For a year that has had its fair share of horrors, 2017 produced some mindbogglingly good cookbooks. These hardbound volumes of comfort continue to keep us cooks inoculated against the bad bad world outside. Our respite comes from comforting meals and innovation on the stove, where we strive to surprise both ourselves and the palates we feed. Christmastime, also the last month of the year, warrants a round-up of cookbooks that really made their mark on home cooking. These are meant to be thoughtful gifts to other friends who cook, so I’ve also included a little bit on who this cookbook is meant for, as well as some of my favourite recipes from it. At the very end, the much-ridiculed fruit cake gets a spanking new look as one of my favourite authors puts his own spin on it. I’ve included the recipe word-for-word in this blog, in the hope that you’ll pick up a copy.
- The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater
Starting off with an instant classic, Nigel’s books are known to bring together fantastic prose with equally lush recipes, and this stands true in this Christmas special cookbook that reads like a cozy wintertime biopic. Renowned for his seasonal, fresh approach and clean flavours, Nigel hits just the right spots of nostalgia in this book with recipes like a Ribsticker bread pudding with ham, three kinds of cheese, thyme, and lots of crusty bread.
On bread he writes, “I like biscotti or shortbread with poached fruit, an apple fool or a syllabub. The joy of the crisp and the soft. But bread, cut into long thin soldiers, as you might slice it for a boiled egg, can do splendidly too. Butter the bread, sprinkle it with caster sugar and grill until the sugar melts, or do as I did this week, spreading the toasted bread generously with marmalade and caramelising it under the grill.”
Some of my favourite recipes in the book are for a Cranberry and Butterscotch Pudding, a Dried Fig and Marsala Tart and a Christmassy cocktail of Figs with dry white wine, maple syrup and anise.
This book is perfect for Nigel lovers, people who obsess over Christmas like I do, as well as for people who appreciate the gift of good literature adorned with some fantastic recipes.
2. Dining In by Alison Roman
Fun recipes that are devilishly simple to make and endlessly adaptable. There’s tons of recipe inspo to be found between the pages of this cookbook. Alison Roman was the Senior Food Editor at Bon Appetit so she is legit super cool, modish and all that. Her standard style-“oh that recipe is so Roman”-can be seen from recipes like Butter Roasted Radishes with fresh Za’atar, Fried Eggplant with Harissa and Dill, Sour Cream Flatbread and Salted Butter Chocolate Chunk shortbread biscuits. I love the recipes ideas in this tome and even made an insanely good Sumac salt to have in place of chaat masala with fruit during evening snack time.
This book is perfect to gift your cool friends who eat trendy, but smart. Young people cooking for themselves will love this book and its pasta and seafood recipes especially- think clams with green garlic butter and leftover wine, plus Cold garlicky pasta with capers and salsa verde.
3. On The Side by Ed Smith
I don’t think there existed a book solely about fancy side dishes to accompany your meals until Ed Smith decided to write one. Ed writes a round-up of the UK’s newest recipes every week via his online blog Rocket and Squash. These Supplementals see the ebb and flow of ideas from chefs, bakers and food writers involved in the cooking scene in the UK and his opinions on them, sometimes savage, are always spot on. Some of my favourite recipes from the book are Asian greens with shrimp paste, Grilled broccoli with umami crumbs, Gochujang mayo and coconut corn on the cob and Spiced roast carrots.
In Ed Smith’s words, ‘this book is for anyone who already realises that the best bits of a Sunday roast are the trimmings.’.
4. State Bird Provisions by Stuart Brioza and Nicole Krasinski
To understand the cookbook you must first understand the concept that State Bird Provisions is designed around, which is the frantic, fun, high energy world of ‘dim sums with a Michelin twist’, as Bon Appetit stated in a 2016 review. In one sentence, the restaurant serves cool Californian food by way of wheeled dim-sum sized carts. The cookbook, a cool extension of that gives us readers sitting far away from California a perspective into this cuisine and we see dishes like Duck Liver Mousse with Warm Duck Fat Financiers rub shoulders with Cast Iron Quiail Eggs (Quail is California’s State Bird) with Summer Vegetable Condiments and Garlic Chips. They have a rather large savoury larder section before the actual recipes begin which are always a delight to cook from if you’re creating your own dishes. With slightly complicated recipes in there, some with many components, the aspiring chefs, innovative home cooks and chefs alike will all love this cookbook. I had a blast cooking from it. If you gifted someone a copy of Ottolenghi’s Nopi last year, this book is great in 2017.
5. The Flavour Of Spice by Marryam Reshii
Marryam Reshii, a paragon of what food writing in India should read like, pounds a toasty mix of aromatics in her new book The Flavour Of Spice where she walks readers through the nuances of everyday spices that we take for granted such as Chilli, Pepper, Cardamom, Fenugreek alongside recipes that are jump-off-the-page good such as Chef Ranveer Brar’s Candied Turmeric Creme Brûlée, a spiced berry sauce from The Leela, Coconut crepes with green cardamom and a delicious pink gram or masoor dal with fenugreek seeds that I made for dinner last night. This is the perfect buy for fellow food writers, friends who are interested in India’s abundant food history, family friends and chefs.
6. At My Table by Nigella Lawson
Yet another Nigella cookbook to buy, but is this the best one yet? The recipes from At My Table are highly cookable, but more importantly, they’re practical for everyday life. These dishes are wholesome, and yet not strenuous to make. Simple spaghetti made better with spicy sesame mushrooms, Brie, ham and fig toasties, a poached egg curry with fresh turmeric are some examples of this, and the desserts don’t disappoint either. There are Emergency brownies, forget-about-it meringue cookies (merookies) that cook overnight in a hot-but-shut oven and even a twist on pound cake with cardamom, marmalade and creme fraiche. This is good, honest food that I want to cook and eat. Recipes that are not made to impress once and forget, but to become a part of our everyday cooking journey. I think Nigella really ups the ante with this one. A real gem for the home cook.
Nigella’s books are not targeted at chefs, but people who want to gain confidence in the kitchen and learn how to pull up fresh and delicious meals speedily, and with grace.
7. Salt Fat Acid Heat
How do I even begin to tell you about Samin Nosrat, let alone summarise it in 200 words or less? She is the culinary school teacher our generation didn’t know it needed, and she handholds her pupils-us budding, amateur cooks-just the right amount to let our imagination run free. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is in some ways more textbook and bible than a recipe book because it touches upon the most fundamental principles of cooking and walks you through so many things from fixing a broken mayonnaise to how to chop your veggies and greens the right away with illustrations from the very talented Wendy MacNaughton. It does all of this and more in the voice of a friend and not that of an angry chef screaming behind you.
Let’s say it’s the only book you’ll want to go back and refer to when you’re a bit confused with the details of a recipe or if your recipe is just an idea and you need to refer to something to be able to start cooking. This book is perfect for just about anyone who wants to get into the kitchen and doesn’t know where to begin.
There’s also a very cool flavour chart you can pull out at the centre of the book to refer to.
8. & 9. Fearless Baker by Erin Jean McDowell and Brave Tart by Sarah
The two most notable and rewarding baking books of the year for homecooks I would say, Fearless Baker and Brave Tart are really some of the best tomes to have on hand when you need a foolproof cookie recipe, a basic cake recipe, and for more advanced bakers, a base blueprint to create something of their own. Both are absolutely littered with expert tips you will NOT find anywhere else and are great tools to hone your baking skills and take it one step further.
My favourite recipes from Fearless Baker are the salted caramel swirled meringues, the Peppermint Devil’s Food Hi-Hat cupcakes that bring together the After 8 flavour with moist chocolate cupcakes and the black-bottomed creme brûlées with chocolate ganache at the bottom.
Favourite recipes from Brave Tart are the customisable snickerdoodle cookies, the absolutely genius marshmallow buttercream and obviously the brown butter carrot cake which I will wax lyrical about all of 2018.
If you know a home baker, any home baker really, gift them these books. They will thank you.
10. Sweet by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh
How do I love Team Ottolenghi? Let me count the ways. Helen Goh, psychologist and baker is Malaysian, just like Ramael Scully from Nopi who co-wrote the last cookbook with Ottolenghi. I think Yotam and the entire team in the test kitchens under Camden station churn out wonder after wonder that never ceases to amaze. Sweet is definitely one of the best contributions of 2017 for me. The recipes are achievable for home cooks, nothing is too complicated, and if something is, then it has been painstakingly explained to help the reader get through it. Find recipes for Speculoos cookies, rolled meringues, flourless chocolate teacakes, kafir lime possets and an undeniably good Festive Fruit Cake, the recipe for which is below. I’ve made all of these and they’ve turned out absolutely amazing.
Start at least two days before you want to make this fruitcake by soaking the fruit mixture. After it's finished, it must stand by itself for a week at least where the flavours will mature overtime. Continue decorating the cake after a week.
For The Fruit Mix- Mix everything together and set aside for two days at least
A mix of raisins, sultanas and currants 3 1/2 cups
Dried apricots 2/3 cup
Dates 75g, pitted, the best quality you can find
Glacé cherries 1/3 cup, roughly chopped
Candied orange peels 100g
Old monk or any other dark rum 1/3 cup
Mansion House brandy 1/3 cup or any other brandy
For The Cake
All-purpose flour 200g
Almond flour 2 tbsp
Baking soda 1/3 tsp
Garam masala 3/4 tsp
Ground cinnamon 3/4 tsp
Ground nutmeg 1/3 tsp
Salt 1/4 tsp
Butter 150g, plus extra for greasing
Brown sugar 120g
Lemon 1, zested
Orange 1, zested
Black treacle 3 tsp (heating the spoon you measure the treacle in helps it fall easily off the spoon) You can find black treacle at Crawford market. It's sold by Lyle's, the same brand that makes golden syrup or light treacle.
Orange marmalade 1 tbsp
Eggs 2, lightly beaten, plus 1 egg lightly beaten for folding through at the end
Dark rum 2 1/2 tbsp
Brandy 2 1/2 tbsp
For The Topping
Marmalade 2 1/2 tbsp
Heat the oven to 160 degrees celsius. Grease an 8-inch cake pan and line the base and sides with two layers of baking paper with enough overhang to allow for rising. This is to keep the sides of the cake from cooking too quickly. Set it aside.
Using a hand whisk stir together the two flours as well as the spices, salt and baking soda together till there are no lumps. Set aside.
In a bowl, place the butter, brown sugar, both orange and lemon zests and beat with a hand blender for 2-3 minutes on medium-high until the mixture looks pale. Add to this the treacle and marmalade and continue to beat to combine. Stop and add the two out of three lightly beaten eggs one by one, beating well after each addition until fully incorporated scraping down the sides o the bowl as you go.
Then turn the speed down to low and add the whisked dry ingredients and beat until everything is just combined. Add the macerated fruit and gently mix. Finally switch to a wooden spoon and add in the last lightly beaten egg and fold it in.
Spoon the cake batter into the prepared pan and make a little well or dip in the centre to allow for the cake to rise and get a flat even top once cooked. Transfer to the oven and bake for 2 hours or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean. Check on the cake 30-45 minutes in to see how fast it's browning. If it is indeed browning too quickly, cover the cake with aluminium foil and continue cooking.
Once the cake comes out of the oven with a clean skewer, quickly mix together the rum and brandy and brush all over the cake till it is well soaked. Set aside to cool completely, then store in an airtight container for a week at least before decorating.
To decorate, brush the top of the fruit cake with 2 1/2 tbsp marmalade and proceed to coat with marzipan if you'd like. Since I'm not very fond of marzipan, I left that bit out.