There are two undisputed queens of Christmas in my world, one being Mariah Carey and the other, Nigella Lawson. They both make regular appearances during the holiday season, one on my music playlists and the other via the recipes I cook during the holidays (We just made Nigella’s cocktail sausages in orange marmalade and cranberry sauce last weekend). Nigella was the obvious choice when I thought about who to invite this month.
When I set out to write this episode of my newsletter, I struggled with one task. How do I introduce someone as well known and beloved as Nigella Lawson? Her shows and cookbooks shaped how we think about food to many of us. Nigella was one of the first people I can vividly remember cooking on television, and her first book, How to Eat, is a book I still go back to often, not only for the recipes but also for its prose. One thing that’s drawn me to her work is the unfussiness by the way she cooks, and yet, those instructions manifest with elegance in the kitchen. She walks you through the steps of a recipe and builds your confidence, a goal of every cookbook author and recipe writer. Nigella belongs to what I playfully refer to as the "U.K. trifecta of food writers" that includes, Diana Henry and Nigel Slater (two other authors whose work, I go back to again and again).
I first met Nigella on a trip to Bombay/Mumbai, India. At the time, I was the food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and was headed back home to shoot some photographs for my first cookbook Season. She invited Michael and me to dinner and was as wonderful and kind as one might imagine. She was one of the rare celebrities I’ve met who is genuinely interested in learning about the people she meets. As a young writer, new to the world of food media, it was a real surprise that she read my column in the newspaper. A few years later, we met again at the San Francisco Chronicle’s test kitchen, where we cooked her recipe for Turkish eggs from her book At My Table. And if you’re wondering if I was nervous, yes, I absolutely was. I’d never been filmed cooking until then, and doing this for the first time with Nigella made me very nervous. My inner voice told me not to say anything stupid or pass out. I suspect Nigella read my thoughts, was generous with her patience, and I, for my part, didn’t pass out, and neither did I drop or break anything; filming proceeded without any interruptions. Nigella’s always been gracious and generous supporting cookbook authors and writers; just take a look at her, and you’ll find recommendations on books or articles to read.
Nik: You start the book with “What is a Recipe?”, one might think that it’s a straightforward response but the answer is multilayered and deeply complex. How has your style of recipe writing evolved over the years?
Nigella: In my very first book, published over 20 years ago now, I hadn’t known before I started it that it would contain formal recipes, which may sound odd, but I conceived the book as a (non-food) journalist, a columnist, rather than a food writer; it wasn’t until the end of it that I actually became a food writer. And yes, there are indeed conventionally laid-out recipes in How To Eat (which, I’m happy to say, is to be re-released in the US in a new edition in the not-too-distant future) but in general it takes more of a discursive approach. And I’ve never really abandoned that, even if many of my books up till Cook, Eat, Repeat are more immediately recognisable as recipe books.
For me, a recipe has to be more than a set of instructions, a mere formula. Obviously, it’s crucial that the recipe be utterly reliable (and I’m an obsessive tester and re-tester) but I need to be able to convey so much more to the reader: why I cook it; what its origins are; what it actually feels like to cook and, of course, eat; how it could be altered; what could be served with it, and what its other applications might be; but perhaps, most of all, I want to be able to encourage often tentative cooks, to take them with me, and equip them with confidence before they start. To some extent, I think every recipe needs to impart – even if not explicitly - something about the nature of cooking itself, which is both a practical act and an almost magical undertaking: it’s both poetry and chemistry. And, correspondingly, a recipe must be both practical and evocative.
I don’t think that’s changed for me in the 22 years I’ve been writing cookbooks, though some of my books certainly have more narrative content than others. And, as an untrained home cook rather than a chef, I became a food writer as I felt that it had become a sphere dominated by the professional, and cooking at home is a very different experience. What’s changed for me over the years is that I am now a full-time food writer, whereas when I started it was something I did on top of the job I had. Nevertheless, I’m still a home cook talking to other home cooks; a communicator sharing my enthusiasms; taste-led rather than technique-driven.
In many ways, Cook, Eat, Repeat is a development of the approach of How To Eat: there are certainly many, many formally presented recipes, but so many others that spring out of a kind of culinary free-association. I allowed myself the luxury of expansiveness! And of course, there are changes and developments from book to book: I write out of the experiences of my life, and so at different stages, I might have more or less time for cooking, and each book reflects that. But what connects them all is that they are written emphatically in my voice.
Nik: What is your process of developing a recipe? Are there some key points you keep in mind?
Nigella: I’m not sure I have ever developed a recipe in the sense it is normally understood. That’s to say, my recipes stem from what I’m cooking for lunch or dinner. I don’t always have a clear idea of what I’m doing from the outset. I find the idea of plotting out a recipe before I begin cooking too confining, too cramping. The first time I cook something, I need to go with the flow and respond both to the process and to the taste of the food as I go along. I fear a rigid plan would hobble my instinct. Cooking is always a balance between structure and spontaneity and, in the beginning, I definitely favour spontaneity. If I feel that what I’ve cooked could be a recipe, that’s when I begin to concentrate more on the structure. I cook it, again and again, to see how it could be improved and how it could be simplified, and by simplification, I generally mean streamlining: I don’t want to use any ingredient that doesn’t entirely earn its place, and I don’t want to have any more steps (or pans to wash) than is absolutely necessary. To be honest, this paring down and re-evaluating really carries on forever: every time I cook a recipe that’s in an old book of mine, I start zooming in on tweaks I could make to it.
As I say, many recipes of mine have started off as just regular eating occasions in my life. The Luscious Vegan Gingerbread you’re running here, for example, came into being because I was cooking a dinner for a friend’s birthday and one of the guests was vegan. Now, I never do a lone vegan alternative - having people round is about sharing a meal together – and so I cooked up a vegan feast. It was winter, not far from the holidays, and I settled on gingerbread, and this recipe was the upshot (and, actually, much of what I cooked that night appears in Cook, Eat, Repeat, modified to a greater or a lesser extent) and it is pretty much how I cooked it that first time. But I do write many recipes that I get ideas for in the small hours: insomnia is generally a curse, but actually, as long as I give up the struggle to sleep, or go back to sleep, I have found it to be quite a creative time, too. I don’t usually decide exactly what I want to cook, or even how (although sometimes I do) but I get seized with combinations of flavours or ingredients that I want to explore. The Notes app on my iPhone is cluttered with memos to myself that say (to choose only two examples) “Charred aubergine (eggplant) and onions. Tahini? Cumin?” or Rosemary and Swordfish? The first ended up as the Burnt Onion and Eggplant Dip, which opens the chapter entitled A Loving Defense of Brown Food; the swordfish with rosemary has yet to find its perfect realisation!
Of course, with baking it’s not possible to be so cavalier: you can’t just wing it. Though the more I bake, the more I feel I can trust my instinct, even as to how many eggs to add or what particular sugar to use. Of course, I’m often wrong, and I have to go back to the drawing board, but cooking is no different from the rest of life: if you don’t risk failure, you never learn anything. I once read something to the effect that one shouldn’t think of failure as the opposite of success, but a necessary step along the way. That is emphatically true of recipe testing! And a benefit of having no training is that I don’t always know how something “should” be done, and so I do it the wrong way and it works. Or maybe I’m making a virtue out of necessity: but that, too, is so often what cooking is about!
Nik: You completed Cook, Eat, Repeat during the pandemic. In comparison to your previous cookbooks, what were some of the differences in development?
Nigella: Although I wrote Cook, Eat, Repeat in lockdown, I had been testing recipes quite intensively in 2019, and in terms of the book’s development, the essential groundwork had been done. But cookbooks have to belong to the age they come out of, and I did have to rejig the book. I got rid of a chapter that was to be called ‘How to Invite Friends for Supper without Hating Them (or Yourself)’ as it seemed dizzyingly out of kilter suddenly, and I replaced that with a chapter that concerned itself more with the family meal in the evening, and the ability of food to change the emotional temperature of a day, entitled Much Depends on Dinner. The title is taken from a poem by Byron, although the mood of the chapter is far from Byronic! It didn’t involve a huge change in actual recipes since the food I cook for people coming over is not really any different from the food I cook for my family; there’s just more of it. But it did require some new recipes, and some jettisoning of recipes I’d already written. For me, that’s a part of the writing process generally, though: however fixed I am in my sense of the book I’m going to write, the book I actually end up writing is always different. I was alone for four months, and so perhaps it was inevitable that I’d want to introduce more recipes for one. But beyond my own requirements, I was very aware that there were many people who had to cook for themselves and I wanted to urge people to see that in a positive light. I can’t tell you the number of people who told me on Twitter that cooking for themselves seemed a strange and sad thing to do, and I really wanted to show them that that wasn’t the case, and how rewarding it can be. In the same way, I wanted to offer those who were having to cook meals for four three times a day recipes that would ring the changes, but not put pressure on them, either in terms of the shopping or the demands on them in the kitchen.
And writing about food during a long lockdown, with its enforced isolation, really gave me a heightened sense of connection, for which I was very grateful, and remain so. There were times, at the outset of the pandemic, when I just thought ‘how can I write about food when the world is so bleak and frightening and people are ill and dying?’ but I grew to feel that this clinging to food, and the joys it could bring, really was something that united us, and is so human. It felt important, both to me personally, and as a statement of optimism, an insistence on gaining comfort where we can.
Nik: Food writing for a living is a privilege and a powerful tool to help change perceptions, what would you advise new writers who are about to start this journey?
Nigella: That’s a hard one. It is a huge privilege, and I’m always aware of that. I feel grateful to have food on my table, grateful to be able to write about it, and grateful to be able to connect with so many others through it. But I don’t know that I feel equipped to give blanket advice to novice food writers about where they should go with their work: it’s for them to work that out, and is an ongoing process, and part of the work itself. I often do talk to emergent food writers, but then I can ask them about themselves as part of helping them achieve some clarity for themselves, and to find their own path. Otherwise, the only important advice is ‘be authentic, and find your own voice and use it. And that is true for everyone, not just food writers!
Nik: What is the one tool that you turn to the most in your kitchen?
Nigella: I’d be hard-pressed to choose between my mezzaluna (that half-moon shaped blade or knife, with a handle at each end, that’s sometimes called a herb chopper) that I use for so much (yes, herbs, but also onions, chocolate, nuts, etc) which is wonderful for those of us with poor knife skills, and a fine Microplane grater, which I use in preference to a press for garlic. It’s also good for ginger, and I use it as well (rather than the dedicated Microplane rasp, which is a nightmare to wash up) for zesting citrus fruits.
Nik: What’s the first food that comes to your mind for each of these adjectives: Crunchy, Chewy, Creamy, and Soft
Nigella: OK, I can play this game! Off the top of my head, I’d say Pork scratchings (I think they’re known in the US as pork cracklings or pork rinds) for crunchy; beef jerky for chewy; syllabub (which is a traditional English dessert, dating from the 16th century, and essentially cream whipped with alcohol and sugar, although it used to include milk rather than cream) for creamy; and avocado for soft.
Nik: What book are you currently reading? (it doesn't have to be about food)
Nigella: Well, I haven’t finished it yet, so I can’t give an overview, but I’m reading Matrix by Lauren Groff. It’s what could be described as a historical novel, but it’s a very present, richly imagined evocation, both intimate and majestic, of the experience of women, and within that, one singular woman in particular. Within that, it’s an exploration of sexuality, status, and power, but the driving force is the writing and the characterisation. I don’t want to make it sound like a tract: it’s so richly textured, and it’s just one of those novels whose characters take up residence in your head. A real feast.
LUSCIOUS VEGAN GINGERBREAD CAKE
From Cook, Eat, Repeat by Nigella Lawson. Copyright © 2021 by Nigella Lawson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Photos by Jonathan Lovekin
I am preposterously proud of this squidgy cake, and I don’t mind who knows it. It’s everything you want out of a gingerbread cake—sticky, spicy, deeply aromatic—and you would never miss the butter or eggs.
Eat darkly on its own and some oat-milk crème fraîche.
Warning: ideally you need to make this at least a day before you plan to eat it. Harsh, I know.
GIVES 12 slabs but could easily be cut into 18
⅔ cup/140g vegetable oil
⅔cup/200g Lyle’s golden syrup
⅔ cup/200g molasses
⅔ cup/125g/ dark brown sugar
8/75g pitted soft prunes (heaping 1/3 cup, finely chopped)
3-inch/7.5cm piece (30g) fresh ginger
2 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground allspice
1/8 tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ready-ground black pepper
¼ tsp fine sea salt
1 cup/250g oat milk
2¼ cups plus 2 Tbsp/300g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 Tbsp/30g warm water
2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar
1. Heat the oven to 325°F/165C. Line a 9 inch/23cm square pan with a sheet of parchment paper, so that it covers the bottom and comes up the sides of the pan. Leave something heavy on it to keep it down while you melt everything together.
2. Measure the oil in a measuring jug, and pour it into a fairly wide, heavy-based saucepan; I use one of 9 inches/23cm diameter. Measure the syrup and molasses using the oily measuring jug, as this will stop them from sticking and help them pour out easily into the saucepan.
3. Tip the sugar into the pan, and chop the prunes finely before adding them. Peel the ginger with the tip of a teaspoon and grate it finely into the pan. Sprinkle in the spices and salt and warm over gentle heat, whisking to combine. But don’t whisk too much: you do not want to get a lot of air in the mixture.
4. Once everything’s melted and mixed, take the pan off the heat; it should be warm at this stage, rather than boiling hot. Add the oat milk, whisking gently to make sure it’s incorporated.
5. Whisk in the flour in 3 or 4 batches, getting rid of any lumps patiently as you go. This will take a few minutes; the only lumps you should see are the little bits of prune, although they will melt into the gingerbread as it bakes.
6. Dissolve the baking soda in the warm water in a bigger cup than you think it needs, then add the vinegar and quickly whisk the fizzing mixture into the pan.
7. Pour the gingerbread batter into the lined pan carefully and bake for 50–55 minutes, though start checking at 45. It may look cooked at 45 minutes, but as it’s so damp, a cake tester won’t help enormously—you’d expect some crumbs to stick to it—so take it out of the oven and touch the top quickly; if cooked, it should bounce back a bit under your fingers.
8. Leave to cool in its pan on a rack, although I’m afraid I’m going to caution you against eating it the minute it’s cold. To taste this at its best, wrap the pan first in parchment paper and then in foil, and leave for a day or two before cutting into it.
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