Having decided to add cookbook reviews to the blog, I’ve been pondering where to start. I have a big stack of recently released cookbooks perched on my desk and scattered around the house, some of them by Canadian food bloggers that I actually know, and any of them would have been a fine candidate for the inaugural review. But then I realized that when I was putting together my recent brunch menu I turned to an old favourite recipe from a cookbook that’s been like a friend for 14 years now: Apple and Blackberry Kuchen from Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson. It seemed only fitting to start with this book.
I received Nigella Bites as a Christmas gift in 2001 with the inscription ‘happy cooking,’ and that’s what I’ve been doing with it ever since. At the time, I was intoxicated by the author’s food show on the FoodTV network. Her approach to food was lush and sensuous, and her pleasure in eating seemed almost carnal at times. The name ‘Nigella Lawson’ and the phrase ‘food porn’ have been practically synonymous for good reason. But going beyond that, her recipes were exotic and she taught me to look at and appreciate food in new ways. I devoured her book How to Eat, and How To Be a Domestic Goddess still has a prominent place on my bookshelf. Somewhere along the way I became less enamoured of her newer television shows and I haven’t bought any more of her books. Having said that, I think I’ll borrow one or two from the library to see if there are any I’d like to add to my personal collection.
Cookbook Collecting Tip: Cookbooks can be a big investment of your book-buying dollars, so borrowing one from the library to read and work from for a couple of weeks is a good way to assess if it merits a place in your collection.
Nigella Bites is an all-purpose cookbook, with a mix of recipes for all meals, desserts and more. Although it was published in 2001, it’s still current today with its globally-inspired cuisine. For example, there are dishes inspired by the cuisines of India, South Asia, the Middle East, regions of Europe, Jewish culture and even the US South in a chapter called “Trashy,” which she explains as ‘a bit of kitsch in the kitchen.’ This anti-food snob chapter includes Elvis Presley’s Fried Peanut-Butter and Banana Sandwich. Due to lingering memories of a most unfortunate encounter with a peanut butter and banana sandwich as a child, I choose to end my days without trying this recipe, but there it is for those of you who have no such aversion.
Recipes I’ve Made
I just flipped through Nigella Bites again and see that I’ve made quite a few of the recipes from it. In fact there are some I’ve made over and over, which is just about the best endorsement of a cookbook I can think of.
- The Chocolate Cloud Cake has been my signature dessert since the first time I made it. No exaggeration: people rave about this cake. I made it so frequently — often by request — that for a few years I boycotted it, so to speak, because I didn’t want to be a one-trick dessert pony.
- I made the Bitter Orange Ice Cream (no churning required) for company once and it went over well. The texture is different from a traditional churned ice cream, but it’s super easy to make and as I’m writing this I’m wondering why I haven’t made it again.
- The Chick Peas with Chilli, Garlic and Thyme has been a popular dish with family and friends over the years. The recipe calls for soaking dried chickpeas but I’ve only made it using canned (which I saw her do on her television show) to add speediness as another virtue of the dish.
- And, oh, the Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad. This is so, so good. I’ve made it for girlfriend gatherings and just for myself. As I look at the recipe — with handwritten notes on it and a spattering of something speaking to its frequent use — I know I’ll be running out soon to get the ingredients to make it again.
- In the interest of full disclosure, there’s one recipe I tried that was a fail of epic proportions: the Thai Yellow Pumpkin and Seafood Curry. I’d seen Nigella Lawson make it on her television show, and I lingered over the recipe many times before trying it. It looked and sounded delicious. I don’t know what I did wrong, or if it just wasn’t the dish for me. Let me just say that my children literally ran from the room when they saw it, my then-husband who normally ate everything only had a few bites, and I couldn’t even force it down. And yet, when I look at the recipe again today, it sounds like it should work. Perhaps my palate has caught up, but I likely won’t be trying this one again.
- On the other hand, I’m pleased to report that I found the Hot and Sour Soup from the ‘Temple Food’ chapter as restorative and delicious as promised.
Featured Recipe: Apple and Blackberry Kuchen
And finally, that Apple and Blackberry Kuchen recipe. From the first time I saw it, I knew I wanted to make it: a sweet yeast dough, spread with a creamy topping, bedecked with luscious fresh fruit and then a decadent crumb sprinkling. It’s never failed to impress. I’ve made it several times for special occasions, whether a Christmas brunch, for company, or just for me when I wanted to treat myself royally.
When I made it a couple of weeks ago, I made a few tweaks, the main one being making more of the creamy topping for the base and adding sour cream to it. Of course, you can always play around with the fruits. This is an excellent recipe for frozen fruit — especially out of season there’s no sense using more expensive fresh fruit when it’s going to be baked — and I’ve usually used a mixed berry blend plus the sliced apples. If you would like to try it, you can find the original recipe here with metric and weight measurements. If you’d like an Imperial version, click here.
Recipes I’d Like to Try
Browsing through the book again for the first time in two or three years, I see so many more recipes I’d like to try. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never made all the recipes from a single cookbook, à la Julie Powell and Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Here are a few on my list:
- Watermelon Dacquiri
- Chocolate Fudge Cake
- Chocolate Pots
Hmm, I see a rather decadent theme here, but why not?
For me, the best cookbooks are successful on two counts. First of all, they’re a good read. The header notes tell a story, the recipes catch my interest and spark my imagination, and the photographs are enticing. Secondly, the recipes work. Nigella Bites succeeds on both scores, and I recommend it as a worthy addition to anyone’s cookbook collection.
Nigella Bites by Nigella Lawson
First published in 2001 by Chatto & Windus
Hardcover, 244 pages
Since this is an older book, you may not find it in your local bookstore, but I’ve seen it offered online.