Well honestly, I’m quite deflated. It’s like my souffle’s sunk, my meringue’s gone flat and my custard’s curdled. It seems I only have five of the Observer’s top 50 cookbooks ever!
This either indicates that I am hopelessly untrendy or that I am a lousy, seriously uninformed cook. Whichever is true, I’m not sure I can live with the shame. Well, ok, I lied about that. I just made shame my new best friend.
I’ve always been the type to buy cookbooks I’ll lilke and use rather than buy “yah” cookbooks to decorate the kitchen bookshelf and impress friends. It’s surprising how people always check what you’ve got, though, which in my case is several handfuls of Jamie Oliver, a generous serving of Nigel Slater, a good pinch of Nigella and only a quarter of a teaspoon of Delia.
While it’s good to try new recipes, the oldtried and tested cliches are still the absolute favourites. Things like boeuf bourgignon, coq au vin, ham in coke, queen of puddings, raspberry pavlova… are always requested no matter how many new recipes I’d like to try.
It also occurred to me that while I have around 370 books logged as read on one of those bookish websites, I completely omitted to include my favourite cookery books.
The favourites are dead easy to tell. The earliest ones have spattered, hard-to-separate pages. Back then, I didn’t even have the confidence to move them more than 12 inches from the hob back! Later books are bookmarked with other related recipes on pieces of paper from various eras “to try one day” or they are paperbacks which are now so dilapidated that each time I use one, I have to put the pages back in order.
The exception is an old paperback; Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cooking, which I have always treated with the same respect one might accord to the family Bible. No spatters on that and many times I’ve just read it rather than cooking from it. I still find it absolutely extraordinary that she was living and writing a stunning culinary life surrounded by the fragrance of garlic, fresh herbs and lemons while down in Wales, we thought Fray Bentos steak and kidney pudding out of a tin was a big treat with home-made chips. My Dad smothered his in HP sauce. Mind you, when I saw Welsh comedian Rhod Gilbert last year he spun a whole routine out of the fact that sun-dried tomatoes were still considered completely alien in Pontypridd.
So does your choice of cookery books matter? Not really. It’s more important that, whichever recipe you follow – or maybe you just make it up, freefall and hope to land successfully – you enjoy creating something which will please family and friends.
I started with a Marguerite Patten hardback book, just to get to grips with the basics and moved on to the fabulous Good Housekeeping Cookbook, which is still a staple. It has suggested menus for everything from a casual supper for six to birthday buffets and wedding breakfasts. It tells you – with diagrams – how to bone things and goes on about the importance of good pans and sharp knives.
But Katie Stewart’s little paperback The Times Cookbook has been a day-to-day treasure with everything from perfectly roasted beef and Yorkshires to the queen of puds.
The Sainsbury’s Book of Cakes, provided inspiration for birthday cakes – from the leaning pale blue spaceship with outsize rivets (silver dragees) and the chocolate castle full of medieval lego figures, the ever-popular chocolate hedgehog cake and the disastrous blanketweed- green typewriter cake I made for a friend. I could tell she was a real friend because she didn’t laugh and she did actually serve it. It looked ok covered in candles in a dimly lit room. I think she cut it and made everyone have a piece in the dark.
The one I’m most fond of is the Superwoman Diary by Shirley Conran. It has the raspberry pavlova recipe that’s dead easy to make but which everyone thinks is my signature dish and Shirl won me over instantly with that famous “life is too short to stuff a tomato” line.
The one failure was Madhur Jaffrey’s curry book – included on the Observer best cookbook list! When I bought it, it was exciting and exotic to read but I couldn’t source half of the Indian herbs and spices and I had no idea what a cardamom pod was. I ended up buying some black cardamons, which, in the curry, tasted reflexively, spit-outably nasty.
I’m sure Madhur meant me to buy the fragrant little green ones – because when it came to curries, the mere memory of black cardamoms made us opt for take-aways for many years afterwards.