‘Secret Recipes from the World Famous New York Bakery’ by Dominique Ansel

Dominique Ansel Secret Recipes from the World Famous New York BakeryLast year I had this great spate of productivity – I promised myself that I would read at least one book a month and often managed two. I was trying to get through the classics, the Nobel prize winners and the smart books that every intelligent thinking person should be able to casually boast about.

To be quite honest, it got pretty boring. Some of the books were so tedious, that I had to splice trashy novels, sometimes several, in between them just to get through. On occasions, I did the sane thing and just gave up.

Then things got busy and I soon dropped the charade.

But at the end of last year, when I moved into my new home and had months without internet, I started to read again. Looking through the books I had on my tablet, I saw Dominique Ansel’s book, Dominique Ansel: Secret Recipes from the World Famous New York Bakery.

I had, evidently, downloaded it at some point and then proceeded to forget about it.

Now, I’m not much of a cookbook reader – I like to flip through one now and then (Phaidon’s Coco is my favourite), look at the stunning photographs and try to inspire myself to cook something fancy. I almost never follow a recipe but I might steal an idea here and there to liven up my repertoire, usually because I’ve become so bored of eating the food I’m cooking on a day-to-day basis.

Having just finished another novel, Ansel’s book, a representative of a different genre, looked pretty good.

Unlike your average cookbook, which starts with a couple of pages of introduction before launching into a hundred or so recipes, Ansel’s book has chapters and chapters of text before running onto a handful of recipes (I didn’t count them but there aren’t that many).

But what I liked about it is that it wasn’t just some authoritative drivel about how you should prep your baking tray or why organic stone-milled heritage flour is the only kind you should be using. Instead, it explained the best way to do things through a series of stories.

These were stories about failing to make the perfect macaron, emigrating to the US and discovering the cookie and creating the iconic cronut. Yes, a version of the cronut recipe is in the book.

It was a realistic, and well-written, account of life as a pastry chef. And even though I generally shun fads, I suddenly found myself wishing I had a cronut at 3am. In any case, I gained a whole lot of respect for Ansel through the writing in his book.

As for whether I’ll be making the cronut at home, the answer is in all likelihood no. Having made croissants at Leiths, I don’t need to look through the cronut recipe to recognise how time-consuming and technically challenging it is. I would much rather travel to New York to have the real deal, made by professionals who really care about and know what they’re doing.

Still, it was a nice interlude between light and heavy reading.

‘East End Paradise’ by Jojo Tulloh

East End Paradise by Jojo TullohOriginally published in 2009 as Freshly Picked, East End Paradise is a collection of recipes and anecdotes based on the fruits of Jojo Tulloh‘s allotment in Leyton, East London. As the food editor of The Week, Tulloh knows a thing or two about food. But reading through East End Paradise, it seems that it wasn’t until she acquired an allotment in 2002 that she really began to learn about food and appreciate its seasonality.

When she first started her allotment, following the advice of novelist Frank Ronan, she knew little about growing things. Despite pouring over numerous gardening books, nothing was quite like the help and advice from her allotment neighbour – a formidable Turkish woman named Makbala. Over time she garnered allotment knowledge from all her green-fingered neighbours, and of course through sheer hard work and experimentation, all of which weaves a slice of something extra into the narrative of her book.

The recipes are split into the four main seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. From there on in, it gets a little more confusing. Each season comes with a note on the sort of things that you might plant and the sort of things you might harvest. But given the narrative nature of the book, it’s not always immediately clear which is which. Once you navigate past this though, it’s not too dissimilar to Stephanie Alexander‘s Kitchen Garden Companion – the recipes are arranged in ingredient led sections with an introduction preceding each set.

For Tulloh, the introductions are mostly comprised of little notes of inspiration. Take peas for example, the section begins “Sticking peas with Dorothy Wordsworth” and comprises of extracts from Wordsworth’s journal and Tulloh’s experiences with growing. What follows are recipes for peas: petits pois à la Français, pea and globe artichoke heart frittata and pea and mint risotto. Of course once in a while, there’s a wild card loitering amongst the sections like the recipe which immediately follows the peas – it’s for radishes.

While the majority of recipes in the book are vegetarian, there are meat-based recipes too like the one for beef and herb rice paper rolls – no doubt inspired by the scores of Vietnamese restaurants in Hackney, where Tulloh lives. There are also side orders of recipes for baking and preserving as well as general hints and tips.

Despite a fine selection of recipes, the book feels much more like a memoir than a recipe book. The recipes are all based on things that she has grown on her allotment and in that respect they’re not the central aspect of the book. Indeed the recipes only serves to complete the narrative of her experiences – that of an east end paradise.

‘The Scandinavian Kitchen’ by Camilla Plum

Scandinavian Kitchen by Camilla PlumI must admit, I know very little about Scandinavian food. The only time that I’ve been in Scandinavia was during a stop-over in Copenhagen – hardly a long stay. And the only time I’ve come close to Scandinavian food was on two long haul journeys with Scandinavian Airlines, who provided the best on-board bread I’ve ever had. I have of course dined out in more than one Ikea café but who am I to talk about the authenticity of its meatballs?

But here I have a copy of The Scandinavian Kitchen by Camilla Plum to evaluate. And she has summed up Scandinavian cuisine in one paragraph:

“Scandinavian cooking is all about simple, healthy, seasonal food made from delicious, local produce: luscious berries, juicy fruits, fresh fish and game, and ancient grains combine with deliciously pungent herbs to create sensational flavours.”

Plum has taken a very ingredient led approach to the book which was confusing, surprising and refreshing in that order.

Confusing because when I flicked through the book, I expected to see recipes. There were a few here and there but mostly, as in the style of Larousse Gastronomique, the recipes were serving as an illustration and example of the ingredient rather than the core feature of the book. Although the book is split into sections such as fruit and herbs, actually finding an ingredient is a little harder unless you head straight for the index. There must be better ways of laying out a cookbook? In the end, you’re sort of browsing rather than finding the perfect dish for dinner.

And that is perhaps what’s surprising about it. The book claims to teach you how to be a chef and cook like a Scandinavian but it’s a cookbook which is realistically for reading, rather than cooking. While you may become more familiar with Scandinavian ingredients and how to approach them, you will be none the wiser about cookery techniques other than those discussed during the course of a recipe. And as a coffee table book, the images aren’t quite captivating enough. There is almost a whiff of biology textbook about it – educational but not the most eye-catching.

That is perhaps why it’s so refreshing – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cookbook quite like it. That said, although I was initially very inspired by it and keen to cook something from it, the more I poured over the page looking for something, the less I had a desire to cook it. A lot of the ingredients were either very specialist or required special preparations that’s just impractical in the average British kitchen. I imagine it being quite useful for an expat in Scandinavia but that could be the extent of its usefulness.

It is clearly well researched and Plum has put a lot of thought into it. But in the end, with all its confusing, surprising and refreshing content, the book is best served as a source of reference on the shelf rather than as a guide in the kitchen.

‘Green & Black’s Organic Ultimate Chocolate Recipes’ edited by Micah Carr-Hill

'Green & Black's Organic Ultimate Chocolate Recipes' edited by Micah Carr-HillOf all the people in the world to have authority on chocolate, a chocolate maker must surely be somewhere on top of the list?

So that’s exactly what I was expecting when I picked up the Green & Black’s Ultimate Chocolate Recipes. Given Green & Black’s were the first to introduce a 70% dark chocolate to the UK market as well as being fair trade and organic, I had high hopes. And I must admit, I was a little disappointed to find a rather tame collection of recipes, most of which were borrowed. I guess I was just expecting something to the tune of Willie’s Chocolate Bible, which was a beast of a book.

That said, there were plenty of recipes to choose from – a well-rounded 100 in fact. As the second book from Green & Black’s, this one has focused all of its efforts on baked products. The recipes are a mixture of contributions from celebrities, bakeries, chocolatiers and of course the products of the Green & Black’s kitchen.

The recipes themselves are not what I would call avant-garde – you have all the usual sorts of things from cupcakes and brownies to tarts and soufflés. But they would, nevertheless, tempt a chocolate lover. Why else would you pursue a cookbook devoted entirely to chocolate, with six different recipes for hot chocolate?

My real issue with the book is the format. I like to visualise what I’m cooking before I start so having images to accompany each recipe is definitely a plus for me. Unfortunately this book only contains photographs of some of the recipes, and of those, some are just abstract images intended to demonstrate the ingredients rather than the finished product. And the photographs themselves seem to be carelessly placed – some are even located next to other recipes on the pages preceding the intended recipe, causing great confusion. Occasionally I am led to wonder whether the layout for the actual recipes are also a bit laissez-faire.

Overall, I wasn’t moved by this book at all. There were a lot of recipes and some rather lovely photographs but it certainly didn’t meet the expectations I had for Green & Black’s. Perhaps more would be gained through buying Green & Black’s chocolates.

‘Recipe for murder’ by Estérelle Payany

Recipe for murder by Esterelle PayanyRecipe for Murder is a rare and inspired creation by culinary journalist Estérelle Payany, which combines food with literature. The small but all-encompassing collection of recipes take inspiration from some of the literary world’s best known villains. A quick flick through is like an edible journey through the greatest (fictional) crimes in the world – you will find everyone from the big bad wolf of childhood fairy tales to the infamous cannibal Hannibal Lecter of latter day horror. If you think that sounds like a strange combination, you’re right, it is.

But it also works terribly well.

Take Snow White‘s stepmother for example, that classic baddie has meant that stepmothers have been forever associated with the word wicked. The reputation of stepmothers in tales, fairy or otherwise, hasn’t been the same since. This of course means that she has gained a spot in this book with an introduction to the nature of her evils and a quote submitted for evidence. And then we have the recipe itself, bewitching caramel apples. How appropriate for the context.

The rest of the book is filled with such tales of terror and equally appropriate recipes – the big bad wolf with pigs in a blanket, Hannibal Lecter with Hannibal’s Express Sweetbreads etc. And rather than photographs of the food, each entry is illustrated by Jean-François Martin with scenes from the stories.

For a cookbook, it makes a terribly good read – the villains are so varied that it’s unlikely you’ll know all of them. The recipes aren’t very challenging either which I suppose makes it good for entertaining children – especially if they might actually learn something of those literary classics. And ss a borderline culinary gift, it makes perfect sense – it’s fun and useful.

If you wanted a serious cookbook though, this is probably not for you. The recipes aren’t the easiest to locate and although well laid out, the methods aren’t very detailed. And after all, you can only have so many murder mystery parties with 31 recipes.