Christopher was asked to make the Black Forest gâteau from Heston Blumenthal's book In Search of Perfection - it was a big mistake
Christopher was asked to make the Black Forest gâteau from Heston Blumenthal's book In Search of Perfection - it was a big mistake

The anarchist's cookbook: What happened to straightforward recipes and improvisation?

No, I will not follow your 22-ingredient, 52-stage instructions to the letter, says Christopher Hirst

Christopher Hirst
Saturday 25 July 2015 15:13

Around a decade ago, I was asked by this newspaper to make the Black Forest gâteau from Heston Blumenthal's book In Search of Perfection.

The maestro's reconfiguration of this dessert-trolley stalwart was making quite a stir at the time, so I agreed – despite reservations prompted by Hestonian enthusiasm: "A Black Forest gâteau is composed of six delicious layers. Lots of layers mean lots of different cooking techniques."

It was a big mistake.

After accumulating the 22 ingredients plus a specialised batterie de cuisine including paint sprayer ("Dunno if it will work with chocolate," said a baffled assistant at Homebase), thermal probe, pressurised cream whipper, vacuum cleaner and atomiser (for spraying kirsch to "magically bring a little of the Black Forest to the dinner table"), I spent two days on the 52 stages of this confection. The result was three tiny cakes at a total cost (excluding labour) of £250.

In Thomas Keller's book Under Pressure, a recipe for tripe oreganata 'feeds 50' (Getty)

Admittedly this was an extreme case, but too often I've been lured by a tempting recipe only to find myself bogged down in a seemingly endless series of finicky complications. After procuring the often perplexing ingredients (what the hell is amaranth?), the kitchen fills with an army of little spice jars while the sink accumulates a teetering tower of grungy pans. My wife's helpful tips ("I always wash up as I go along") do little to deflate my soaring blood pressure.

I now carefully study any recipe prior to embarkation, no matter how seductive the accompanying photograph, and bear in mind the view of the restaurateur Russell Norman: "I honestly think that there should never be more than four ingredients on a plate. Even better if it's three."

Unwarranted complexity in recipes is most frequently found in cookbooks by restaurant chefs, who tend to ignore the gulf between the professional and amateur kitchen. While they have a platoon of sous-chefs to undertake tasks such as the minuscule chopping required for gremolata, the poor old punter has to do every single chop him or herself. A useful sign that a recipe may send you bonkers can be found in the quantities it will feed. If a recipe says "feeds eight to 12" (and lots do), avoid like the plague. In Thomas Keller's book Under Pressure, a recipe for tripe oreganata "feeds 50". I haven't tried it.

I admit mine is a personal quirk. Lots of people love culinary imperatives. Indeed, Julian Barnes wrote an entertaining polemic entitled The Pedant in the Kitchen about a lack of precision in recipes: "The Pedant approaches a new recipe, however straightforward, with old anxieties: words flash at him like stop signs… How big is a 'lump', when does 'drizzle' become rain?"

Since I am cooking primarily – well, entirely, to be honest – for my own pleasure, I'd sooner be happy in the kitchen than bust a gut in search of perfection. As the slogan of Johnny's Po-Boys (a New Orleans baguette-sandwich restaurant) puts it, "Even our failures are edible."

For those more anarchist than acolyte, can I thrust you in the direction of David Tanis? A former chef at the legendary Californian restaurant Chez Panisse who is now a food columnist for The New York Times, he concluded his most recent book, One Good Dish, with the request, "I hope you don't follow the recipes slavishly, since improvisation and ad-libbing are always part of a good cook's process – they make life in the kitchen much more interesting."

He goes further than any other food writer in querying his previous books, devoted to three-course meals: "Examining my own eating habits, I realised that while I do enjoy these rustic seasonal multicourse meals, that's not the way I cook and eat day to day. Instead it's often one good dish and a green salad."

Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating features such enduring pleasures as soft roes on toast, devilled lamb kidneys, and Welsh rarebit (Rex)

Maybe Tanis's one good dish – fried lamb with cumin, crisp potato galette, rare-seared tuna – is insufficiently fancy-pants for some, though I can think of little better for supper.

Like Tanis, I've found myself shifting towards simplicity. In general, I prefer raw to cooked, cold to hot, surf to turf and home to restaurant (faster, more reliable and a bit cheaper). Some of the things I find most exciting in restaurants – piles of oysters, plates of charcuterie, seared squid – I can do just as well at home.

So have I stopped using cookbooks? Not at all. Many of my recent favourites have steered in the same direction. Good guys include Sam and Sam Clark, whose Morito cookbook has become a favourite for tapas such as a Spanish tortilla containing potato crisps. (In case you're wondering, the crisps don't remain crisp but are transmuted into the world's slenderest potato slices. One proviso: you have to use crisps fried in olive oil. You can find them at Brindisa and, somewhat to my surprise, certain branches of TK Maxx).

Packed with snacks from Venetian wine bars, Russell Norman's book Polpo had me dashing to the fishmonger to order the frozen baby octopus called moscardini, which you simmer and marinade for 24 hours with olive oil, fennel seeds, chilli and chopped shallot. His little pizzas or pizzette proved so tasty, easy and addictive that I cooked my way through all nine of them. Stand-out toppings were stracchino (cheese), potato and rosemary along with paper-thin courgette slices (careful with that mandolin), mint and chilli.

Saint-Germain-des-Prés has the advantage of sourdough from the Poilâne boulangerie

Ahead of the wave in this return to simplicity was Fergus Henderson, the mastermind of St John in London. Published in 1999, his Nose to Tail Eating features such enduring pleasures as soft roes on toast (a glass of port is the suggested accompaniment), devilled lamb kidneys (a Black Velvet beer cocktail) and Welsh rarebit (back to port). All glorious, but the last is the food of heaven. When I previously expressed this view in print, some online moron blew a gasket at the idea of "paying £4.50 for cheese on toast". Well, it's now gone up to £6 and remains splendid value unless you're a bonehead. At how many other Michelin-starred restaurants can you get supper for such a modest outlay?

You might not want to serve Welsh rarebit as the main course at a dinner party (though I once did) but it makes the perfect supper with a green salad.

A bit old hat? Not at all. A recent visit to Paris revealed the city has gone nuts about the tartine (an open grilled sandwich), though Saint-Germain-des-Prés has the advantage of sourdough from the Poilâne boulangerie. But so does London's Pimlico: a branch of Poilâne is at 46 Elizabeth Street, SW1.

Of the numerous recipes in Favourite Savoury Tartines by the late Lionel Poilâne, I adore one that is topped by a bubbling slurry of 100g grated Parmesan, 150g chopped onion and 3 tbsp mayonnaise. Grill one side of the bread, spread the mixture on the other side and grill for one minute. My mouth has filled with saliva while typing those words. Quick – where's that grater?

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