor Who as a series of adventures in space and time, and how easily Professor Plum is charmed by a silly pun, I very quickly decided that I wanted the main seasonings and flavours of my “fish fingers and custard” to contain spice and thyme. To that end, I mixed chopped fresh thyme in with breadcrumbs, lemon juice, salt and pepper to make the covering for my fish fingers and sliced a boneless fillet of cod into strips, dipped them in egg and coated that in the breadcrumb mix. It’s been mentioned before, when I was eating monkfish fritters, that, for all that we’ve managed to experiment with a variety of shellfish, white fish are something that she just isn’t able to eat. So, it was always going to be just me that ate the fish fingers, while Professor Plum got to have scampi instead.
She would, however, be able to add the “custard”. Savoury custard, of course, does exist as a concept. It’s the basis for a quiche, for example. However, it didn’t seem like something like that would really quite work with breaded fish, for all that Matt Smith might claim otherwise. I settled, therefore, on a mayonnaise as a different egg based sauce that would have the same yellow colouring, but a more appropriate pairing with fish. For the spice element of my “spice and thyme fish fingers and custard”, I mixed some cayenne pepper and mustard powder (an appealing similar appearance, consistency and rhyme with custard powder to feel that it needed inclusion) with the egg yolk and slowly added olive oil and lemon juice, gradually whisking until I had a satisfying mayonnaise.
This, then, became the main course of my Doctor Who birthday dinner, allowing the dipping of the thyme fish fingers in the spice “custard” much as the Doctor does in the clip above. And very pleasant it was too, probably rather more so than the Doctor’s version which appears to use frozen fish fingers and custard powder. The custard/mayo definitely benefited from having a bit of a spicy kick. The fish itself was good quality, although I probably need a bit of work getting them to stay completely coated in the breadcrumbs. More oil on the baking tray perhaps.
The main course there paid tribute to the current incarnation of the character, but what’s really being celebrated this week is the show’s long history, so I wanted dessert to reflect that. Previous versions of the character, however, haven’t always just perceived food as, well, food. Most famously Peter Davison, as the fifth version of the Doctor, took to wearing a stick of celery on the lapel of his blazer for some ill defined emergency restorative powers. As his distant successor, and real life son-in-law, David Tennant would remark in a crossover special: “Brave choice, celery. But, fair play to you, not a lot of men can carry off a decorative vegetable”.
When it comes to the archetypal iconic version of the Doctor from the classic series, however, Tom Baker stands fedora clad head and shoulders wrapped in an absurdly long scarf above everyone else. His truly eccentric take on the Doctor, the fourth, was the longest running and remains perhaps the most loved. As with Matt Smith’s fish fingers and custard, Baker’s Doctor established his alien oddness with his own quirks of appetite and one sweet product in particular.
There’s definitely something weirdly alien about jelly and jelly sweets. The way they move is literally like nothing else on Earth. If you want a sense of why the Doctor has started babbling about space and time in terms like “wibbly wobbly”, then perhaps you need to go back to his love of jelly. The jelly baby thing is such a part of the character that it has transcended one actor’s interpretation of the role to be referenced in later generations such as the Paul McGann TV movie and the current Matt Smith series.
Jelly babies themselves have their own illustrious history longer even than Doctor Who‘s. What we now call jelly babies grew from their more unusually named predecessors “Peace Babies” (produced by Bassett’s of Sheffield in post First World War celebration), who themselves were a take on the disturbing sounding Victorian treat of “Unclaimed Babies” (just in case biting the head off one feels bad, now it’s also an abandoned orphan). After the Second World War, and perhaps in response to the lack of world peace since their introduction, Peace Babies were themselves regenerated as the modern Jelly Baby. Back in the 90s a rival company also started to produce “Jellyatrics” in response to the Peace Baby’s 80th birthday.
When it comes to Pick and Mix the jelly baby is apparently the nation’s 6th favourite sweet. It’s quite possible that Doctor Who might be partly responsible for that popularity. Either way, it would be nice to see the time travelling adventurer return to 1918 at some point to see the early production of his favourite confectionery product. Meanwhile, though, I had my own jelly babies to make. Or, rather, because this is Doctor Who, jelly daleks (anti-peace babies, if you will).
I bought a silicone ice cube tray featuring the Tardis, daleks and K-9, the Doctor’s robo-dog sidekick (proof that a sidekick dog can be irritating even when not, technically, a living thing at all) and used this as a mould for my jelly sweets.
I decided to make raspberry jelly daleks for a number of reasons: 1. there was a limited choice of fruit syrups in the shop, 2. I particularly enjoy the taste of raspberry and 3. according to a book from the 60s that we have at work, daleks can’t see red and, thus, red daleks are in fact “stealth daleks”. I’d love to see this ludicrous concept get a reference at some point in Doctor Who‘s future. For the time being, though, I figured that I could reference it myself in jelly form.
To make my jelly daleks I mixed a sachet of gelatine powder in a small amount of water and heated it to 75˚C as the gelatine dissolved. To this I then added a spoonful of honey and a small amount of caster sugar and citric acid dissolved in a little more water. Finally, I added two tablespoons of raspberry syrup, stirred all the ingredients together and let the mixture stand for a few minutes before pouring it into the ice tray mould and sticking this in the freezer for a couple of hours to set. When I removed the ice tray from the freezer I had perfect little red jelly daleks.
Rather than just eat the jelly daleks as they were, I decided to serve them with some ice cream, that being a classic accompaniment to jelly, a little of the raspberry sherbet left over from a couple of weeks ago and a jelly Tardis. It’s a bit of a shame that I didn’t have any blueberry syrup for the jelly Tardis and just had to make do with a red one instead. But there we have it, my culinary tribute to Doctor Who‘s birthday. Technically not the trickiest thing I’ve ever cooked, but definitely good fun. If I’m still cooking as a human jellyatric fifty years from now then I’ll do a whole hoard of jelly daleks for the Doctor Who centenary.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I was disappointed that Colonel Mustard didn’t truly commit to the theme by having actual custard with the fish fingers. I mean, sure, it probably wouldn’t have tasted nearly as nice, but it’s the principle of the thing. However, I was mightily entertained by the jelly daleks. They were more like jelly than commercial jelly babies, but that just meant they were wobblier. Not being told off for playing with my food is one of the best parts of being an adult! Also, though the red TARDIS looked a bit odd, stealth daleks will always have a soft spot with me.