Having Wonka Fun

My kids have now returned to school after the long (ever so long) summer break but we managed to squeeze in a couple more activities in the final days of summer.  One of these was making chocolate bars.  It is something we have done in the past but I don’t think we have done it since we emigrated to America so they were excited to get to do it again.

I have four silicone moulds for just this purpose.  I think they were designed for making bars of soap but they work perfectly for making big, fat, chunky confectionery.  The boys had picked out their added ingredients so, once we had melted the chocolate on the hob (stove top), it was just a case of each kid pouring some chocolate into the mould and then building up their personalised Wonka bar using whatever ingredients they selected.  There were things like M&Ms and mini-marshmallows and dried cranberries and my oldest son even added prunes.  It was simple, quick, easy, and fun and the best part was, of course, that they got to have a chunking chocolate bar for dessert that evening.

Chocolate Bar 4

Chocolate Bar 3

Chocolate Bar 2

Chocolate Bar 1

Scoffing Shane’s Confectionery

I have lived in Pennsylvania for just over two and a half years now and in that time I have sampled a few state foods.

Despite the fact that Mr Pict and the Pictlings love them and I go into school every two weeks to deliver them to the kids, I do not like pretzels.  I know I should be drummed out of the state for such an admission but I just don’t like them.  I can eat one if I have to but it is not something that I enjoy.  I did like Tomato Pie but I prefer more traditional Italian pizza than this twist on the theme.  I tried Tastykakes and was disappointed – as I had been by my first ever Girl Scout Cookie.  I do like Rita’s Water Ice and frozen custard and like that I can deploy it as a bribe / reward for my kids ever so often in the summer months.  I have mentioned several times on the blog now that I do not like American chocolate, despite visiting Hershey twice now.  The Pictlings have had no such difficulties adjusting their palates to American chocolate but the taste and especially the texture remains alien to my Scottish mouth.  In addition to visiting Hershey, we also did the Turkey Hill Experience to learn how this local ice cream is manufactured.  Ice cream I love; it just doesn’t love me as I am lactose intolerant.

Recently I tried a new local food in the form of some sweet treats from Shane’s Confectionary.  Having started operations in 1863, Shane’s claims to be America’s oldest continuously running candy shop.  It’s store on Market Street, Philadelphia, opened in 1911, when the business moved into retail from wholesale.  Having fallen on hard times in the post-war period, the candy shop was recently lovingly restored.  We will have to take a trip there with the kids some time.


We actually received some Shane’s candies as a New Year gift and, knowing they were special, I saved them for a rainy day.  We had some cherries that had been soaked in brandy and covered in chocolate.  These tasted divine and the crunch through the chocolate into the chewy, fruity centre was pleasing.  They also had a lilac metallic lustre to the chocolate coating which made them extra magical.  There were also some chocolate caramels.  The kids all loved those but, given American chocolate does nothing for me, I was not bowled over by those.


The boys also had a moulded sugar steam locomotive.  Apparently these clear candy toys  – brought to PA by the Amish – are a holiday tradition at Shane’s, with parents buying them up for their children’s Easter and Christmas gifts.  I have happy memories of going to an Edwardian style sweet shop with my Gran and picking out a variety of boilings which were plopped into a paper poke and treasured and savoured during shopping expeditions.  I completely understand the tradition and the element of nostalgia.  The train was literally just boiled sugar though and, therefore, would have been too bland for my liking.  Give me Kola Kubes and Soor Plooms any day.  There were no complaints from the younger sweet-toothed Picts, however.


So that is Shane’s Confectionery ticked off the list.  I wonder what my next experience of edible Pennsylvania will be.

Return to Hershey

After our excursion to Indian Echo Caverns, we decided to stop in at nearby Hershey and do the Hershey World tour.  I am not sure why this was considered to be a good idea.  We had, after all, been before, not long after we emigrated to America.  There was, therefore, no new experience to engage everyone in.  It also did not serve a logistical function of breaking a journey up since it was such a short distance from the Caverns.  I also have this general trepidation about returning to things relatively soon after a previous visit.  Somehow the second visit is always mired in disengagement, moodiness, challenging behaviour, and discontent.

The boys enjoyed doing the silly “tour” again.  So much so that they insisted on doing it twice.  This experience involves sitting in carriages as we are moved past mock-ups of the various stages and processes of Hershey’s chocolate production.  It does qualify as being educational, so there’s that, but what my kids actually like about it are the animatronic cows and their incessantly earwormish Motown singing.


They then wanted to do the chocolate creating activity but that would cost $16 each.  Especially since three of them had done it before, that was not going to happen.  The same was true of the other paid for activities.  We, therefore, compromised and gave them a small amount of money each and told them they could spend it in the on site shop.  They thought that was a lush sweet treat, of course, but in actuality it was an opportunity to have them put their mathematical skills into practical action since they had to budget and make value for money judgments.  Instead of begging for more money, they got me to take photos of them with tempting items that were outside of their budget.  Everyone came away happy and we could head home with smiling faces.





Constitutional Chocolate


We took a trip into the city on Saturday and decided to drill some learning into the kids by taking them to the National Constitution Center.  My oldest had been before, on a school trip mere days after we had arrived in America, but the younger boys have only a vague knowledge of the constitution and of the role Philadelphia played in the birth of this nation.  My 9 year old is always cynical about such trips (“I know you are trying to educate me, you know”) but we compel him to participate anyway and ultimately he engages on at least some levels.



The first stage of our visit was to go into the Kimmel Theater, a rotunda in the middle of the center with stacked seating and 360 degree circular screens at the top.  There a mixture of a live presenter and projected visual images delivered the message about the importance of the constitution – how democracy will function, balancing power between branches of that democracy, enshrining freedoms and amending the document over time in order as values evolved and understanding of democracy progressed.  My boys – even my dinky five year old – were absorbed in it throughout and genuinely seem to have gained a basic understanding of the constitution and how it functions.

After the introductory show we were ushered up the stairs and out into a circular gallery.  We were told that we could take the outer circumference and learn about the history of the constitution from its writing to the present day or we could take the inner circumference and learn about civics, the practical application of the constitution.  We opted to take the civics route as it looked to be more interactive and interactive is always good for keeping our kids on-task and stimulated.  As fast readers, however, my oldest and I were able to flit between the outer and inner rings and look at some of the history displays too.

Some of the highlights were touch screens filled with portraits where the kids could select a person and learn more about them and their contribution to the inception of or development of the constitution; a section about the role of the Supreme Court where the kids could dress up in judicial robes; a genuine jury box where the boys learned about the importance of trial by jury; interactive, touch screen voting booths where the kids could read policy statements by randomly selected Democrat and Republican Presidents and then decide who to vote for; historic exhibits telling the story of different presidents and other individuals, pivotal moments in American history and the reasons for the various amendments from the Bill of Rights onwards; and repeated screens inviting the kids to learn who could vote at what period in time so that they could understand how the franchise was gradually extended thanks to constitutional amendments.


We also took the kids into the temporary exhibition which was all about photos of President Kennedy.  My 8 year old had recently completed a school project on JFK (each child was assigned a president – my 9 year old chose Garfield last year) and he is generally keen on learning all about the various presidents so he was excited to see the photos.  The title of the exhibition was ‘Creating Camelot’ and it showcased the photographs that Jacques Lowe took of the President, First Lady and their children.  The photographs were not only interesting in terms of what they suggested about the image that the Kennedys chose to project or because of the way in which private lives were filtered for public consumption but also because they told a story about preservation.  Lowe’s photographs were actually lost in 9/11 so a film explained how photographic technicians had painstakingly recreated the images by digitising them from printed versions, particularly contact sheets.




After a quick scoot around the gift shop – because some of my kids can apparently not complete a visit anywhere without visiting a gift shop and spending their pocket money – and a play on Independence Mall, we headed off to dinner.

Dinner was actually the reason why we were in the city in the first place.  My oldest is about to turn 12 and as a birthday treat for him we decided to take the kids for a surprise dinner somewhere we would normally never go.  Our destination was Max Brenner, a chocolate restaurant.  As soon as the kids spotted the word chocolate on the building, their eyes popped out on stalks and they began to leap around with excitement.  We insisted that they eat a main course first before proceeding to dessert even though dessert was the main point of the visit.  I had a delicious veggie burger, more succulent than most veggie burgers, that had a wonderfully tangy cilantro mayo on it and that was served with some crisp yet fluffy waffle fries.  Yum but on with dessert.  Mr Pict chose a massive sundae crammed full of tasty morsels, I had a s’more crepe, my middle two sons shared a massive bowl filled with cake, cream, ice cream, strawberries, caramel sauce and crunchy chocolate balls, my youngest had a huge syringe filled with chocolate ganache which he sooked every last drop from, and my oldest had a chocolate pizza topped with everything including toasted marshmallows.  He has been dreaming about a chocolate pizza for years so this was his dream come true.  For a fun, celebratory indulgence, it was a completely perfect experience.








A Visit from Friends

Yesterday two of our friends from Argyll came to visit us, the first of our friends to visit us at our home.  They are a lovely couple – two of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet – and because they are so lovely they took a day out of their vacation in Baltimore to come and see us.  Aside from being friends, J and B have earned brownie points galore with us.  When I was the manager of a local childcare charity, J was my right-hand woman.  I seriously could not have functioned in that role without her knowledge and diligence.  And B once removed Mr Pict’s tooth* while the four Pictlings swarmed around the room on not-their-best-behaviour.  To further endear themselves to us, they brought with them gifts of salad cream for Mr Pict and the two youngest boys (who are addicted to the stuff) and lashings of chocolate for the kids and me.  I have not had a morsel of British chocolate in 18 months.  I could have devoured a whole family size bar in one sitting but I am going to be good and ration it out.  Maybe.  We had a lovely day of chatting over news from home, their trip to America and lots of geekniess all accompanied by cups of tea.  Catching up with friends makes me simultaneously homesick and quells the homesickness but we feel very lucky and glad to have friends who want to come and visit us in Pennsylvania.

*B is a dentist and not a sadist.

Very British Hunting and Gathering

Last week my husband arrived home bearing gifts.  While in search of a crop of pretzels to bring home, he had happened upon a store that had a shelf devoted to foods imported from Britain.  When he opened the shopping bag to reveal its contents, the children swarmed around him singing his praises, worshipping at the feet of the father who had hunted and gathered and brought home things they had not tasted in over a year.


For those who are not familiar with it, Salad Cream is like a hybrid of mayonnaise and toxic waste.  As you may gather, I think it is vile.  Mr Pict and our two youngest children, however, are addicted to it.  Properly addicted.  This is unfortunate since, although it is manufactured by Heinz among others, it is not available in the US.  Luckily for them, however, guests from the UK can bring it with them.  That is the price of a visit to us.  They were relieved to discover, however, that they could now buy bottles of salad cream at this store in order to survive the gaps between salad cream bearing visitors.

The beans, it transpired, were not all that dissimilar from the vegetarian baked beans we have been eating since we emigrated.  Indeed, my children declared that they prefer the American version, probably because they contain a bit more sugar.

Custard powder is something I have been missing because, quite frankly, I suck at making custard from scratch.  Sweet scrambled eggs.  Custard powder saves me the aggravation of making it myself.  I do believe that a trifle is on the cards.

Jammy Dodgers are biscuits (as in cookies, not savoury scones) whereby a layer of super sticky jam is sandwiched between two layers of biscuit, the upper of which has a hole in it.  They are not remotely a special biscuit in Britain but it was a little taste of nostalgia.  The kids devoured them.

British chocolate is very different from American chocolate.  I cannot say that it is any worse or any better but my tastebuds have been bred to prefer the creamy smoothness of British chocolate.  I confess I do not especially like American chocolate as a result.  To prove this is not merely some sort of food patriotism, I will state that Belgian chocolate is by far and away my favourite.  We have all been missing British chocolate so those poor Bounty and Crunchie bars had a very limited lifespan.

Probably the item we were most excited to see, however, was the Irn Bru.  Whisky is the official national drink of Scotland but Irn Bru nips at its heels.  It is a bright orange soft drink promoted as being “made in Scotland from girders”.  It is vaguely fruity but tastes like nothing natural.  It is, however, entirely delicious and very addictive.  Nobody who has tasted it has ever disliked Irn Bru  – well nobody I know at least.  Although we never consumed soft drinks on a regular basis, my kids were dismayed to learn that Irn Bru was not at available in America.  They would look for it on restaurant menus and then remember that Irn Bru would never be an option.  Of all the treats Mr Pict brought back with him from his foraging expedition, the Irn Bru was the one they had missed the most and which they were most glad to see.  It is, however, almost as expensive as liquid amber so they had to do with sharing a small bottle between two and deal with the fact it would be a very occasional treat.  Indeed, we saved the Irn Bru for Burns’ Night – we think Robbie would have approved.

Now if only we could find a source of Bradan Rost salmon on these shores.

Candy Review

Post-Halloween, I stated that my kids would like to use my blog to review all of the American candy they had never tried before.  This, therefore, is that review.



The boys had had Reese’s pieces before but not the cups.  That was something new.  Essentially they are little chocolate cups filled with a peanut butter flavoured unction.  They liked that they were very “peanut-buttery” and that the mixture of chocolate and peanut butter was delicious. They scored 17/20.

3 Musketeers is a bit like a UK Milky Way, with a whipped gooey centre coated in chocolate.  Two of the boys thought they were “awesome” and two thought they were “fine” so they scored 15/20.

Nerds can be purchased in the UK but my kids had never had them before Halloween.  They are essentially packets of tiny, brightly-coloured, strongly-flavoured crispy candy fragments.  The 10 year old liked them because they last a long time apparently.  This is a child who has to be compelled to eat his chocolate Easter eggs before they go off because he likes to hoard sweets.  Clearly the longevity of this product alone was going to score highly with him.  The 8 year old liked that they were hard but then had a sugary burst of flavour and the 6 year old liked the texture of them.  They scored 16/20.

Dum Dums are just standard lollipops, boilings on a stick, but the flavours of the ones the boys tried at least were very American.  The 10 year old was disappointed that they were just a standard lollipop, nothing new or exciting.  The other three liked the strong flavours and the 6 year old appreciated the fact that they were really hard so were difficult to crunch and consequently meant he had to “sook” on them for a long time.  Dum Dums scored 15.5 / 20.

York Peppermint Patties are dark chocolate rounds filled with a dense mint cream.  My 8 year old was enthralled with them!  He loved the flavour and also the fact they were “squishy and not stable at all” on the inside.  I don’t really understand that analysis but if he could have given them triple full score then he would have done so.  They were a hit with his 6 year old brother too who reported that they were “like a mini chocolate pie with mint icing inside”.  York Peppermint Patties received full marks at 20/20.

Butterfingers are a bar of crisp peanut butter centre, perhaps approaching peanut brittle but I’m not sure since I’ve never had one, all coated in chocolate.  The boys reported that it tasted like “caramel toffee” and “tastes kind of buttery inside”.  They scored 15/20.

Tootsie Rolls are like chewy toffee but with a chocolatey flavour to them.  The older three boys declared that they were “delicious” and the 4 year old decided they were “yummy”.  They scored 16/20.

Twizzlers are like strawberry liquorice straws, a bit like when Bertie Bassett does the red thing, and are in a sort of twisted yarn shape.  My 4 year old did not like them at all.  Amusingly the 6 year old determined they were “awesome but really unhealthy”.  They scored just 11/20.

Whoppers are somewhat like British malteesers in that they are balls of chocolate containing a crisp centre but somehow they are just not the same.  The centre is more brittle and less light and the chocolate is not as thick on the surface.  The 4 year old loved them and the others thought they were pretty good but nothing to rave about.  Only the 6 year old felt they were as good as maltesers.  They scored 15/20.

Unlike me, my children believe that Hershey’s is just as good if not better than British chocolate.  They, therefore, scored Hershey chocolate as 18/20.

Almond Joy is like a UK Bounty but with almonds running along the top of the chocolate.  The boys liked the mixture of almonds, coconut and chocolate so it scored highly at 18/20.

Smarties are not like UK Smarties, which are chocolate dots covered in a crisp coating a bit like m ‘n’ ms.  Instead US Smarties are like UK Refreshers, little pellets of hard sherbet-type stuff.  My 8 year old thought they were “kind of weird” and everyone else thought they were mediocre so those scored just 13/20.

Life Savers are a bit like fruit polos in the UK but bigger and chunkier, round halos of brightly coloured boilings in essence.  My 8 year old felt they were “sort of sour” despite being sweet.  The 6 year old felt they were “awesome because they are really sooky”.  The oldest and youngest felt they were “good but not special”.  They scored 15/20.

York Peppermint Patties are, therefore, the winner of Pictish Candy Wars.



Hershey World

Prior to moving to the States, my husband and I had taken the view that we needed to avoid doing touristy things in the early months of being here so as to focus on bedding down into regular, everyday life.  That was the theory.  In practice, that was a bit limiting when it came to quality family time activities.  Therefore, on Sunday we set out for Hershey.

Having not grown up in America or lived here prior to a few weeks ago, Hershey does not have the same cache to me as it does to other people.  I do, however, recognise that it is an American cultural institution and a big deal in terms of our home state of Pennsylvania.  It, therefore, seemed like a good idea to go and do something “Hershey” as a family, especially since Halloween had made the boys so familiar with its products.

There are many different facets of the Hershey site, one of which is a theme park (thankfully closed in Winter), so we had some options.  Mr Pict, who had undertaken the research, decided that we should go to Hershey World.  

It was a middling length journey to get there, made easier by the fact we stopped off for a Cracker Barrel breakfast.  Our kids already love Cracker Barrel.  My 10 year old has been doing battle with the solitaire games that are always at the table and finally, on Hershey expedition day, he completed it with just one plastic doohickey left in the grid.  That put him in a good mood.  We also had to stop at a level crossing to let two trains pass (in the end we did a U turn).  The first train had three engines and 121 carriages (or whatever the cargo word for a carriage is).  This inspired my 6 year old to announce, “That train had more carriages than people have been killed by sharks.”  Interesting measure.

Anyway, Hershey is this big cultural institution, of course, but not being from the culture in question I suppose I was never going to get the fanatacism or the iconography of Hershey World.  That said, I grew up munching my way through Cadbury’s chocolate like a pig at a trough but I was very much underwhelmed by my visit to Cadbury’s.  I will admit I am rather cynical about these things.  You essentially hand over money to be advertised at, like voluntarily sitting through relentless commercials for the same product.  I am also not very taken with Hershey chocolate.  It lacks the creamy texture and taste of European chocolate.  Belgian chocolate is simply amazing.  I actually needed to pause while typing that just to daydream about Belgian chocolate truffles.  I would have to give best runner up to Swiss chocolate.  I don’t even care why that cow is lilac.  I would sup the chocolate straight from its udders.  Yum.  And then, not out of some patriotic dweebiness but probably because my tastebuds developed on the stuff, I would have to give third place to British chocolate.  Yes, it may be so lacking in cocoa content that the EU tried to have it reclassified as “vegelate”, but the velvety smooth texture and creamy richness of decent British chocolate is delectable.  I find Hershey’s, by comparison, to be oddly solid, with a texture that reminds me of crayons.  It’s not offensive to my palate at all but America offers me so many opportunities to eat empty calories that I can probably do without the chocolate.  Which might well be good news for my butt and thighs.  In short: I am not a Hershey’s zealot and visiting Hershey World was not a pilgrimage for me in the way it clearly was for many visitors.

We did the free stuff first which meant sitting in a barrel while a trio of Motown cows sang to us about the way Hershey process cocoa beans into chocolate.  It was more fun than that sounds but not as much fun as you would hope for.  The mini-Picts liked it though, enough to do the ride twice, so that was a win.  Then we split up as three boys went to do chocolate creating with Daddy while I took our 8 year old, who is not that into chocolate, to watch a 4D movie.  Those who made the chocolate got to wear pinnies (aprons) and hairnets while pushing buttons and making selections to create a chocolate bar of their own devising which was then presented to them in a personalised tin.  Way too classy and educational for Hershey World, right?  My 8 year old and I got to do the cheesy thing by opting for the 4D movie.  What was impressive was it was fully interactive, with the animated Hershey bar conversing with individual audience members and ad-libbing appropriately.  The story was naff so I shall spare you the details but it concluded with the audience being asked how we wanted to discipline the baddie.  We chose to eat him.  The stricken look on the Hershey bar’s face was hilarious.  Hershey Bar then tried to reason with us, asking us to contemplate giving the bad guy a second chance.  No compassion to be found, however: we all still voted to eat him.  Some more ad-libbing happened while they tried, I assume, to figure out which scenario for the ending they could show that could possibly conform as closely as possible to our chosen ending: cannibalism.  So that bad guy got covered in chocolate which solidified and then cracked into shards.  Alas, he survived beneath the coating but we got to eat chocolate representing his body to make us feel better about the fact they partly reneged on our judgement.  My 8 year old loved it.  The perils and joys of audience participation.

So that was our day of having fun and frolics while being constantly advertised at.  I am sure we will return to Hershey (the town where even the street lights are shaped like chocolate kisses) to explore and experience more but that was quite enough for one day.