PUTTING RECIPES TO THE TEST WITH RICHARD EHRLICH: COOKING THE BOOKS

THE CLAIRE MACDONALD COOKBOOK by Claire Macdonald of Macdonald Photographs by Tim Hill Bantam Press, pounds 25

I've always been a fan of Claire Macdonald's books, paragons of sensible, un-fussy cooking, and the source of my favourite method for cooking salmon. Lady Macdonald runs the Kinloch Lodge Hotel on the Isle of Skye, but her food is closer to home cooking than the fiddly grub usually found in chefs' books. This new one is a real door-stopper: 400 pages and several hundred recipes, some new and some collected from her 12 earlier books.

With salmon in mind, I turned the book over to journalist David Nissan, who spends every spare moment trying to catch the fish in the River Usk. David, a truly passionate cook, does most of the cooking for his wife and two teenage children. His lengthy comments, brutally trimmed, are left to speak for themselves.

But before I turn the stage over to David, a few comments of my own. I do not doubt the accuracy of his reports on his experience of cooking with the book, or the legitimacy of his reservations, but some of his comments strike me as disagreements with a personal style of recipe-writing. Others might feel more comfortable with the style that he criticises. For instance, he dislikes the specification of "large onions" rather than a precise weight. That is his prerogative, and I respect it because he is a smart dude and a very good cook.

But there is another school of thought which holds that the presentation of measurements is always a personal matter. Some cookery writers (myself included) feel that precise measurement is an overrated quality, and that most experienced cooks would rather be told to use a few large onions rather than 450g (1lb) of onions. Specifying a precise weight means that the user has to get out scales, when they'd rather grab X number of bulbs from the onion bag and get on with it - with their own judgement guiding them as to whether one onion more or less would give the best results.

On the other hand, measuring ginger in inches gives, in a sense, the worst of both worlds. David is quite right to point out that knobs of ginger vary in thickness. If the author wanted to be casual about measuring the fragrant rhizome, she could use a form of words along the lines of "a small/medium/large chunk of ginger". If she wanted to be precise, she could say: "a half-inch cube of ginger" or even "X tablespoons of minced ginger." Specifying a length is an example of misleading precision: it's unhelpful to the beginner, and confusing to the experienced cook.

But there are so many variables, and pressures, in cookery writing that no one could get it right every time. My own experience gives me more than a twinge of sympathy with Claire Macdonald. But David is right to take her to task for not giving her readers a little more help on measurements.

Two final points. One: I agree with David's comments about the photogra- phy. Two: he wasn't sure about the value for money here, but I think that when pounds 10 sometimes buys 50 recipes, pounds 25 for hundreds seems reasonable value.

And that's enough from me. Here's what David said.

PHYSICAL EASE AND DESIGN

"A practical book with a straight- forward, no-nonsense design. There are lots of chapters, none very long, and most kick off with a listing of dishes so it is easy to see the range on offer. I particularly liked the presentation of the desserts, with a chapter each for frozen, light and substantial puddings."

RECIPE QUALITY

"This is a diverse book. I found plenty to tempt me for a range of occasions. Many of the dishes are very simple; you are not often presented with a long list of ingredients.

"The best dishes I tried were Baked Salmon with Sesame Vegetables, only five minutes in the oven and full of contrasts, and Upside-Down Pear and Walnut Gingerbread Pudding, one of her substantial puddings that just avoided being too rich. It emerged from the oven moist and lightly spiced, and was wolfed down by my guests even though two substantial courses had preceded it. I'd suggest either dish to a novice cook. Also good was a vegetarian main course, Goats Cheese Stuffed Crepes with Leek Puree, though it was more elaborate to prepare.

"But three dishes were disappointing. Red Onion Soup with Balsamic Vinegar and Goats' Cheese Croutons had far too much onion, and though sweet was bland. The two teaspoons of balsamic vinegar got rather lost in a dish for six people. Dark Chocolate Souffle came out dry, and far too bitter for a meal with children. Worst of all was a one-pot meal, Baked Chicken Breasts with Garlic, Onions and New Potatoes in Olive Oil. This produced wonderfully moist chicken but undercooked potatoes and juices drowned by the specified quarter-pint of oil. It was too bland and greasy for any of my family, though Macdonald says it is her children's favourite.

"Part of the problem may lie in some ambiguous instructions. Put the souffle mix into six ramekins, but what size ramekins? Mine weren't big enough, as there was plenty left over. Or, for the soup, use six 'fairly large' red-skinned onions - how many pounds? How big? Macdonald is a ginger lover, but sticks with the convention (which drives me mad) of measuring ginger in inches. The ginger I buy comes fat or thin, so the advice is next to useless."

PRACTICALITY

"There's nothing esoteric about the book, but Macdonald spreads her wisdom thinly. The advice, which plugged a gap in my knowledge, that one can leave a souffle mix for hours under clingfilm before baking at the last minute, is given with the recipe for Goats' Cheese and Hazelnut Souffle. But there are 10 other souffles in the book. If you turn straight to them, you may never know."

PICTURE QUALITY

"The pictures are few in number and add nothing to the text. Being in the close-up genre of modern London cookbooks means they don't help to convey the more traditional attractions of this book."

VALUE FOR MONEY

"I think pounds 25 may be a touch steep, but there is a wealth of experience here and the good dishes were exceptionally good. I will keep using this one for ideas, adapting its recipes as I go."

TOQUES (out of 10): 7

Suggested Topics
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Relocation, relocation: Zawe Ashton travels the pathway to Northampton
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

    An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

    Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

    The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
    How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

    Heavy weather

    What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
    World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

    World Bodypainting Festival 2015

    Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
    alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

    Don't call us nerds

    Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
    How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

    How to find gold

    Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
    Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

    Not born in the USA

    Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
    10 best balsamic vinegars

    10 best balsamic vinegars

    Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
    Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

    Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy