'The Great British Bake Off'
I love cooking. I could do it all day long. But baking? There's something about the precision required that I find a turn-off. The nation at large doesn't agree: BBC 2's The Great British Bake Off was one of the biggest TV hits of the year, in fact. The reality show, which put 12 amateurs through their paces, got everyone talking about tempering chocolate and how to master a Genoese sponge. I expect the spin-off cookbook to be under a lot of Christmas trees. But do the recipes translate from screen to real life?
A keen baker would probably choose to make a ritzy tower of profiteroles or a regal Queen of Sheba cake; me, I just want something with a wide margin for error. I also want to be left with the makings of a meal, rather than rapidly hardening cupcakes on every kitchen surface.
So, first up, a Stilton, potato and caramelised-onion pie. The judges chose it as one of the best recipes the amateurs came up with. Then, a chocolate roulade, a technical challenge during the show, set by Mary Berry. Finally, sticky buns – for no reason other than that the ones at the Nordic Bakery in London's Golden Square make me drool.
The pie requires a complex pastry that needs four separate chilling times, with fiddly rolling, greasing and folding in between. Why bother when you can buy excellent ready-made stuff at the supermarket? Still, it gives me time to grate three different cheeses, slice and boil the potatoes and caramelise the onions. I've now used six different bowls and the floor looks like an explosion at Allinson's.
Assembling the pie is fun, and when I top it with the pastry and cut four hearts for the lid, I feel rather accomplished. But after just half of the cooking time it's looking rather "done", and I don't want to risk burning the pastry. I remove it from the oven 15 minutes early and the Stilton is not as melted as it might be. Still, it tastes divine.
Chocolate roulade is, in comparison, a cinch. Separating and beating eggs I can do blindfold, and melting chocolate takes moments. The mix is light and silky, but I worry that the baking tray – although the exact measurements expressed in the recipe – is too small. The roulade comes out of the oven fluffy and even, and sinks as warned, but turns out perfectly on to baking paper dusted with icing sugar. I spread it with the whipped cream – of which there's too much – and when I try to roll it, it ends up more like a thatched cottage than a roll. But it tastes truly memorable.
Finally, those sticky buns. My first attempt is a disaster. Either the yeast didn't "go off" or my kneading was half-hearted. The dough is sullen and grey and goes in the bin. A second go puffs up a dream – but the baking tin is too small (again) and the maple-syrupy glaze spills all over the oven and the buns in the centre don't cook through. Grr. The ones on the edge are magnificent, though.
So, unlike the rest of Britain, I'm not quite converted to baking as a way of life. But I might – just might – make a chocolate yule log this Christmas Eve...
Lisa Markwell is restaurant critic of The New Review. 'The Great British Bake Off' by Linda Collister is published by BBC Books, priced £20
'Heston Blumenthal at Home'
The first thing I do is check the molecule jar in the cupboard. Empty. So I have to go on the internet to order new molecules from Ocado. Recipe books are not really my thing. I do Delia's rice, her all-in-one sponge cake and her pancakes. That is about it. Heston Blumenthal sounds a bit complicated. The preface includes a cross-section of the brain showing the orbitofrontal cortex. Still, I believe in the spirit that built the pyramids and founded America, so I decide to try his five-spice duck breast.
The first thing Heston tells me is that it is "fun" to make your own five-spice stuff. The first thing I tell him is, never mind that, it comes in a jar. Add to trolley. The Ocado website is helpful. As I read down the list of ingredients I come across "mirin", of which I have never heard, but Ocado immediately tells me that it is rice wine, £3.25 for 250ml. Add to trolley. Google tells me that baby "bok choi" is the same as "pak choi", Chinese cabbage. Add to trolley.
Other ingredients are added to trolley, although I have my doubts about them. Red Thai chillies and root ginger I have not tangled with before, but, as I say, pyramids and America. Then there is garlic, with which I have tangled before, but which is not stocked in the Rentoul fridge. Before the subatomic physics begins, a family member points out that she does not like garlic. This reminds me that I don't either. The clincher is that Heston wants me to dabble the garlic in semi-skimmed milk, and not content with insulting me with watered-down milk wants me to do it four times. That's just one of those restrictive practices brought in by the trade unions in the 1970s to stop anyone becoming a chef ever. I substitute red onion and slice it finely. Talk about quarks and neutrinos. Two little Waitrose Cooks' Ingredients tubs of peeled garlic cloves are still in my fridge. If anyone wants them, let me know.
The chillies and ginger are deseeded and peeled respectively, and chopped, according to the Hadron Collider's instructions, but then served on a side plate, and nobody eats them. Still, they look nice. Then there is the question of carbohydrate molecules. Heston seems to think that peas and soya beans (which I call edamame beans) are sufficient, but the customers want rice and the customers are always right. Heston does have a section on rice, but it seems to be about risottos and it goes on to toasting the rice and adding alcohol. I'll stick to Delia.
So, we are ready to go. Duck in frying pan, skin-side down. Shut kitchen door to stop smoke alarm going off. Three minutes, turn over. One minute, turn over. Remember duck skin is supposed to be scored in a criss-cross pattern. Take duck out, score it, put it back in. Three minutes one side, one minute the other, on the oven timer, with all the autonomy – back to the 1970s again – of an alienated Longbridge assembly-line worker.
This is all going very well when, after the second cycle, I have to put the rice on, which is like adding the circular stomach-rubbing motion while tapping the top of your head. But this is what we subatomic chefs are born to do. Brief crisis while I realise that I have left out the five-spice. "I've forgotten the title ingredient!" Shake it all over one side of the duck breasts before the last turn. Leave to stand for seven minutes. Seven? Not five or 10, but seven. By now, no one's counting.
It is time for the vegetables. Now Heston annoys me. He wants some grapeseed oil (whatever that is – Ocado provided: add to trolley) in a clean frying pan. Get lost. I've got a perfectly good frying pan here with duck fat in it. I've poured off the excess fat into an old ice-cream carton, and now I'm going to do the veg in that. Heston is most particular about his bok choi, but I suspect, correctly, that it doesn't matter and that if I follow his instructions too closely they'll be overcooked. Anyway, mirin, peas, edamame beans and light soy sauce.
All pretty easy: it tastes good, and the duck is perfect. But if he thinks I'm curling strips of spring onion on ice cubes before serving, he can come and do it himself. k
John Rentoul is chief political commentator of The Independent on Sunday. 'Heston Blumenthal at Home' is published by Bloomsbury, priced £30
'Jamie's Great Britain'
Sunday lunch with eight friends. What could be nicer? Well, a chef, pastry chef, two veg-preppers and an army of washer-uppers would help. But this isn't the 1910s, so it's just me and the new Jamie Oliver cookbook.
Food isn't really the point of Sunday lunch. I don't even think it's the most important part of Jamie's philosophy, which is about bringing people together and having a good time. Which is why I like him. I like the photos of his mates sitting round a chicken carcass laughing, even if they are contrived, and the jumpers-for-goalposts heartiness because it doesn't matter how good the food is if the company's rubbish.
The eight friends I've gathered don't all know each other, so the obvious starter is fondue: social glue. Just plonk some chopped veg on a board, melt some cheese and Roberto is your uncle. Sorry, I'm beginning to sound like Jamie; the enthusiasm's infectious. But his "Pale Ale fondue" really is a doddle: just grate half an onion into a bowl, add some beer, grate two packs of cheese, put the bowl over a pan of boiling water and add cream. Delicious, if a little liquid.
Less straightforward is crackled pork belly with fennel-and-potato mash and sweet onion scrumpy sauce. I like the idea of shoving an enormous (and cheap) piece of meat in the oven for three-and-a-half hours, then kicking back with a glass of bubbly. I've been seduced by Jamie's introduction: "This dish is so simple, and a total pleasure to make." Actually, it isn't. Putting a joint in the oven is easy. The hard work comes when you get it out. And by that stage you're no longer calm and blissfully alone, listening to the Archers omnibus. Now you've got eight hungry guests fork-fisting the table. The wine has been flowing for two hours, and you feel yourself turning into Keith Floyd.
You've also run out of surfaces and clean crockery, so plating up, while simultaneously crisping the pork skin in a 1970s eye-level grill, while turning the onions in the roasting tray into a creamy mustard sauce on the hob is, shall we say, demanding. In fact, it's beyond me. I forget to make the sauce and get the joint wedged in the flaming grill. Nobody notices. They're busy lobbing bread grenades.
The real triumph is pudding: Retro Arctic Roll. And the best thing is, you can make it the night before. How they marvel as I haul out an enormous log of marbled sponge, crammed with jam and ice-cream! I did have to clear a whole drawer of the freezer for it, though, which means I'm eating peas and soggy bread for a week. And it was unbelievably messy to make, while the ingredients were all variants on sugar: jam, ice-cream and crushed Crunchie bars. But it's delicious, like a frozen sweetshop.
Lunch drags into tea, then supper. Cheese leads to wine, which leads to cigarettes. It's 10pm as the last guest leaves. The recipes worked, but would I try them again? Probably not. Roast chicken would have done fine. Still, the spirit of Floyd lives on, and for that I'm grateful to Jamie.
Matthew Bell is a feature writer on The Independent on Sunday. 'Jamie's Great Britain' is published by Michael Joseph, priced £30
You don't have to stare into a fridge of half-used pesto jars to appreciate that Italian cuisine has suffered from ubiquity in recent decades. Which makes the appetite for a place such as Bocca di Lupo all the more ravenous. Since opening in November 2008, Jacob Kenedy's Soho restaurant has thrived off word-of-mouth acclaim for its adventures in regional Italian cooking, and this year's spin-off cookbook has provided similar escapism for the home cook. The contents run the gamut from familiar classics to more outré traditions: indeed, who couldn't love a book that mournfully wonders, "Who eats lungs any more?"
As gastronomically intrepid as I am otherwise wimpy, I'm entirely simpatico with Bocca's nose-to-tail thinking. Which is why instead of deciding to cook the spaghettini with raw tomatoes and being done with it, I find myself gazing into a glistening tub of pig's blood of a Saturday morning. To wit, I'm easing my guests in with some Suppli al Telefono – that's mozzarella-stuffed risotto balls, for the uninitiated – before hitting them with the squeamish stuff. There's Roman-style tripe and, to finish, sanguinaccio – the restaurant's talking-point dish, a chocolate and piggy-blood pâté from Abruzzo.
Uncontroversially, the balls go down a treat. As I'd hoped, following the four hours spent cooking the risotto from scratch and lovingly rolling, stuffing and bread-crumbing 40 of them to the motivational strains of Lady Gaga on a Friday evening. Still, it's worth it for the ease of service come Saturday lunchtime: four minutes dunked in hot oil, a bit of rocket on the side, and they're ready to impart their molten joy. Which is pretty darned great, the rich beef-tomato rice perfectly balanced by the refreshing milkiness of the cheese. And, deep-frying-phobic that I am, I'm all the more thankful to have got away with a fully functioning face.
Then again, I suspect my guests' relish for the balls might be a case of tactical stomach-filling for the journey ahead. After all, for every vain attempt to kick-start a tripe revival over the years, it's difficult to find anyone who will admit to liking the stuff. Or indeed, selling it: it takes numerous slightly nonplussed phone calls before I finally find a posh west London butcher who will order some in for me. The surprising thing for the chef, perhaps, is what an inoffensive ingredient it is: blanched before sale, its smell is as innocuous as its texture is soft. Trippa alla Romana is, Kenedy says, "a good introduction for the uninitiated", the tripe offset by the strong flavours of tomato, guanciale (Italian bacon made from pig jowls), mentuccia (a wild Italian mint) and pecorino cheese. My version makes do with a suggested mix of mint and oregano in place of the mentuccia, and optimistically triples up the quantities for my nine guests. I find the result rich and silky; other verdicts run the spectrum from "flavoursome... it tastes a bit seafoody" to "the gelatinous texture made me gag... one of the most disgusting dishes I've ever eaten."
Thankfully, this tough crowd warms up for the grand finale. As someone who equates dessert with dullness, I appreciate this one's frisson of danger: with your gorgeously glossy chocolate/marsala/vanilla/haemoglobin mix set to cook over a pan of simmering water for two hours, Kenedy ominously explains, it is "vital to stir almost continually with a whisk or the blood will clot". Thankfully, coagulation is avoided – credit to the slightly petrified vigilance of my sous chef Laura – and after chilling in the fridge for another couple of hours, the pâté is a perverse treat: just as you've been lulled into a false sense of chocolatey security, in comes the devilishly incongruous metallic aftertaste. My guests hesitantly agree it's good in small doses, with flavours evoked including "mineral", "bacon fries" and "licking elbow scabs as a child".
And that's the thing about this Bocca banquet: grimace they may, but what it lacks in home comforts, it more than makes up for in conservational fuel – while, crucially, never over-stretching my fairly rudimentary level of culinary skill. Forget Dave Cameron's lasagne suppers: I'm ready for the horse-meat tartare, I think.
Hugh Montgomery is a feature writer and The New Review's Style Shrink. 'Bocca: Cookbook' by Jacob Kenedy is published by Bloomsbury, priced £30
I start to realise I have bitten off more than I can chew with this assignment when the cookbook arrives with instructions on how to get it out of its box. Unfortunately I don't have time to read the first five of this 18kg set of six books, which explain the history and science of the cooking, as I'm too busy boiling mustard seeds to death.
I promise my guinea pig a relatively simple menu: caramelised carrot soup; rib-eye steak with cherry-mustard marmalade, served with macaroni cheese; and strawberry milkshake for pudding. Stupidly, only then do I read the ingredients... Dry ice turns out to be one of the easier items to source, from a man at dryiceuk.com who explains I must not touch it, breathe it or store it in my freezer. Sodium citrate and iota carrageenan, for the mac & cheese, come from creamsupplies.co.uk. More common foods such as baby carrots and "young ginger" are available at the supermarket, though I'm missing their birth certificates.
I really did pickle cherries for the marmalade, but they tasted like vinegar. Fortunately, my guinea pig's mother is a culinary genius and has a mature jar of pickled cherries (own recipe) in her pantry. They taste great, until I add them to the mustard seeds (I don't have a pressure cooker, so improvise and cook them for four hours), squashed blackberries (the cherry purée is not delivered in time) and spices – at which point a "cherry-mustard marmalade" three years in the making ends up in the bin. I blame myself; one obviously can't improvise on science.
The soup, however, begins promisingly. Caramelised carrots smell just like caramel, it turns out, and the garnish of slightly elderly ginger, tarragon, ajowain seeds and licorice powder (from spicesofindia.co.uk) is intriguing. Unfortunately, it leaves an aftertaste (sweet and carroty but slightly sharp at the back of the throat) similar to that of vomit. Maybe I shouldn't have skipped the centrifuging.
The rib-eye is to be cooked in a sous-vide machine – a posh water bath that promises its user she will "never overcook a meal again". Yet, after its long bath and subsequent searing (I, er, mislaid my blowtorch), the steak is overcooked. The guinea pig, who has a degree in physics, is impressed by the diagrams in Book 4, showing how the iota carrageenan causes the molecules in the complicated macaroni cheese I have chosen to accompany the steak to bond, but it is the first time either of us has declared anything "too cheesy".
It is now 10pm, and we are almost too exhausted for milkshake, but pouring the strawberry-fructose mix over dry ice is the most exciting part of the meal. In fact, we may have accidentally breathed some in, as we come over a little giddy and start throwing it around like sugar. The cat hasn't been the same since the sinking cloud of vapour enveloped him in a carbon-dioxide fog, but on the bright side, if he's still high by the weekend, maybe we can persuade him to finish off the carrot soup.
Katy Guest is literary editor of The Independent on Sunday. 'Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking' by Nathan Myhrvold and Chris Young is published by The Cooking Lab, priced £395