My cookbook heroines

By my bed are two piles of cookbooks and food memoirs, stacked precariously. They are within easy reach for when I write a blog post, think of a new dish to put on the specials board at the cafe, or to simply peruse and ear-mark (although most cookbooks now come with a ribbon book-marker! Ingenious!) Some people have their laptop or hand cream within easy access – I have cookbooks and I am sure I’m not alone.

I had come to notice most of my chosen reading material were authored by women. That is not to say I don’t love male food writers – my bae Nigel Slater is even emotive and eloquent on Instagram, and I have articles written by the likes of Giles Coren, Jay Rayner and Calvin Trillin stored on my hard drive and in my memory – but it seems that food writing is a genre where females flourish and I would like to share with you my favourites; the cooks and chefs who inspire me with their words.

my cookbook heroines

Nigella Lawson

Of course, I have to start with the one, the only, the namesake of this little blog.

The only problem with reading Nigella’s written word is that you don’t hear her voice which like melted butter, oozing sumptuously as she dollops more cream on something. That said, she still writes with the poetic metaphors for which we know and love her. One of the first cookbooks I ever owned, Nigella Express still gets pulled out for her chocolate brownies or quesadillas, always with the comment from some member of my family, “She’s arranged this book very oddly!” Unlike most cookbooks, the desserts are jumbled higgledy-piggledy among the main courses, snacks and starters so there is no order or direction, just your own prayers that you find what you’re looking for. In a way, that is a lot like Nigella herself: a bit of this, a bit of that, no weights and measures just pour it all in, all with an arch smile and an extra drizzle of chocolate sauce. 

An ear-marked recipe: Salted caramel sauce

Sophie Dahl

Ex-model, granddaughter of the magical Roald, Sophie Dahl is like a human sparkler – spirited and playful with a great grin that lights up her face.

Although I have scathingly ridiculed the front cover of her book Miss Dahl’s Voluptuous Delights, it is one of my favourites thanks to the seasonal categories – if a cookbook tells me it is time to make something stodgy I need no more convincing – and also because of the personal anecdotes infusing each recipe or intermingled with the directions, and the candid autobiography which introduces each seasonal chapter. She is blunt about her weight, her eating disorders, and her love of food. “Maybe in my next life I can inherit that splendid shelf of derrière… sexy is inherent in a healthy appreciation for food.” Which is definitely a mantra by which I can live.

An ear-marked recipe: French onion soup

Tamasin Day-Lewis

Yes, she is the sister of Mr Daniel Day-Lewis, who is regularly referred to as ‘Dan’ throughout her writing. There is a bit of name dropping – her good friend, Julia Roberts, is a main character in the memoir Where Shall We Go For Dinner?but you learn to tolerate it because she is very good story-teller.

Whether her books focus on recipes with a few stories, or a lot of stories with a few recipes, her food is always the crux of the tale. You can feel the texture of a treacle tart on your tongue and be dazzled by the mirror gleam off a Sachertorte glaze. Entirely self-taught, she explains she suddenly fell into cooking after making blackcurrant ice cream with Ribena, cream and icing sugar at boarding school. Now, she is the Queen of Tarts, famous for The Art of Tart and the follow-up Smart Tart, in which she chastises those with the excuse that they’re “bad at pastry”. “If cooking doesn’t make you think you’re not doing it right.”

An ear-marked recipe: Hazelnut ice cream

Molly Wizenberg

Molly came to fame ten years ago through her lovely blog Orangette. Although she doesn’t blog as much anymore, she has published two books based on her food blog and the consequent restaurants she opened with her, now, ex-husband.

I bought her first book A Homemade Life on a whim and dragged my feet when it came to reading it. At the time, a book about food seemed like homework to me – I mean, it’s no Harry Potter. Eventually, I picked it up and read the opening chapter. It was a watershed moment and I subsequently bought her second book and many other food memoirs.

Her writing is utter joy to read. She writes as though she has just caved to a guilty pleasure and is licking the spoon clean. She is colloquial, self-deprecating, really funny, “it’s bad enough that the delicious prune—or, to use its new, marketing-friendly name, the dried plum—has to work an unglamorous side-job as a laxative” and I always want to cook her food. Prunes aside.

An ear-marked recipe: Banana bread with chocolate and crystalised ginger

Niki Segnit

This name will be unknown to most but I believe Niki Segnit’s book The Flavour Thesaurus is my most treasured. Bought less than a year ago, it is already dog-eared and faded, more accustomed to the interior of my bag as my daily reading material than the lofty view by my bed.

This book is clever and owned by most chefs (when I said enthusiastically to my head chef at Hispi, “I have this book which pairs flavours -” he nodded shrewdly, interrupting with, “The Flavour Thesaurus. All chefs have that.” So there you have it.) Divided into categories – Earthy, Brine & Salt, Cheesy – which she sub-categorises into specific foods, she pairs flavours, such as, olive and orange, goat’s cheese and anise, with a short description and, if you’re lucky, a recipe. Her writing is witty, – “Lemon & Saffron: Work like a couple of holiday reps to keep paella’s orgy of disparate ingredients in order” occasionally making me laugh out loud (which is unusual for a thesaurus) and stimulated to immediately start cooking.

An ear-marked recipe: Lamb & Almond – Moroccan lamb meatballs

Gabrielle Hamilton

As the only restaurant chef on this list, Gabrielle Hamilton is an anomaly. Her recipe book is bulky and pink, and bound straight from the kitchen at her restaurant, Prune. The recipes are written for daily restaurant-service with large quantities, authoritative directions, even notes in her own hand-writing, such as, “Be careful not to leave your fingerprints in the powdered sugar when plating” or, “Pay attention. I have seen some wilted crap come out of this kitchen” and I immediately feel my heart-rate increase.

Her memoir is eye-catching through the title alone, Blood, Bones and Butter with a headless chicken scarpering across the front-cover (a tale which she divulges). Although her life has rotated around cooking her words describe food as not some obsessive passion or romanticism – it just happens to be there, all the time. It is the secondary character to her story, instead we delve into her loves and cherished memories – her mother’s game of blindfolding her and her siblings before they were allowed into the pantry to randomly select their evening dessert. Whoever found the tinned pears were victorious over the kids with the flour.

An ear-marked recipe: Mixed coloured carrots with preserved lemon and honeycomb

Ruby Tandoh

The youngest Great British Bake Off contestant in 2013, Ruby finished as a runner-up. Since then she is arguably one of the most successful losers, churning out three books Crumb, Flavour and Eat Up, and is a contributing writer for the Guardian. Ruby is creative, adapting her own recipes by providing suggestions and alternatives to spark your imagination, such as Five Ways with the Chocolate Chip Cookie.

Not only that, goodness me is she sensuous with her words. “Milkshakes so thick they stick fast in your straw” and “fistfuls of fat, vinegary chips, straight from the fish-shop fryer.” Her attitude is that you should eat what you love, whether it’s KFC or a dish you’ve slaved over for hours – pleasure is intrinsic to flavour and we should immerse ourselves in food we enjoy.

This approach to food is much like all the other chefs and cooks listed above. Food shapes us, the lives we live and without a love of it we would merely exist. And this is why these women are my cookbook heroines.

An ear-marked recipe: Spiced rice pudding

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