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In the preface of The Gentle Art of Cookery, Mrs Leyel explains what makes her book stand out from the crowd. The most striking of these is the statement that the “recipes are arranged in the only practical way, that is, under their principal ingredients”. 

If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that two of my quite recent book reviews have been Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories and Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty, the arrangement of both of these books being just that, by ingredient. 

This method of organisation of recipes in a book is still considered novel and yet, even in 1925 when The Gentle Art of Cookery was published, Mrs Leyel was attempting to convince her audience that it made sense “because it is more economical to do as the French do; shop first and then arrange the dinner according to what is most plentiful in the market, than to go out and buy what is necessary for a pre-arranged menu.” 

Unusually for a cookery book of the era, the publication contains many unconventional recipes for an English cook of the time as well as a chapter, Arabian Nights, which drew on the influences of her knowledge of Middle Eastern cookery using ingredients such as pistachios, rosewater and pomegranates, which would have been difficult to source but which are quite common today. 

Another surprising inclusion for a book of this period is a whole chapter devoted to children’s cookery. Not just cooking for children but recipes which children can make, on their own or supervised. Mrs Leyel maintained that cooking should be fun, magical and part of a child’s education and she set out to help home cooks get children involved in the kitchen. This is still so relevant today; entire books and TV programmes are dedicated to cooking with and for children. 

Whilst cookery books have come a long way since the days of The Gentle Art of Cookery, with the inclusion of tantalising photography, books introducing us to cuisines from every corner of the planet, and even those explaining how to bring molecular gastronomy to our own home, there is nevertheless a place for the likes of this book in our kitchen. There are still lessons to be learnt and good recipes to follow from these classics. Only time will tell if almost 100 years from now the nation will continue to enjoy the wares of Delia Smith, Nigel Slater and other great cookery book writers of our time in the same way we are rediscovering the books in the Classic Voices in Food series.

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This book by the revered chef, Simon Hopkinson, has been regarded, since its original publication in 1995, as one of the must have cookery books, even rated ‘most useful cookery book’ by the Waitrose Food Illustrated panel.

At this month’s Cookery Book Supper Club we decided to take a look at what all the fuss is about.

There’s something to be said for heaps of amazing photography in a cookery book but the inimitable style of prose used throughout more than made up for the lack of photographs in this book.

As the intriguing title of the book would suggest, Roast Chicken and Other Stories is unlike any other recipe book we’ve read. It’s a cross between a novel, reference book, historical journal, autobiography and cookery book.

The book is highly personal; a collection of 40 of Simon’s favourite ingredients, divided into chapters in alphabetical order. Asparagus, chicken, eggs, garlic, hake, smoked haddock and veal, to name a few.

Each chapter starts by setting the scene; there may be an interesting fact, an autobiographical anecdote, a story about the restaurants which shaped Britain or a short ‘fanfare’ about a favourite chef to whet your appetite. The handful of recipes which follow have been chosen because they allow the ingredient to be the protagonist in the story.

There’s an interesting selection of recipes; a combination of his own creations, interpretations of classic dishes as well as unabridged recipes from Elizabeth David, Margaret Costa, Alice Waters, Joyce Molyneux and others who influenced his career and love of food. On the whole the recipes are homely and simple, requiring just a few ingredients, and Simon’s love of food and cooking really shines through.

With just one exception (the lemon surprise pudding), the recipes worked well and were delicious. The baked new season garlic with creamed goats cheese would be fitting as a dinner party starter, the oriental salad was a treat for the taste buds and the  leftovers made a great packed lunch the next day, the onion tart with a green salad would be lovely for a light al fresco tea and the lamb breast was an excellent Sunday lunch alternative.

Whether Roast Chicken and Other Stories truly is ‘the most useful cookery book’ is debatable but we did, in general, enjoy the book and certainly ate well this month.

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Inspired by recent reads from the Quadrille Classic Voices in Food series and having spotted a few old recipes in Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories whilst doing my Cookery Book Supper Club ‘homework’, I decided to give a couple a go yesterday for our Easter Sunday lunch.

For our main course, breast of lamb Ste- Ménéhould,  the recipe for which appears in the book exactly as it was written in Elizabeth David’s An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, including a reference to the cost of the meat in Harrods (8d a pound).

Breast of lamb is a cheap and often overlooked cut of meat which has seen something of a revival in recent times with many a chef extolling its virtues on cookery shows and in food mags. I’ve come to appreciate the meat again after eating it over the last few months at Flinty Red, the Mi Casa pop up and Abode Manchester, my experiences far removed from my memories of very fatty, stuffed and rolled roast breast of lamb as a child.

The two-part cooking process of this recipe appealed to me since it would surely result in a succulent and tasty piece of meat and ample opportunity to render most of the fat. The lamb is first braised in water with carrot, onion and herbs for a couple of hours (I chose parsley stalks, a sprig of rosemary and a bay leaf as it’s what I had to hand and threw in some peppercorns for extra punch). The bones are removed and the meat is left to cool under a weight, after which it’s easy to trim off some of the remaining skin and fat if you wish. The lamb is then sliced, brushed with mustard before being egg and breadcrumbed and cooked for a second time.

Served with a sharp mustard vinaigrette with plenty of parsley, it was a lovely Easter treat. Breast of lamb Ste- Ménéhould is one of those fantastic dishes which shows that a little can go a long way and that, with a little time and imagination, it’s more than possible to eat like a king on a budget.

For dessert I chose to make lemon surprise pudding. This pudding, of which Simon says he never tires, comes from the Four Seasons Cookery Book by Margaret Costa, once owner of a restaurant called Lacy’s in London. This being a recipe for a self-saucing pudding, the surprise for my unsuspecting dinner guest would be found when digging the spoon into the pudding; under the sponge there’d be a delicious creamy lemon sauce.

As the cook, I received two surprises! Firstly, the raw mixture is nothing like anything I’ve come across before and as I was combining the ingredients I was incredulous that this ‘slop’ could turn into a delicious dessert. I would surely need a miracle to deliver the final surprise but I kept my faith in the recipe!

The zesty wafts coming from the oven were encouraging. I was hopeful that we’d have a refreshing dessert to finish the meal. 

SURPRISE!

The surprise was jaw-dropping! Underneath the lemon scented curdled mess was a pool of lemon flavoured water. The pudding was an unmitigated disaster and it was time to raid the fridge for chocolate!

Disappointed and annoyed at the results, I questioned myself and the recipe. I’m not a regular pudding maker so perhaps it was my inexperience showing through? Had I mis-read something? Had I mixed the ingredients in the wrong way? No, I had followed the short and simple recipe to the letter.

A quick Google this morning to see if there was perhaps a typo in the recipe (15g of flour couldn’t be right?) led to this amusing Simply Clare blog post on the subject of lemon surprise pudding. I’m not alone. Her experience and those of the numerous people posting comments reflected my own. If only I’d found this before attempting the recipe!

There’s a lesson to be learnt from my homework. Breathing a new lease of life into old recipes so that we can continue to enjoy our culinary past for generations to come should be encouraged but it’s vitally important to thoroughly test a recipe before it’s published.  

Never one to be defeated, I’m going to try to rectify the recipe and return it’s true element of surprise. Until that time, lemon surprise pudding is a heritage recipe I won’t be passing onto my children and grandchildren!

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