Cooking the books

We asked six 'Independent' writers to put the year's hottest culinary tomes to the test. But would the results be a triumph, or a dog's dinner?
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Deborah Ross: Nigella Lawson's chocolate Guinness cake

Deborah Ross: Nigella Lawson's chocolate Guinness cake

Firstly, I should confess that I love Nigella, am a mad fan. I haven't, yet, got to the stage of pacing the street where she lives with an "I love you, Nigella" placard but I'm pretty sure it's only a matter of time. Her fabulously successful How To Eat is my most-used recipe book, as much for the recipes as for her warm, chatty and forgiving tone. Should a dish go belly-up - as mine so often do; the joke in our house being that the smoke alarm doubles as an oven timer - you know she'll laugh and not get all snotty about it. Delia, on the other hand, may very well send you out into the corridor where you'll have to stand with your face against the wall for the whole of play - the whole of play!

Anyway, Feast: Food That Celebrates Life, is another great book, and one which I've read from cover to cover. (Being a very greedy person, I can read cookery books like novels.) It includes all the big occasions, like Christmas, Hanukah and Easter, and if I have one niggle it's that some of the recipes are devised for 20 people. I don't even know 20 people. Still, there is much to steal for the everyday cook, and a chapter called Chocolate Cake Hall of Fame which makes me dribble just thinking about it.

I'm not a naturally gifted cake-maker by any means. I once stayed up until 4am making my son a football birthday cake and when he saw it he burst into tears and said: "But I wanted a Power Ranger one from Tesco." I choose the Chocolate Guinness Cake, which Nigella describes as "magnificent in its damp blackness". It also has the shortest list of ingredients, which is always a deciding factor. And you know what? It's blissfully easy.

You simply put the Guinness and some butter in a saucepan, heat it until the butter melts, and then add the rest of the ingredients (cocoa, sugar, eggs, flour, sour cream, bicarbonate of soda and vanilla) before pouring it into a cake tin and baking it for an hour. Usually, when you make a cake, you are asked to cream the butter and sugar until they are "pale and fluffy" which is the bit I'm not good at, because I get arm ache and fed-up long before any evidence of pale fluffiness, which may be why my cakes turn out like sad leaden Frisbees.

When this cake is ready, you leave it to cool completely in the tin, then ice it with a mix of cream cheese, double cream and icing sugar. The end result is meant to look like a pint of Guinness itself although I'm not sure it would fool our local wino. But, my God, it is gorgeous. Very damp, very black, and while you can't taste the Guinness as such, it gives an unusual but heavenly depth to the flavour. It's absolutely delicious, possibly as delicious as these things can ever get, and I should know, as I think I ate four fifths of it. I went to bed that night hating myself for being such an undisciplined pig. "Don't worry. You're sexier than Marilyn Monroe," my partner didn't say. Instead it was: "You coming to bed or what, fat arse?"

'Feast: Food That Celebrates Life' by Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus, £25)

Sholto Byrnes: Anthony Bourdain's carré d'agneau au moutarde

"Unless you are one cool, calm, cocky son of a bitch who wants to dazzle guests at your grace under fire," advises Anthony Bourdain, "then don't overreach." With this in mind, I decide to steer clear of the coq au vin, which seems to involve an impossible amount of straining and reserving, and a lot of last minute sautéing, simmering and swirling, and go for something a little simpler. Carré d'agneau au moutarde, or as Bourdain puts it: "Yee-hah! Rack of lamb!" My sentiments exactly. Shall we have chips with it? I turn to the page marked "Les Halles frites". "We're famous for our fries at Les Halles. Many have said that we make the best fries in New York," opines the author modestly. "Naturally I agree. Your fries, on the other hand, very likely suck." Maybe not, then.

Bourdain recommends the gratin dauphinois with the lamb, so I go with that. The first problem occurs right away, as top of the ingredients list is "8 Yukon Gold potatoes". What the hell's a Yukon Gold potato? Or a freakin' Yukon Gold potato, as you are likely to put it after reading much of the chef's admirably direct commentary. No idea. Since it's supposed to serve four, I just buy four huge potatoes, peel, slice and dump them in the pot. Problem two. The 450ml of heavy cream nowhere near covers the tats, which are supposed to boil in the liquid. "Improvise, adapt, overcome" as Gunnery Sergeant Highway says in Heartbreak Ridge, a film I suspect Mr Bourdain might enjoy, so I top up with milk - semi-skimmed, but it'll have to do.

This dish, with herbs, nutmeg, and grated Gruyère, works fine. Into the oven with it while I get to grips with the lamb. After searing the racks I'm told to throw the oil away. But it's very hot and will burn through a plastic binliner. I decide to pour it in the garden, where it's raining and the cold water makes the fat sizzle like billy-oh. Dash back in, to add red wine to the scrapy bits of lamb and fat in the pan. Reduce by half and add lamb stock. Well, surprise, surprise, I haven't spent eight hours roasting and simmering sheep carcasses, so this stock is courtesy of Mr Oxo. Garlic: tick. Bouquet garni? I'm afraid not. Rosemary and thyme, yes, but life's too short to tie them up into a neat little bundle with a bay leaf. In fact, life's too short for bay leaves, period.

Mr Bourdain neglects to mention that cooking this sauce down "until thick enough to coat the spoon" takes forever, so I have no time to whizz up some breadcrumbs. The lamb goes into the oven clad only in a thick layer of mustard instead. But the racks and the dauphinois come out perfectly, the potatoes rich and crispy on top, the lamb beautifully rose inside. Were my guests happy or, to quote the author again, did they think that I cook "like someone who's never been properly fucked in his life"? They seemed to like it.

'Les Halles Cookbook' by Anthony Bourdain (Bloomsbury, £20)

Caroline Kamp: Constance Spry's Coronation chicken with herb rice

Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume were very big in the 1950s. Not as big as their book, though, which weighs in at more than a thousand pages. The Constance Spry Cookery Book (now back in print, neatly coinciding with the controversial Constance Spry retrospective at the Design Museum) is certainly a classic guide to everything you could ever want to know about food and how to prepare it. It may be ripe for a revival, but it's an intimidating tome.

Where do I begin? Leafing through, I'm overwhelmed by choices as various as party soups, vegetable dishes with pastry and oeufs sur le plat, but I can only imagine what any of them actually look like. Coming from the Jamie Oliver generation I expect my cookbooks to be full of glossy colour photos. The few black and white photos here are purely for practical purposes to show you how to gut a fish or de-bone a chicken. Eurghh.

Constance and Rosemary are so concise, they fit three recipes on a page. Their brisk tone offers none of the hand-holding I'm used to and they assume you already have a grasp of the fundamentals of cooking. However, with a little perseverance, the school- mistressy tone - unaltered since the first edition - becomes quite endearing. Constance on cocktail parties: "Whether one likes such parties or not, it appears they have come to stay."

Should I submit to their regime and trust them to get me through something daring like roast pigeon, or mixed game in aspic (had to look that one up)? Neither appeals. I decide on the dish fit for the Queen, the one devised for her Coronation luncheon that made the book famous.

The recipe for Coronation chicken is often credited to Constance (who was more of a flower arranger) but it was actually devised by Rosemary (who was the real cook). Never mind those details, I have to work out how to poach a chicken. A quick phone call to my mum (font of all cooking knowledge and proud owner of the original book) reassures me that this basically means stick chicken in pot, cover with water, season and cook.

Making the curry sauce proves fairly straight forward, but the instruction to mix 3/4 of a pint of mayonnaise with 2-3 tablespoons of lightly whipped cream worries me. Clearly this recipe is post-war and pre-lowfat. I use half as much mayonnaise and skip the cream entirely.

Result: it tastes as good as I'd hoped. Served with the herby rice salad it looks really retro. I try to explain to our Italian photographer, Luca, that this is classic British cooking, from the days before we discovered olive oil and sun-dried tomatoes. He isn't convinced, but my husband gives it the thumbs up. Constance and Rosemary, mentors to decades of young marrieds, would surely approve.

'The Constance Spry Cookery Book' by Constance Spry and Rosemary Hume (Grub Street, £25)

Julia Stuart: Jamie Oliver's tasty fish bake

Celebrities often instruct their lawyers to warn newspapers of the dire consequences of publishing photos of their children, an act they regard as an invasion of privacy. If there were a law to prevent celebs foisting their children upon the public, Jamie Oliver would be facing life imprisonment. Not only does Jamie's Dinners subject us to tiresome double-page spreads of his offspring, but we also have to endure his Nan and Jules.

But what of the recipes among the family album? They include the top 10 favourite meals as voted for on his website, such as bangers and mash, lasagne, chicken and leek pie and jacket potato fillings. The other chapters are devoted to "sarnies", salads, soups, vegetables, pasta, meat and fish.

His ways with fish are what makes me forgive him. His "fantastic fish pie" in The Return of the Naked Chef is my signature dish. It is, in fact, my only dish. Not only does it even surpass its name, but it is redeemable. I've got away with shoving the boiled eggs through the mashed potato piping before putting it in the oven. Trying his tasty fish bake from his new book, I hoped to double my repertoire after testing it on my beloved neighbours.

After carefully cooking the fennel and onion layer which goes on the bottom, I covered it, as instructed, with a layer of trout. The mixture of cream, Parmesan and anchovies was then poured on, and topped with a layer of sliced potatoes. Finally, I covered it with breadcrumbs - actually hand-shredded bread as Oliver fails to explain how to make breadcrumbs and I'd changed the sheets too recently to harvest crumbs from my bed.

The bake was very simple to make. Did it taste any good? My guests said the result was "lovely", but perhaps they didn't want me to take an airgun to their cat the next time it came into my garden. I thought it was bland - a piece of grilled trout is so much tastier - and I wouldn't go through the trials of cooking to produce it again.

Undeterred, I then had a go at the book's chocolate clafoutis. Without the caramelised oranges it was quick and easy, though it didn't explain how to produce orange zest - and I needed to be told. However, when I came to add the pieces of white chocolate to the batter they failed to sink and when I took the dish out of the oven they resembled broken teeth. And the taste? Divine! Such a triumph, in fact, that one invitee couldn't resist dunking her finger in the dish to scoop up one final mouthful on the way out. There was still rapturous talk of it over the fence the following evening. I didn't bother telling them that when I was doing the washing up afterwards I discovered, among the chaos, the milk I had forgotten to add.

'Jamie's Dinners' by Jamie Oliver (Michael Joseph/Penguin, £20)

Paul Newman: Keith Floyd's lamb and apricot curry

As Keith Floyd observes, curries are "simple and quick to prepare and fun to eat". If, like me, you have trouble distinguishing your asaro from your amor frio*, then the joy of cooking curries, especially the way Floyd explains them, is their sheer simplicity.

Floyd's Great Curries, comprising 100 of the veteran food man's favourite recipes, is a lesson in culinary brevity. For example, after listing the ingredients for coriander and mint chutney, his instructions amount to just 16 words: "Whiz all the ingredients together in a food processor until you have a wonderfully aromatic paste."

The instructions for the recipe I chose, lamb curry with apricots, amounted to six simple sentences. From assembling the ingredients to serving the food took no more than 90 minutes (more than half of that was spent admiring my work as it simmered in the pan) and the minimum of kitchen craft.

Floyd points out that one of the keys to cooking curries is to prepare all your ingredients in advance. The last thing you want when you have little more than a minute to stir in your cinnamon, cardamom, chilli and cumin is to discover that those tomatoes you have put to one side should have been skinned, deseeded and finely chopped. Sorry, Keith, but how do you deseed a tomato anyway? And what's the point?

The basics of so much curry cooking seem to be the same the world over: fry a big pile of onions, work in your spices, add the meat (or fish or vegetables) and then stand back (with a glass of cold, refreshing lager if desired) while all those exotic tastes mingle together and do their work. The twist to this dish is the last-minute addition of dried apricots, which provide a pleasing counterbalance to the power of the spices. The end result, though I say it myself, was excellent. The sauce was a delicious mixture of flavours, without being too strong to overwhelm the taste of the lamb.

Floyd's is not a name I would automatically associate with curries, or with 21st-century cookbooks for that matter, but after a lifetime travelling around the world he has assembled a colourful mix of recipes, some from places you would expect - India, Malaysia and Thailand - and others from countries you might not, including Vietnam, Egypt and Burma.

The book has none of the pretensions that I would associate with less down-to-earth cooks than Floyd. That said, it is hardly a thing of beauty, using in-your-face close-up photographs of only a selection of the dishes (nothing to compare my lamb with apricots with his), but they suit the author's chuck-it-in-the-pan-and-give-it-a-go approach.

* 'Asaro', I am assured, is a pie from Nigeria made with yams, while 'amor frio' is a cream used in desserts.

'Floyd's Great Curries' by Keith Floyd (Cassell illustrated, £14.99)

Jamie Buckley: Moro's scallops with breadcrumbs

I'm ashamed to admit that in the three years that Moro the Cookbook, the original Med-Moorish manual from the husband-and-wife team of Sam and Sam Clark, has been sitting on the kitchen shelf, all I've ever tried to cook is cauliflower with saffron, pine nuts and raisins. The unused, withering strands of the saffron from that recipe (well past their sell-by date) still lurk reproachfully in the spice rack. Considering I spent four years studying Spanish and have travelled the length and breadth of Spain, my neglect of Moro seems even more inexplicable.

Now, with the publication of Sam and Sam's latest book, Casa Moro, I have a chance to redeem myself. The recipes in this follow-up collection are based on those the couple have discovered since living in their second home in Andalucia. The Spanish ingredients meld easily with the Moroccan in such cross-cultural winners as roast chicken stuffed with labneh (a thick yoghurty cheese mixed with sage) and deep-fried salt cod in saffron batter, served, as many dishes seem to be, with generous scoops of aioli that's strong enough to repel a Moorish invasion.

Flicking through the uncluttered pages and gorgeously grainy photos leaves enough to the imagination. Dishes range from the challenging (Turkish ravioli with spiced lamb and yohurt) to those that are more of a piece of cake (chocolate, chestnut and almond); all look impressive whatever the effort. Call me shallow, but that's why I chose to do scallops with jamón Serrano, knowing I'd be feeling fragile from the night before.

Having said that, I did buy the scallops in their shells from the fishmonger, and ridding them of their digestive pouches is not something I'd recommend with even the mildest of hangovers. However, once cleaned up and sitting in their shells, the fresh, plump molluscs only needed a light sprinkle of fino sherry and a topping of lightly toasted breadcrumbs, parsley and jamón Serrano, before being chucked into a hot oven for about 10 minutes. Recovered from my brush with raw shellfish, that was a cinch. These looked great in their shells and could easily be prepared in advance and heated at the last minute for a dinner party. Just as well that I remembered to wash my hands before sitting down to eat.

'Casa Moro' by Sam and Sam Clark (Ebury Press, £25)