Excess baggage – new cookbooks and old
Are you the type of person who can never resist another cookbook? You are in good company. What is it about turning the pages of an unfamiliar book full of culinary inspiration? It’s often the jumping off point for me, rather than slavishly following a recipe it’s just the spark I need to get into the kitchen with a plan in my head. My cookbooks tend to be in three categories too: books I actually cook from (a core of about 15), books I refer to occasionally (specialist cuisines or techniques), books for reading and browsing only (fantasy feeds).
I brought a whole load back from the UK this summer. While I have a huge wish list on Amazon, I’m much more disciplined about buying brand new cookbooks these days so the ones I’ve chosen really have to earn their place on the shelves. Second-hand books are another story. Charity shops – especially Oxfam book shops – and book sales (I love the little stable with an honesty box at Saltram House, Devon) provide rich pickings. As promised earlier, here’s more about my new haul.
Perfect. 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook’s Repertoire by Felicity Cloake
I was a keen follower of Felicity Cloake’s writing in the Guardian, but became an avid fan when I read her article about custard. It expressed exactly how I feel about the yellow stuff. I met her at Food Blogger Connect in 2012 and she was modest and very approachable. Her laid back persona cloaks a perfectionist in the kitchen. She is a meticulous recipe tester. The inspiration for her ‘How to make the perfect‘ column and this book was as follows. Gazing at the shelves of cookery books she owns, she wondered how to decide which recipe to turn to for the most delicious, authentic, perfect result – and she set out to find out. From how to boil an egg through to the perfect Ragù Bolognese, she has cooked, tasted and compared advice from ‘an embarrassment of choice’ including Jane Grigson, Nigel Slater, Elizabeth David, Julia Child, Angela Hartnett, Dan Lepard, Delia, Jamie, Hugh and Nigella. The result is a small, modest hardback book peppered with simple, charming illustrations, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in my Mum’s kitchen. It distills the best of each into the ultimate perfect recipe. I’m going to buy a copy for my teens for when they leave home.
Smitten Kitchen. Recipes from a New York Kitchen by Deb Perelman
And talking of perfectionism, Deb Perelman’s friendly, unassuming tone of voice on her blog Smitten Kitchen makes you feel like you are part of one continuous cosy chat in her tiny New York Kitchen. But don’t be fooled, a dedication to perfecting recipes and communicating them to pinpoint accuracy is an obsession – hundreds of thousands of readers don’t just happen by accident.
I read a fair few food blogs over the course of the week but only cook from a handful. Smitten Kitchen is one of them, despite pesky US volume measurements. The book, ordered in the UK, has been anglicised so it’s metric and things like biscuits become scones. Deb’s conversational style works as well on the page as it does online and the collection of recipes is just the kind of food I like to eat. My teens have been bookmarking things ever since it arrived, even salads. I expected great desserts and cakes, lemon bars, strawberry cheesecake fools and marshmallow layer cake for instance, but a real bonus is an excellent vegetarian section with leek fritters with garlic and lemon, and slow-cooked black bean ragout high on my ‘to cook’ list.
Food DIY – How to make your own everything: sausages to smoked salmon, sourdough to sloe gin, bacon to buns by Tim Hayward
This could have had the by-line – ‘follow up to the Dangerous book for boys’. It’s unashamedly macho (although he often gets his ten-year old daughter Liberty involved). Tim Hayward likes to get his hands dirty and smokes, butchers, makes cheese, kneads bread and pickles things. However, this book is not about how to survive in the outback, it’s about self-reliance. It’s the anti-thesis of the ready meal culture that half the population in the UK now calls cooking.
Tim’s an ex-ad man and entrepreneur who set up Fire and Knives magazine, appears often on BBC Radio 4 (Kitchen Cabinet and the Food Programme), took over and relaunched Fitzbillies in Cambridge. He’s quick-witted and energetic on air and in person (he was a speaker at FBC in 2011), is rather curmudgeonly on Twitter; this beautifully designed and illustrated tome is clearly a labour of love (although the rumoured 250k advance must have helped). Having lived as an expat for many years you get used to trying to make things you can’t obtain easily from scratch (ahem, including alcohol in the magic Kingdom). It’ll be a challenge to use this book to its full capacity here in Dubai but I’ll be trying out smoked fish, kimchi, crumpets and his DIY takeaway fried chicken for sure. Air dried salami or hog roast, hmmmm…. not in the UAE. And if anyone is coming to visit me, please bring Prague powder. Thanks to Maldon Salt – I was delighted to win this copy (with a tweet) as I was about to buy it. Very glad that KP didn’t see this enormous volume prior to packing as it probably cost me the cover price in extra baggage.
I Love Toscana. Colours, taste and flavours by Giulia Scarpaleggia
Giulia smiles, her eyes sparkle, she has dimples in her cheeks and the warmest manner you have ever encountered. She’s ingenuous, friendly and charming; no one meeting her could fail to be captivated. It’s the same with her new book, a simple concept – the story of the Tuscany where she lives and grew up through food. Many people have attempted this as outsiders, but there is a guilelessness about Jul’s first book that is avoids any pretension and takes you closer to this beautiful region.
I’d be content just to leaf through the pages of rustic photographs (several by Ellen Silverman but in the main taken by Juls herself). The stories about producers , the changing seasons, the landscape, the family rituals are entertaining enough by themselves and the layout and typography superb. The recipes are mostly simple, celebrating the best ingredients to hand often during straitened times, like wild herb omelette, crostoni with lard, tomato bread soup and green panzanella salad. The meat and fish dishes include sumptuous feasts such as stewed wild boar and roasted venison as well as more modest ones like black peppercorn beef stew and meatloaf. Whether you cook from it or use it as the inspiration for a trip to Tuscany, this is a lovely book to own (Juls brought me a copy from Italy to FBC 2013). She explains more on a video over on her blog Jul’s Kitchen (scroll to the bottom of the post) where she celebrates with rhubarb and berry custard slices. I approve heartily.
The Roman Cookery of Apicius. Translated and adapted for the modern kitchen by John Edwards.
You’d think that dishes from the time of Caesar might make you rush for the vomitorium. This is not the case at all, in fact the bulk of the recipes are quite familiar, green beans in mustard sauce, parsnips cooked in sweet wine sauce. It’s a wonderful introduction to the best of Roman and Greek cooking of the age and I suspect will spend equal time on my bedside table as a good historical read as in my kitchen as a source of inspiration.
The Country House Cookery Book by Christian Hesketh, Elisabeth Luard and Lara Blond
In buying this, I have no intention of pretending to be ‘to the manor born’. It was the mention of renowned food writer Elisabeth Luard that made me put my donation in the honesty box for this book. It’s like Country Life meets Upstairs and Downstairs – Mr’s Lott’s Pheasant Casserole anyone? An intriguing look at a life well on it’s way out in 1985 when this book was published and pretty much forgotten now (many country estates are now in the hands of Russian oligarchs aren’t they?). It appeals to me by capturing a very specific kind of English cooking, as this menu from Holker Hall in Lancashire illustrates well:
Tomato and bacon bisque, Roast leg of lamb, Damson cheese
Farmhouse Fare. Recipes from country housewives collected by Farmers Weekly
Published in 1973, this is a collection of recipes from real farmers’ wives. Amid practically extinct dishes such as savoury sheep’s heads and braised sheep’s tongues, the unappealing (meat rock cakes, mock goose – made of bull’s heart), there are many worth exploring especially in the cakes and preserving chapters. I’m eager to test many of them out and share them with you (but probably not the chapter entitled pig curing and by-products). That’s after the book has been aired for a while; patently the previous owner was a chain smoker. Where’s a clothes peg?
Cornucopia. The lore of fruits and vegetables by Annie Lise Roberts
What garlic is to salad, insanity is to art – Augustus Saint-Gaudens
How could I resist a book with beautiful illustrations peppered with quotes like that? Here’s another one:
Garlic is the catsup of intellectuals.
As a keen garlic eater, I can only agree.
Roast chicken and other stories by Simon Hopkinson
I seem to have lost my copy of this so was more than happy to find it second-hand for £1. The chapters are by ingredient, from anchovy to veal, with a very random collection in between. Eggs, garlic, brains, grouse, hake, parmesan and saffron to name a few. It’s regularly cited by chefs, cooks and food writers as a favourite tome and indeed listed as a source by Felicity Cloake (see above). Oh yes. There is a chapter on custard.
Sherbet & Spice. The complete story of Turkish sweets and desserts by Mary Isin
This didn’t come home in my suitcase but was sent to me as a review copy several months ago. I’ve been dipping into it constantly but still haven’t finished it so felt unable to give a comprehensive review. It’s a masterpiece of historical documentation and in-depth study of sweet things from the Ottomans, from how sugar was imported to the role of sweetmeats in charity to the poor. Reading the descriptions could give you a sugar rush without a morsel passing your lips. It’s the kind of book I’d like to take to the beach (yes really) if I still took those kind of holidays. It would reward constant concentration to draw you into the many layered stories and references, the way that these sweetmeats are interwoven into history, culture and religion. My daily five minutes before nodding off have not done it justice. I’m so glad that publishers are still investing in a book of this nature as without the kind of detailed research (over 40 years) and documentation that Mary Isin has dedicated, I suspect that much of the information would be lost forever. It is indeed a Turkish delight.
You are as refined as candy on a sweet tongue
In your sweet words are güllaç, made of honey and sugar – Däi c. 1421
Do you still buy physical cookbooks or do you download them on Kindle or ipad? Any new ones (or new old ones) to recommend?
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- Room for a couple of classics among the new cookbooks (standard.co.uk)
- Read more cookbook reviews on My Custard Pie
- LIBRARY: The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (thingsihavebrought.wordpress.com)