In 1997 a scandal broke out, unlike any other. River Café Cook Book by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers was newly published. In it there was a recipe for a cake I’ve never made or eaten or been served: dark, flour-less and baked until set in a bain marie. In fact I didn’t know what a bain marie was until writing this post (it’s a type of heated water bath). It turns out that for most people this recipe didn’t work. Amateur chefs and professional chefs tried and all of them ended up with a fresh brown liquid.
Fast forward a decade or so and I tried to make macarons from Lorraine Pascal’s Baking Made Easy. Easy it wasn’t. Correct? No, not for me anyway. I tried the recipe twice before calling it a day and going shopping at Pierre Herme. I even had the chance to ask Lorraine what went wrong and she didn’t know either.
Apparently recipe books are full of mistakes and errors. Would I ever notice them? No. Most of us who use cookbooks aren’t professional chefs. I can’t recognise mistyped weight amounts or methods unless someone points the out to me. But like the fresh liquid cake from River Café Cook Book, my story makes me smile. This is the charm of cookbooks for me. Surprisingly enough I don’t care if they work or not because they aren’t for cooking.
I know some of you are horrified by this, that I don’t actually make anything from my cookbooks. I’m hoping though that a lot of you will be able to relate. In the past three months alone I have acquired at least five more cookbooks. If each of them has 100 recipes that’s 500 recipes I don’t use. I devour these books like novels, leafing through them page by page. Then I close them, shelve them, and return to them as if they were a dear friend I’d lost touch with.
Sometimes I go against the fibre of my being and try a recipe. The most recent that I can remember was a recipe for Cheesy Scones from Nadiya’s British Food Adventure after seeing her making them on her BBC TV show. I went off-piste, they were delicious and for the next couple of days I had very good intentions of making more from my books. Very good intentions. I still do, fleetingly.
Mostly though cookbooks have very little to do with cooking. At least for me. I love reading about food. I love reading about food innovations and how science is shaping the industry. I love seeing recipes which I know I could make at home and them dismissing them because they are easy. It’s also as enjoyable doing the same with the very, very complicated ones.
My cookbooks are like a history lesson: the fashions and tastes of the time they were written is all over the pages. There is nothing like exploring a new place than through its food and the best cookbooks take you on a journey. Sometimes they are part cooking manual and part anthropological guide, introducing you to a new culture and place through the food they make.
If someone were able to look at my collection (I wish I could call it a library but it definitely isn’t grand enough for that. Now my crime book library is something else entirely…) I have no idea what they’d think about me. I have books by many cooks and on a wide range of topics. There isn’t one cuisine I really love or one I really, really hate. Actually they wouldn’t even be able to tell that I was a vegetarian; cookbooks now cater for all food preferences but they didn’t always.
What I want people to see when they look at my collection is that I love food. I value food and what it brings into my life. Eating is probably what I have in common with almost every other living thing. And that’s pretty epic isn’t it? I remember when I cooked a lavish meal for my friends in University and how much they loved it. I wanted to thank them for adopting me, for making Uni life a little more bearable. Food is how I show love and mushy sentiment. Cookbooks are how the chefs writing them show their love. They are love letters I am addicted to.
It doesn’t matter to me if I never make anything from the cookbooks I own ever again (though my mum cares. A lot). The fact they are there in my bookshelf, taking up space is almost always enough. The food I eat will always be good. The recipes I read will always be mouth-watering.
My top 5 cookbooks (of the moment):
- Sweet by Yottam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh. Published by Ebury Press
- A Modern Way to Eat by Anna Jones. Published by Fourth Estate
- Fresh India by Meera Sodha. Published by Fig Tree
- Trullo by Tim Siadatan. Published by Square Peg
- Nadiya’s British Food Adventure by Nadiya Hussain. Published by Michael Joseph