I share with you here some of the cookbooks, blogs, food memoirs, and other culinary writings I have found most delicious, intriguing, and helpful over the years. This is a very partial list, as I love many more books than I’ve listed here, but these are the ones I think of first and would take with me to a desert island.
Some are chosen because of the writing; some for the reliability and usefulness of the recipes; some for the romance of time and/or place; some for beautiful illustrations and/or photography; some for all of these.
I have always wanted to gather in one place my favourites from culinary literature. That is part of what this blog is about: pulling together treasures to share, both with those who recognise them and may find pleasure in that recognition, and with those who may discover them for the first time.
I hope you will enjoy these and introduce some of your own best friends.
Madeleine Kamman (see also “Slumped dumplings, and other lessons from the kitchen”, and “Madeleine Kamman’s profiteroles pontresina”)
The Making of a Cook (1971) was my first, and remains my favourite, cook’s bible for intelligent explanations on the science of cooking, and the basics you need to refer to again and again, such as the internal temperatures for cooking meat, as well as some of the best recipes in French cooking I know. I adore Madeleine Kamman’s utter dedication to excellence as a teacher as well as a cook. She provides original research and empirically tested foundation recipes: not a repeat of superficial received wisdom, but a challenge to them, an interrogation of them, a breaking-down of all the steps, so you can be absolutely confident when you rely on Madeleine Kamman’s guidelines to get, for example, pork that is safely cooked but not overcooked to meet some archaic food safety standard.
She will tell you, for another example, the basic proportions and techniques to use for any kind of bavarois you wish to make, or soufflé, or ice cream, so that equipped with those formulae and the reasons for them, you can create whatever you dream of and greet many cooking situations with confidence. Her recipes are firmly rooted in the French tradition, but translated for American cooks (she lived in Boston where she ran a restaurant and taught) and the ingredients available to them. They are such evocative recipes, redolent of place, of realness, of honest food home-made from scratch by women who were still expected to produce the family’s meals everyday. Madeleine Kamman was a feminist writing at a time when sexual politics were in foment, when being in the kitchen became a symbol of oppression. She reclaimed it for women who wanted to be feminists and to cook, and to do so professionally as well as at home. While some of the commentary may be a little outdated, her recipes and techniques are so classically useful and clearly explained that they hold up to time in all the ways one could wish, and equip one to innovate to one’s heart’s content. Her chicken bonne maman is what I want for my last meal — it sums up all of life’s generosity in a simple dish of garlic, potato, onion, excellent stock and an honest bird.
Madeleine Kamman’s When French Women Cook (1976) is a masterpiece of another kind, as beautiful in its prose as in the recipes, which are based around eight women, all superb cooks, who were formative in Kamman’s life: all from different regions of France, all bringing their regional recipes and ingredients into her life along with wisdom and affection. Kamman is a scholar (she studied languages at the Sorbonne) and she has captured in these poignant pages the tastes and stories of places and times past, written down for the first time from her memories of being at the elbow of her Aunt Claire Robert, or Grandmother Eugénie. The recipes will produce tastes you may never have experienced: pigeon with prune farze, for example, a kind of Yorkshire pudding; and they also give the gift of discovering how to recreate traditional tastes encountered on travels throughout France. I use her recipe for Flammkuche, or Tarte Flambé, a kind of onion and bacon pizza, which we first encountered in Alsace. Hers, made with freshly harvested onions in early autumn, is so, so much better even than the good ones we had on holiday, at the source.
In the classical mode you can’t do better for step-by-step visual instructions than those to be found in his two major tomes, La Technique (1976), and La Méthode (1979). They provide photographic illustrations for every basic foundation skill a serious chef or home cook needs, starting with how to hold a knife, or tie a roast. I use him for this technical purpose more than the actual recipes, because the operating philosophy for Pépin, as for Madeleine Kamman, is to learn techniques and methods, not recipes, because then you can apply your skills and knowledge to everything you cook. His recipe for pastry cream, cream puffs, and all its pâte au choux variants, are foolproof. My husband David has followed Pepin’s instructions at Christmas for the most magnificent Paris Brest — an extravaganza of praline crème pâtissière and crème chantilly in an almond-sprinkled pâte au choux ring, to symbolise the famous bicycle race from Paris to the city of Brest. David had never even made cream puffs before, but following the well-illustrated and clear instructions, broken down one by one into manageable stages, he produced a masterpiece first time. David’s Paris Brest always receives rapturous reviews from all assembled whenever he manages to find the full day required to make it, and it is what I look forward to most of all the baked treats of the season. Our nephew James, when he was about 14, claimed he could “eat it forever”. I echo the sentiment.
I love Jane Grigson for bringing the bounty of the English countryside to the table, and her philosophy of putting beautiful ingredients at the centre of ones cooking. In her wonderful Fruit Book (1982), Vegetable Book (1978), and Good Things (1971), you start with your quinces, salsify, lemons, partridges, whatever you have, and she will tell you what to do with them. Her word is reliability and romance both. You know she has done the work for you of considering multiple approaches to an ingredient, and what she has selected to share is going to be both imaginative and simply good. Her collections, if not comprehensive, give you all you need: her suggestions are selective, chosen for quality. Some of the hardest-to-find things can be found in her pages. I went to Grigson for help with medlars when we moved into our home to find it had a mature tree — and I have been following her instructions for jelly ever since, and taking pleasure in her erudite and humorous descriptions of that historical fruit. Her rabbit with calvados, chives and cream, is the best way with rabbit I know. She is not exclusively English, but if I am thinking “English”, I turn to her before anyone else.
Ah, The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook... This is where my heart meets my past. I have cooked with furious passion nearly everything in this inspiring treatise on how to eat since it was first published in 1982, the year I lived in Berkeley and rented a house from Paul Bertolli, the Chez Panisse chef, during his sabbatical in Italy. Two years later I cooked at Chez Panisse myself, first as a commis in the downstairs kitchen, prepping squid, sweetbreads, and garlic for the celebrated dining room; then moving upstairs to the café. My copy of the book is the most treasured in my collection, and the most spattered, worn and faded. As a pristine first edition it would be worth a small fortune now. As the messily annotated copy it is, it is worth far more to me. The garlic soufflé, almond tart, olive oil and sauternes cake, and leek and goat’s cheese tart, are amongst my most treasured recipes, and the dishes most remembered by friends and family for whom I’ve cooked. Alice Waters’s philosophy speaks to me everyday, as I learned it from these pages and in her kitchen.
Lindsey Remolif Shere’s Chez Panisse Desserts is also a well-thumbed essential in my collection. It’s one of the best dessert collections I know, particularly for sophisticated desserts that rely bringing out the best in excellent produce, and combining uncommon flavours in a way that works.
Sarah Raven has a refreshingly uncheffy approach to growing and cooking food, and I love her intelligent, colourful, flavourful recipes and insights. She was an MD and takes a rigorous, evidence-based approach to the claims she makes for healthy eating. She is one of the most generous experts out there in sharing her intellectual property, and really wants us all to eat better, and more healthfully, more sustainably, with less nonsense attached, and with more flavour. I have a lot of respect for her as a gardener, cook, and teacher. Her style is also brilliantly colourful, pretty, natural and nonfussy. I have all her cookbooks, and dip into Good Good Food more than I do most on my shelves. It’s very good at providing succinct summaries of nutritional information and every dish I’ve tried is delicious. Her raw kale salad with tahini dressing is a firm favourite in our house.
Ruth Reichl’s food memoirs are funny, wise and full of insight into the world of food, from the personal to the public and political. Tender at the Bone, and Comfort Me with Apples, are two of my favourite food-related reads.
Nigel Slater’s cookbooks and columns are always brilliant. I love his writing, and the respect he brings to ingredients and their connection to the seasons. He’s a cook who, like Jane Grigson, has a natural reverence for good food and knows how to get the best out of a butternut squash, say, or a cauliflower, or whatever. He doesn’t go for over-the-top show-offy food, and always encourages me to slow down, think, use every scrap and avoid any waste — not by preaching, but through his respectful, mindful approach. His recipes are reliable and exciting, and he often provides interesting background to enrich his recipes. I also love his memoir, Toast.
Bee Wilson’s First Bite is an important and compelling eye opener about how we acquire our food tastes, and what we can do to change them. Everything she writes is worthwhile. She’s a food scholar and a thinker whose clear analyses and pursuit of evidence can help us navigate the confusion around food we all face in daily life.
Other favourite cookbook authors notable for their excellent teaching as well as recipes
Maida Heatter is the ultimate chocolate cook. Her Great Chocolate Desserts (1980) is, well, great, and has the distinction in my bookshelves of having the second-most spattered pages, after The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. My all-time favourite chocolate recipes are contained within these pages. Her New Orleans Chocolate Layer cake has a chocolate pudding layer that a few of my friends claim they would die for, and the Dobosh Torte, Chocolate Pots de Cremes, and Flourless Chocolate Rum Cake (more like a soufflé) are exceptional in their class. What is also truly classy about Maida Heatter is the care she takes to tell you, in a likeable, genuine, conversational voice, exactly what to expect; e.g., “This cake sinks in the middle, but don’t worry! It is covered by cream….” She includes difficult challenges and easy recipes. She also offers very useful tips on what and how to freeze, what you can do ahead, and other information I wish more recipe writers would think to include. She is thoughtful as well as brilliant with chocolate. The latest innovations won’t necessarily be found in her pages (which has no photos, only drawings); but if you want a book where chocolate recipes are reliable and good, then look no further.
Madhur Jaffrey is justly celebrated for her brilliant instructions and perfect spicing for recipes achievable with some effort at home. I love her. I trust her. I admire her hugely for recording with such clarity and accessibility for home cooks one of the richest and most complex cuisines in the world. Her sweet and sour aubergine, lamb on the bone with mint, and mushroom pilaf, are family favourites, along with all the classics, including Rogan Josh, Chicken Madras, pooris, and fresh coriander chutney. Her voice is friendly and intelligent and encouraging. Her stories add to the experience. She takes such care to test and explain, that even the most unfamiliar recipes or ingredients are inviting. As teachers go, she is among the very best, and her recipes are invariably perfectly spiced, soul-satisfying and memorable. I have concluded that these two qualities must go together: those who make the best teachers seem to me also to have the best recipes.
Dan Lepard is a hero in our house for teaching me, and my other half, David, the best things we know about bread-baking. David baked his way through almost every recipe in Lepard’s superb The Handmade Loaf in a year, and almost without exception they were recipes we loved and wanted to make again (and many we have made again and again). Lepard’s concepts are original and accessible; and the recipes are imaginative, tempting, and so completely reliable and clearly written that one can set off into new territory with the confidence to succeed. Dan Lepard revolution the way I bake bread, through his no-knead method and guidance on homemade starters, and he turned my partner in life into an accomplished baker from the first steps to real mastery.
Whimsical and off-beat books on food
I wish I’d written a book on food in children’s literature before Jane Brocket got to it. Her Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer is a generous collection of some classic scenes, such as Lucy’s tea with Mr Tumnus in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (see also my story, Afternoon Tea of a faun), along with her interpretation of some recipes for recreating those meals and treats. She includes many works of children’s literature not familiar to me (and leaves out some of my favourites, so maybe there’s a book left for me after all).
My father was a devotee of Euell Gibbon’s treatise on foraging from nature, and with the guidance of the 1960’s classic, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, we tried fiddlehead ferns, elderberries, bird cherries and even acorns, but wild asparagus was a true delicacy that we looked forward to every spring almost as much as our Easter baskets. My father’s satisfaction in the results was part of the pleasure for us. (See my story here, with a simple recipe.) We loved to see him rejoice in “eating like a king for the price of a pat of butter.”
Again, I’m selecting just a few of many blogs I like and read. The first I fell in love with is Emma Gardner’s lovely Poires au Chocolat, now a useful and inspiring baking archive, full of charm.
Ed Smith’s Rocket and Squash was the second blog I fell for, and he continues to do a wonderful service by summarising the food pages in all the major weekly papers, as well as offering his own original recipes and recommendations in a likeable voice.
I also love the photography on Erin Scott’s Yummy Supper.
Jane Brocket. Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer: a golden treasury of classic treats. Hodder and Stoughton, 2008.
Euell Gibbon. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Hood, Alan C & Company, Inc., 1963.
Jane Grigson. Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book. Penguin Books, 1983.
Ibid. Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. Penguin Books, 1980.
Ibid. Jane Grigson’s Good Things. Penguin Books, 1991.
Maida Heatter. Maida Heatter’s Book of Great Chocolate Desserts. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1981.
Madhur Jaffrey. Indian Cooking. Barrons, 1982.
Ibid. An Invitation to Indian Cooking. Vintage Books, 1973.
Dan Lepard. The Handmade Loaf. Mitchell Beazley, 2004.
Jacques Pépin. La Methode. Times Books, 1979.
Ibid. La Technique. Times Books, 1976.
Sarah Raven. Good Good Food. Bloomsbury, 2015.
Ruth Reichl. Comfort Me with Apples. Arrow, 2003.
Ibid., Tender at the Bone. Random House, 2010.
Lindsey Remolif Shere. Chez Panisse Desserts. Random House, New York, 1985.
Nigel Slater. Toast. Penguin Group, 2003.
Alice Waters. The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. Random House, New York, 1982.
Bee Wilson. First Bite: How we Learn to Eat. Fourth Estate, London, 2015.