[review + recipe + giveaway] A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

Once, when we were living in England, Len and I discovered some wild blackberry bushes growing in Wimbledon Common across the street from the school where I was teaching. I was excited because I’d never even seen a blackberry in person before, let alone eat one, and I remembered that famous last line from The Tale of Peter Rabbit:

Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail had bread and milk and blackberries for supper.

The ones we picked were a little sour, but good with sugar and a dollop of cream. Because of that fond memory, I’ll always associate blackberries with England. I also like to tell the story of how because we didn’t have a whisk or rotary beater in our little flat, Len whipped the cream with a fork! I knew then I had to marry that man with his power arm. 🙂

Thus enamored of blackberries, I recently devoured a gorgeous new picture book by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall featuring A Fine Dessert called blackberry fool, a decadent English sweet dating back to the 16th century consisting of blackberries, cream and sugar.

In this wholly delectable story, we are treated to not one, but FOUR servings of blackberry fool prepared by four families from four different centuries. Such a tasty slice of food and social history! The families all follow the same recipe steps, but of course ingredient sourcing, methods, tools, and technology change through time. They’re united by their love of this dessert and the joy, anticipation and satisfaction that come with making it. No surprise — they all love to lick the bowl — viable proof that some things never change. 🙂

In the first vignette, a mother and daughter in Lyme, England (1710) pick wild blackberries, skim cream from their cow’s milk, whip the cream by hand with a twig whisk, draw water from the well to rinse the berries, press them through a muslin cloth to remove the seeds, then finally chill the mixture in a hillside ice pit.

In 1810, an enslaved mother and daughter pick berries from a plantation garden near Charleston, South Carolina. This time the milk is delivered from a local dairy and the girl whips the cream with a metal whisk and strains the berries through a tin sieve.

By 1910, a mother and daughter buy their berries at an open-air Boston market, consult a cookbook about whipping the pasteurized cream with a rotary beater, rinse the berries with water from a faucet, then chill their dish in a wooden ice box.

By the time we reach the present day (2010), a boy and his father from San Diego make the dessert with store-bought berries and organic cream, an internet recipe, an electric mixer and food processor, chilling their blackberry fool in the fridge.

Repetitive elements in text and illustration underscore the human connection to food and universal love for dessert, while seamlessly integrated factual detail defines significant changes in gender role and social identity. As Jenkins mentions in her Authors Note, until the end of the 20th century, females in the household did most (if not all) of the cooking and serving of meals. The enslaved mother and daughter in early 19th century South Carolina made and served the blackberry fool to their master’s family, but of course weren’t allowed to eat it.

I wrote about people finding joy in craftsmanship and dessert even within lives of great hardship and injustice — because finding that joy shows something powerful about the human spirit.

I like how Jenkins represents the 21st century with a father and son making dessert and enjoying a potluck meal with a diverse multigenerational group of friends. In these captivating slices of American history, exemplary families are depicted in an engaging and accessible way, inviting the reader to note differences and similarities, draw his/her own conclusions and hopefully ask questions and dig deeper.

Sophie Blackall’s ink, watercolor and blackberry juice (!) illustrations give this story a classic feel and brim with interesting historical details (architecture, dress, interior furnishings, landscapes, personal effects) that draw us right into those period kitchens and dining rooms, making us wish we could sit down with those families to sample their fool. It goes without saying that all who read this scrumptious story will want to try the recipe at the end. 🙂

In a happy convergence of things I’ve long adored even before I read this book — England, American culinary history, period furnishings, kitchen tools, dessert (whipped cream!), the writings of Emily Jenkins, Sophie Blackall’s art, licking the bowl 🙂 — A Fine Dessert charms, satisfies, informs, impresses, inspires, and wholeheartedly celebrates the joy of cooking, eating, and sharing. Truly a fine literary crème de la crème, it’s a splendid idea meticulously researched and beautifully executed.

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Fruit fools are among the oldest desserts in Western civilization, very nice that they’re originally “English,” and by their very name suggest fun and frivolity.

Some say “fool” comes from the French word “fouler,” which means to crush or press. Nothing could be simpler than combining puréed fruit, sugar and cream for a sweetly smooth refreshing Spring or Summer treat.

Though gooseberries remain the classic fool fruit, I’ve yet to try them. I’m just as happy using raspberries, strawberries or blackberries for my fools. And though traditional English fool called for custard, it seems whipped cream is the modern day favorite.

Not having a whisk made from bundled twigs in my baking arsenal, I used my trusty hand mixer to whip the cream. The blackberries came from Mexico by way of Whole Foods. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup sugar, which can be adjusted according to the sweetness (or tartness) of the fruit.

The Alphabet Soup furry kitchen helpers were ecstatic over the blackberries and enthusiastically licked the mixing bowl, spoon, beaters, countertop and my right cheek. It took all our willpower to wait out the 3-hour chilling time, but sweet anticipation ultimately heightened the deliciousness.

Never has a story refrain been so apt:

“Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm. What a fine dessert!”



  • 2-1/2 cups fresh blackberries (Other berries will do — but the fool won’t be such a nice purple color; frozen berries will work, though fresh are nicer.)
  • 1/2 cup sugar, divided in two
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1-1/2 cups heavy cream

Find an adult to cook with you.

Mash the berries with a potato masher or a large fork. If you’ve got a food processor, you can use that. With clean hands, press the crushed berries through a sieve to remove the seeds. Sprinkle the fruit with 1/4 cup of the sugar. Stir.

In a separate bowl, mix together the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar, the vanilla and the cream. Using a whisk or whatever kind of beater you have, whip the mixture until it makes soft peaks, but not stiff ones.

Fold the sugared berries into the whipped cream. Taste it to see if it’s sweet enough. Add more sugar if you need it. There should be streaks of white and purple.

Refrigerate for 3 hours or more.

Eat! And don’t forget to lick the bowl.

Alphabet Soup furry kitchen helpers give this recipe a three paws up!

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A FINE DESSERT: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat
written by Emily Jenkins
illustrated by Sophie Blackall
published by Schwartz & Wade Books, 2015
Picture Book for ages 5-11, 44 pp.
*Includes fascinating Notes from both Author and Illustrator
**Starred reviews from Kirkus, School Library Journal and Booklist**



The publisher has generously offered a brand new copy of A Fine Dessert for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post mentioning your favorite dessert no later than midnight (EST) Sunday, March 1, 2015. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!

And don’t forget to lick the bowl.

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wkendcookingiconThis post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your best bibs and aprons, and come join the fun!




*Spreads from A Fine Dessert posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2015 Emily Jenkins, illustrations © 2015 Sophie Blackall, published by Schwartz & Wade Books/Random House. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2015 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.


51 thoughts on “[review + recipe + giveaway] A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall

  1. I love blackberry cobbler! We used to pick blackberries when I was a kid. Thanks, Jama, for this lovely post. It was fun to see the bears licking their berry bowls in your final photo. With your playful tableaus and whimsical bears, have you ever thought of doing picture books illustrated with photos, like The Lonely Doll series from the 1960s? I loved those books and examining the photo illustrations; there was a melancholy tone to the whole that I found haunting as a kid.


    1. I’ve never had blackberry cobbler — only peach, blueberry and apple. Must try it sometime.

      I’m not familiar with the Lonely Doll series. I’ll have to look for it. Thanks for the suggestion — nice idea if I had the serious photography chops to make it happen. 🙂


  2. I just love Sophie Blackall. And yes, I agree that “favorite” for dessert definitely is subject to mood fluctuations. But mixed berries with a cobbler sort of crust and ice cream is right up there!


  3. Fantabulous post – you bring all the delicious details to life Jama!
    Don’t enter me for the draw as I own this treat already, but wanted to add my fav dessert is chocolate profiteroles. Or whatever is in the weekly showcase on the British Baking Show. 🙂


    1. I love the British Baking Show! Who are you rooting for? I was sad to see Martha go. Amazing talent for a 17-year-old. Mmmm, profiteroles. 🙂


  4. Fabulous book (and review, as always)–I love the attention to detail on the part of both author and illustrator. Favorite dessert–varies, but right about now I would love some peach + blackberry cobbler and vanilla ice cream!


    1. Another cobbler and ice cream girl. The best summer dessert hands down. You’re right about the attention to detail — definitely makes this book truly brilliant.


  5. The final photo of your “Furry Kitchen Helpers” passing out from the deliciousness, uh I mean, licking the bowls is hilarious. My favorite dessert is Chocolate Oatmeal Chewy cookies. =)


  6. What a great idea for a book — I wish I’d thought of it first. 😉 Naming a favorite dessert is as hard as picking a favorite novel, but I’ll go with old-fashioned chocolate layer cake.


    1. I thought the same thing: why didn’t I think of that?!

      Mmmmmm, haven’t eaten or made a good chocolate cake in awhile. I used to make one with vanilla pudding between the layers.


  7. This book looks adorable! I do love blackberries, but my favorite dessert is anything drenched in caramel — usually ice cream of some kind. Thanks for this delectable post and a chance to win.


    1. I like caramel too — I always reach for the caramels in boxes of mixed chocolate bon bons first. And yes, caramel with ice cream!


  8. This makes me feel like a child again, a child again…
    The illustrations alone whip away all doldrums..
    I’m returned again to that time when
    All things were magical, joyful and good.
    Thank you….


  9. Everything about this post is lovely: the book, the blackberries, the dessert. But I must admit, chocolate everything is my favorite. I’m leaning toward chocolate meringue pie…


  10. I guess, like you, my favorite dessert is pie. Today, I’m thinking peach. Of course, rich chocolate ice cream is also very, very nice.


    1. Oh, the fresh peach pies of late summer! A nice daydream for a cold winter’s day. Meanwhile, indulge in that chocolate ice cream. 🙂


  11. This is a wonderful idea for a book, and Sophie Blackall’s illustrations are so perfect! Blackberry juice ink? Wow! I don’t have a favorite dessert because I like so many, but if I *had* to pick — cheesecake!


  12. What a beautiful book, and idea, to trace this desert & tell its story through different eyes. I’ve heard of fools before, but never made one. Guess it’s time, Jama. My favorite desert remains some kind of brownies, love that chocolate!


  13. My favorite dessert is shortbread but oh they would be so good with blackberry fool. I have my own blackberry patch & eath them fresh every summer.


  14. Blackberries grow wild in my yard! We love them in season. Berry fools are the best, but my very favorite dessert is probably creme brulee or maybe lemon meringue pie or maybe bread pudding. Humm. One of those three.


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