On second hand bookshop finds and Elizabeth David

A favourite thing to do when on holiday in smallish towns (and cities) is to visit the local second hand book shop. During the summer break in Whangarei I popped into one of its second hand book stores, The Piggery. The cooking sections in these bookstores can be quite hit and miss. Like with fashion, cooking and culinary books cycle through trends and fads.

Photography style changes, the types of recipes (jelly moulds!?) as well as the category of recipes (microwave cookery anyone?). If you’re lucky you can pick up some rather vintage cookbooks (I picked up a war time rations cookbook in Hastings once) and some rather odd books (Be Bold with Bananas). And there is a lot of junk such as recipe books for specific branded appliances.

breadAt The Piggery, I managed to pick up a copy of Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery. David is one of Britain’s best food writers and her books are classics among food writers and chefs.  Her influence also reached other countries as well. Many of my Australian and New Zealand cookbooks references her recipes and writing.

I started reading the book last night and got curious about who she was as a person and did a quick google search. What an interesting woman of her time and a fascinating life she led!

Her early life

Starting as an art student in Paris, she then turned to acting and when this did not work out, she then ran off with a married man and ended up in Italy. The couple then narrowly escaped getting trapped by the German invasion of Greece during WWII. They split in Egypt. Before marrying her husband Tony David, she had a number of lovers in Cairo, Egypt. According to her biographer Artemis Cooper, ‘she enjoyed them for what they were…with one exception she did not fall in love.’

Her influence

When she arrived back in England after her travels overseas to post war Britain, it was as if she had returned to a different country.

Returning to England after her travels overseas was like returning to a different country. Her long-time editor described her as being “upset: shocked, even.” David described food in Britain as “produced with a kind of bleak triumph which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity and humanity’s needs”. It was a jarring contrast to the fresh and seasonal food she had enjoyed overseas.

She began writing about her memories from her time overseas. Her first book in 1950 A Book of Mediterranean Food contained recipes that called for Mediterranean ingredients such as basil, figs and olive oil. This first book was essentially a piece of ‘imaginative fiction’ as readers were unable to access the ingredients due to war rationing.  She followed this with books on Italian and French cuisine.

Her writing style

Her writing style was opinionated, to the point.

For instance, she despised the word ‘crispy’ because she couldn’t understand what it conveyed that ‘crisp’ did not.

It is also wonderfully eloquent and expressive

Her thoughts on cooking in summer:

Summer cooking implies a sense of immediacy, a capacity to capture the essence of the fleeting moment

Or her thoughts on why the kitchen was a place to invest time and money:

Some sensible person once remarked that you spend the whole of your life either in your bed or in your shoes. Having done the best you can by shoes and bed, devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.

On the pleasures of the Mediterranean:

To eat figs off the tree in the very early morning, when they have been barely touched by the sun, is one of the exquisite pleasures of the Mediterranean.

And returning to the book that prompted this blog post, her thoughts on toast:

It isn’t only fictional heroes to whom toast means home and comfort. It is related of the Duke of Wellington – I believe by Lord Ellesmere – that when he landed at Dover in 1814, after six years’ absence from England, the first order he gave at the Ship Inn was for an unlimited supply of buttered toast.

What do you think about Elizabeth David? Have you read any of her books?  


Plum Jam and Raisin Swirl Bread

Mystery ingredient time!

Today’s mystery ingredient is the delicious Anathoth Plum Jam. I originally planned to create a Louise Cake Tart using the jam but I lacked a loose bottom tart tin so I thought I might save that recipe for when I eventually get around to buying some new tart tins.

Instead I decided to have a go at creating a bread swirl. I’ve seen bread swirls a lot on Pinterest and they look very intricate and detailed even though they appear to very easy create and very pretty to look at. In saying that however, Pinterest is known for having pins which are not an accurate representation of what would happen if you actually followed the instructions. There are many BuzzFeed articles which document attempts by Pinterest users to recreate ideas they have seen on the social networking site and the spectacular failures that result.

I can safely say that bread swirls are not one of these Pinterest fails. I was pleasantly surprised with how easy it was to make this swirl. I would also recommend playing around with the filling. I used plum jam and raisins, but you could use a whole range of different things – fresh fruit, spices, caramel, chocolate or even something savoury like cheese.

I used the recipe from Joy the Baker as part of her Baking Bootcamp, but I think any enriched dough would work fine. Instead of berries and cinnamon I used jam and raisins.

I also learnt two things when making this bread which I would like to share.

When I first pulled it out of the oven, the centre of this bread was a little undercooked and I had to put it back into the oven for ten more minutes. This happened because:

Once I had threaded the dough I didn’t let the it prove in the cake tin.

If I had done so, the dough would have more air bubbles. This would have created a lighter, airier dough and would have been less dense in the centre thus ensuring a consistent bake.

My oven is hotter than what the temperature reads.

I believe that this is the main reason. Because it was too hot, the bread cooked too fast on the outside. Cover the bread in foil and keep cooking if you find yourself in this situation.


Grandpa’s Tomato Sauce

This is a very special recipe for tomato sauce. It’s a wickedly spicy and tangy tomato sauce, seasoned with allspice, cloves and cayenne pepper and it knocks store bought ketchup out of the park.

It’s also a tomato sauce that has a lot of history for me.

This is a sauce that has been made in my family for at least four generations and the recipe haven’t changed that much. It can be traced as far back as my great great grandmother Louisa Annie Robinson who taught it to my great grandmother Bernice. On a slightly unrelated note, Louisa is where my middle name comes from.

According to my grandmother, Grandpa learnt how to make this sauce from her mother (my great grandmother) around the time that my grandma was pregnant. She was suffering from a bit of morning sickness and thought that the idea of Grandpa doing all the preserving was a “most excellent idea.”

I remember first trying this tomato sauce at our regular fortnightly family dinners at my grandparent’s place. My grandfather did a lot of preserving and this is a tomato sauce that he would make once a year, usually around the end of January. My aunt Deborah, my grandma and I have now taken over this process as my grandpa is no longer able to.

Making the sauce is a two day process, but it could theoretically be completed in one day if you are able to dedicate an entire day to it. The best thing about this recipe is there is no peeling involved – you don’t have to spend time skinning tomatoes or peeling the skin off apples. Instead, you chop up all the fruit and vegetables and once you’ve cook them all with the other spices, sugar and vinegar and the mixture is cooled, you put it through a mouli. A mouli helps separate the skin from the apples and tomatoes and purees everything into a lovely thick sauce.

Every time we make this, something always go a little awry. The first time I managed to start a small fire on my grandma’s stove element. The second time we seemed to have far too much balsamic vinegar so we had to use a soup ladle to spoon out about a litres worth. And last time, we were cooking on a new stove and it took forever for one of the pots to heat up. Despite this though, everything does seem to always work out in the end.

Spicy Tomato Sauce


4kg tomatoes – use a variety if possible
1 kg apples, cored but not peeled
1 kg onions
110g salt
110g allspice (whole)
10g cayenne pepper (use less if using ground cayenne pepper)
50g black peppercorns
1kg brown sugar
1L balsamic vinegar


Slice all fruit and vegetables. Tie spices in beg and tie with string. You can use the bag twice for more sauce. Add fruit, vegetables and spice bag to large pot and boil and then simmer all together for two hours. The recipe recommends to cook ‘full’ for half and our and then medium for the next half an our and then simmer for the last half an hour.

When cooked, let cool and then process through a mouli. When ready to bottle, heat up on stove again and pour into steralised bottles.

Suggested modifications

There are lots of modifications you can make to this recipe

Tomatoes – if you are using very ripe tomatoes I would recommend reducing the sugar in this recipe. Ripe tomatoes will already have a lot of natural sugars and will add to the sweetness of this sauce. One of the wonderful things about this sauce is that it isn’t as sweet as store bought stuff, so keep this in mind when choosing tomatoes. Green tomatoes can also be used. The same principle would apply here – because they are very tart, and have less fruit sugar you will need to adjust the sugar quantities accordingly.

Vinegar – when I first made this recipe, we used malt vinegar.  We now we use balsamic vinegar as it has a more complex, rich flavour. You could also use cider vinegar as well which would also add to the tanginess of the sauce.

Sugar – the original recipe doesn’t specify what type of sugar to use, so we use brown sugar. It adds a stronger flavour to the sauce because of the molasses in it.

Suggested recipes

BBQ Ribs – this can be used as the ketch up in this piquant barbeque sauce that is from the Joy of Cooking. Use it with pork spare ribs.

Chick pea curry – I use this sauce as the ketchup for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s chickpea ketchup curry.  It really compliments the Indian spices and is such an easy weeknight dinner.

Lamb Shanks – use this sauce as a marinade for Lamb Shanks.

What makes a good cookbook?

“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
Laurie Colwin


Julia Child’s personal copy of the Joy of Cooking

Sometimes I look at my cookbook collection and think – do I own too many? The short answer is yes – I probably do. At my last count I owned around 50 cook books and that doesn’t include all my Cuisine/Donna Hay/Dish magazines. Although my food magazine collection is a lot smaller these days as when I moved house I gave most of them away to friends – reluctantly.

And if I’m being truly honest with myself – there are quite a few of the recipe books that I rarely use or have never used at all. Some of them are gifts from people who perhaps were stuck for ideas and thought – “I know! Sophia likes cooking! I’ll buy her a cook book!”. There are cookbooks that I’ve picked up at second hand book stores purely because of the price and at the time, tried to convince myself that this cookbook was exactly what was missing from my collection.

There are however, cookbooks that do deserve a place on my bookshelf. These cookbooks all share what I considered similar characteristics. They must inspire, teach and connect.

On my 21st birthday I received two of the best cookbooks I have ever owned. Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion from my aunt and Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking from my mother.  These two books in my humble opinion meet the criteria I outlined above.

At a fundamental level, a cookbook must inspire. Cooking can be hard work – some recipes require immense effort and time to be spent – keeping an eye on a sauce so it doesn’t go lumpy, or constantly stirring to that the food doesn’t burn. And this hard work creates inertia. A cookbook must overcome this inertia – it must sell itself to you.

A Cooks’ Companion and The Joy of Cooking do this differently. It’s hard to describe in an elegant way how the Companion book does this. The best way to describe it is the feeling that you get from it – it’s like Stephanie Alexander collected all her favourite, tried and true recipes, organised them by ingredient and then put them in one huge colourful book. It’s like browsing through someone’s curated personal recipe collection where you know every single recipe will be simple yet not ordinary. There is always a twist, or a hook to the recipe that draws you in.

Joy is a bit different. There is a history behind it (it has been in print since 1936) that gives it a sense of authority and confidence. It inspires because it is the authority on home cooking. It inspires because chefs like Julia Child have trusted it. It inspires because it is simply the go-to book on anything – be it sauces, meats, cakes, drinks – everything. In old additions for example, they used to have recipes for bear and whale meat.

At another level, a good cookbook should teach. Joy was the first cookbook I ever used because my mother had it (as did her mother). Some of the first recipes that I remember using were the griddle cakes (American style pancakes) and french toast – recipes that I still use today. None of these are particularly difficult to make but they do teach you some basics of cooking. As I’ve become a better cook, whenever I want to learn a new skill I always go back to Joy.

My personal cookbook copies

Companion is a modern cook book, so while Joy teaches the basics. Companion is much more cosmopolitan. Joy teaches you more about technique and process, whereas Companion is more focused on understanding ingredients more fully. Not surprising that Companion is organised by ingredient – like beef, cumin, and oranges as opposed to Joy’s chapters – vegetables, beverages, meat. It provides a much greater understanding of the nuances and history of each ingredient. By cooking the recipes that are connected to each ingredient, you get a much better understand of the variety of ways that a certain spice, or fruit or piece of meat can be used in a dish.

The final characteristic that I think a cookbook should have is that it should create a connection.  I’ve always been of the view that a well-loved book is one that is bent, wrinkled and slightly tattered. It shows that it has been come back to over and over again, or passed along from one person to another.  Cookbooks are similar. My most loved cookbooks are ones that have food stains on them – especially on my favourite recipes where you can instantly see how well loved they are.

Joy is particularly special to me. Not only was it the first cookbook I can remember cooking from, it’s also a cookbook that every woman (and man) has in my family. It connects me to the wonderful cooks in my family. I know that Joy is a household favourite across many American households so there is also something special about being part of a wider community that has grown up with this book like I have and understands the specialness of it.

While Joy connects me to my past, Companion is much more future focused. I received both at my 21st the same time I moved out of home, but I associate Companion much more with growing up and making my own way in the world.  It’s a modern, Antipodean take on Joy. If you could only have one cookbook in your collection – this would be it. It’s not surprising that Companion is the type of book that my generation in my family now receives for 21st presents.  It’s a wonderful recipe book, written by someone who clearly loves and respects food and is able to share this in a simple, elegant and encouraging way.

I have other cookbooks that meet some of the above criteria but none of them do it as well as A Cooks Companion and The Joy of Cooking. If you’re building up a cookbook collection, these cookbooks would make an excellent foundation   to start from.

Breaking Bread

ImageI have a thing for New Year resolutions. There is something about putting the previous year behind you, closing the door and starting the new year with fresh intentions. Extremely clichéd, but I’m one of those weird people who likes setting goals.

Last year was the first year I’d actually kept a new year’s resolution and I suspect it was because it was a concrete, tangible resolution: enter the Auckland half marathon. It wasn’t run a half marathon, or complete a half marathon in x amount of hours. It was simply to enter. Instead of the usual ‘get fit’, I reasoned that by entering a half marathon, the fear of coming last would motivate me to do regular exercise. And it worked! Last year was the first time I’ve ever stuck to a plan of regular exercise – jogging and swimming.

This year I have a different resolution in mind. I want to be a better baker. I’m not a bad baker – I understand the basics pretty well, but I’d like to be much better. In order to extend my baking skills I thought I’d start right back at the basics of baking – bread making.

Bread is one of the earliest forms of baking – human beings have been baking bread for at least the last 30,000 year.  Some of the earliest breads were flatbreads – and many of these can still be found in today’s cooking – tortillas, roti and pita to name a few.

As human beings developed beyond flatbreads, – other ingredients were added and we now have a wonderful array of cakes, biscuits, scones, pies – all of which have their foundations in the basics of bread making – making a dough. By baking bread, I hope to understand the basics of baking better.

This gets me to my specific resolution for 2014. I will bake twelve different types of bread this year. I have one few rule. I can only make bread that I haven’t made before. So no plain ol’ white bread, no pizza dough, tortillas and no brioche.

With this is mind here are the 12 breads that I will make. I’ve tried to select a variety of leavened and unleavened types as well as sampling how different cultures have made bread.

January – Challah

February – Pane di Altamura

March –  Bublik

April – Lagana

May – Sourdough bread

June – Melonpan

July – Chickpea bread

August – Hushpuppy

September – Mantou

October – Zwieback

November – Lavash

December – Potato bread

As I go, I may make changes to what I’ve selected, or move them around depending on when appropriate. For instance, I’ve made Lagana the April bread because it’s linked to Lent.

Wish me luck!