When I was a little girl, around 4 or 5 years old, my family moved from our little end-terrace house to a beautiful big house with a huge garden in a very posh area of West London. The new house was everything a young family could’ve wanted – the garden had a pond (!) which over the years we filled with all sorts of creatures (goldfish which were gradually eaten one-by-one by the heron who lived in the park next door; at one point koi who were too big for the pond; and terrapins who killed all the goldfish the heron didn’t eat until one escaped and my father and I “released” the other into the park, whoops – we may be responsible for the family of terrapins who now live there), my brother and I had our own bedrooms which were much bigger than those in the old house, a huge kitchen where my mother dreamed of starting Chinese cookery lessons and two guest bedrooms, one of which became our live-in-nanny’s room then a TV room when she eventually left us, and the other which was later turned into a study for my parents.
About a fifteen minute walk away there was a huge church in the middle of the green by the High Street which my parents decided we should start attending, especially as it was so close by. Both my brother and I were baptised and confirmed there and for the next 13 years or so we spent almost every Sunday there. This church is also where I met my oldest friend Cathy and whilst I have my own issues with religion now, I will forever be thankful that it brought her into my life.
The way we met was this: on our first visit to the church on the green our mothers introduced us as we were close in age (she only a couple of years older than I) and apparently I walked straight up to her and said, “hi, my name’s Jackie, I’m 5, let’s be friends” and that, as they say, was that. We were.
We spent countless hours running around the dusty old church, hiding upstairs in the gallery where they kept a moth-eaten life-sized donkey (for the Nativity, of course) and squeaking across the floorboards up outside the belfry, trying not to fall through any of the holes around the huge organ. I learned to ring the bells from a lovely old lady called Mabel (a job I still sometimes perform for weddings when they’re in desperate need of a bell ringer), and Cathy and I would always beg for the heaters to be turned on after Sunday services so that we could sit on top of the floor vents at the front of the church and warm ourselves (it was always freezing in there in those days). We would have to be dragged home by our parents as we would sit on the vents, giggling and discussing parents, siblings, school, and later music and boys. In our mid-teens we even formed a Christian rock band with our friends Dominic and Lizzie, performing at Youth Services and, once, a tea for the elderly – we thought we were so cool.
Every Sunday Cathy’s family would have a proper sit-down Sunday lunch and I can’t even count the number of Sundays I ended up at their house to join them. My family didn’t do Sunday lunch, not the way the British do it – because my mother cooked every dinner time, Sundays were her day off and so my parents would go to either Burger King, McDonald’s or KFC and buy us take-away. I can’t believe how often we used to eat junk food – the mind boggles to think of it now – but Sundays at Cathy’s house were completely different and I loved it, probably because it was so different to what I was used to. Steaming casseroles and vegetables were passed around the table, they always said Grace and they always thanked God that I could join them that week; it was wonderful to feel so part of the family.
After lunch Cathy and I would disappear to her loft room to gossip, play video games or music and then, one day, she said that we should make Nig Nags and dragged me into the kitchen to help her.
Cathy’s mother had an old Essex Women’s Institute cookbook from 1981 which included a recipe for “Nig Nags”, cookies that conjure up all sorts of racist images but are, in fact, the most delicious crispy, chewy coconut oat cookies. I wasn’t even particularly a fan of coconut but in these cookies it was perfect. I still remember standing in their kitchen at the table, reaching into a bowl that was bigger than my head and creating “walnut sized” balls of Nig Nag mix, hands covered in butter and sugar, clothes doused in a light dusting of flour. It was important to let the cookies cool and harden when they came out of the oven to achieve that perfect crunch.
For a while after that, every trip to Cathy’s involved making Nig Nags and, after a while, I borrowed the recipe and started making them myself for school bake sells where they always went down a storm, despite their very odd name. People kept asking me if they were flapjacks, due to the square appearance they took on during baking (the obscene amount of butter in the cookies guarantees spread), but I insisted that they were called Nig Nags and Nig Nags they would stay.
I haven’t made Nig Nags for years now but suddenly today I had a craving for something with coconut and they popped into my head. As luck would have it, I had all of the ingredients in the pantry so I set about making them and sent Cathy (now known as Mishkin, married, sporting bright orange hair, living in Brighton and the lead singer of an amazing punk-rock cabaret band – we joke that I was the first original member of the band) a text message to tell her what I was doing. Her reply? “Ah, I remember them! They were so good!”
When they came out of the oven I let them cool for 10 minutes then took my first bite and immediately I was transported back to Cathy’s kitchen, aged 7 or 8. I could see her short blonde hair and my own dark bob, huddled over the baking tray, flour all over us, dirty wooden spoon licked clean and mixing bowl resting by the sink, cookies in hand and smiles on our faces.
Recipe from the 1981 Essex Women’s Institute Cookbook; makes about 24.
225 g plain flour
225 g caster sugar
90 g rolled oats
115 g dessicated coconut
1 tbsp Golden Syrup
2 tbsps water
225 g unsalted butter
1 small tsp bicarbonate of soda
1. Pre-heat the oven to 160 degrees C and line a tray with baking paper paper. Combine all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.
2. Melt the butter, syrup and water together in a saucepan over a medium heat, cool slightly then add to the dry ingredients.
3. Shape the nig nags into small balls, about the size of large walnuts, and press them flat. Place them on the baking paper about 2″ apart then put in the fridge for about 15-20 mins – this will stop the cookies from spreading so much in the oven. After this time, place in the pre-heated oven and bake for 20-25 mins.
4. Remove from oven and allow to cool down and harden, then make a cup of tea, slide off the baking paper and stuff yourself silly.
Until next time, peace and love,