The number of cookery books in my house was beyond a joke. My moment of truth came when we finally planned a new kitchen, and the old bookshelf which, for more years than I cared to recall, had held cookery books two-deep on 8 shelves, was not going to be a part of the new regime. How to decide what to keep? Torture, utter torture… I think though, in retrospect, that I’ve chosen wisely.
Afterwards, I resolved to curb my book-buying… And yet, there is that glorious moment when you take a new cookery book in your hands; full of the tantalising promise of your next new signature recipe…
I have to say though, you need to train your instincts to sort out the bad ones from the good ones. Sadly, the glossy photographs can be misleading (think of all those Pinterest ‘fails’ on the internet); the recipes may not work for you (is that your fault, or the author’s? – stupid question). The recipes may not work for anyone; or be so badly written that before you realise it, you’re in the middle of something that needs a fleet of chefs, a professional kitchen and Michelin-star skills to produce.
I have a few trusty books that I go back to, time and again. They’ve been my constant companions (like Mrs Bennett’s nerves) this past 30 years. Some of them even open automatically to the correct page, as if they know what I want before I do myself.
The internet changed so much for us; if we want a recipe now, we can just put our chosen ingredients into a search engine, and hey presto – here are 85 variations of pea and ham soup, often with 85 different levels of quality. It takes some skill to navigate that lot.
I suppose what I really want in a cookery book is to be able to look up the index (it’s like tagging, for those of you under the age of 25) and find 3 or 4 recipes with my chosen ingredient mentioned. I’m going to give you a few of my favourites. The sort of cookery books that have the words ‘complete’ and ‘cookery course’ in the titles. Naturally, you’re not going to find your dream recipe every time (that’s why we have more than one recipe book ;)) but it’s really worthwhile to have a couple of general cookery books about the place. One that tells you how to actually make a white sauce, or even how to boil an egg. Not to be sneezed at…
If you’re really starting off, (and don’t kid yourself; we all started off somewhere) then I recommend Delia Smith’s ‘Complete Cookery Course’, which no doubt has been updated numerous times since I got my trusty old copy. Delia’s recipes are easy to understand, sensibly laid out, and have useful tips and notes from her own experience. This book has simple basic recipes, plus cakes and main courses.
Another stand-by for me is one called Katie Stewart’s Cookbook; another all-rounder, like Delia’s. Both of these have excellent basic, simple recipes and none of that ‘photographs of everything’ rubbish either – these are Old School!
My sister, many, many years ago, bought me two Marks and Spenser cookbooks as an engagement present; they’ve proved their worth over the years too.
Two of my favourite ‘specialist’ volumes are Delia Smith’s Winter Collection, her Summer Collection and her seriously useful and simply named ‘Christmas’. Delia’s ‘Christmas’ is particularly special to me, as my Mum gave it to me as a gift the year I cooked my very first Christmas dinner – I wish she’d written a message on it, but she didn’t..
Many of these books are out of print now, but I’ve discovered several copies in second hand bookshops, and I grab them with both hands when I see them. The National Trust bookshops are particularly ripe hunting grounds, so don’t be too posh – get in there and have a look – sometimes the old ones really are the best!
As you go along you’ll find your own favourite recipes, and I think it’s good idea to write them into a hardback notebook as you go along. My great friend and fellow foodie Caroline has a method for this – if she makes a new recipe 3 times, and it works each time, it gets put into the book. Much more sensible than my habit of going to the trouble of writing a new recipe in, and then discovering that it’s rubbish!