We are all guilty of falling back on a very small number of everyday recipes. We’ve memorised their ingredients; shopping for them is a thoughtless task. And so is eating them, whether we do that once a fortnight or, confess it, several times a week. They are the culinary equivalent of a favourite cashmere jumper – not quite worn-out, you pull it on and immediately feel cosy while acknowledging, with a hint of embarrassment, you wouldn’t want to be seen wearing it. Similarly, your throw-together stir-fry, risotto or pasta dish are fine for you but they wouldn’t pass any social expectations.
Despite yards of shelves bowed under the weight of cookery books, you seldom look through them to find something new just for yourself. Deciding what to cook when friends are coming round, well that merits sitting down with a glass of wine and pondering. That’s living to eat. But eating to live? Opting quickly for easy familiarity is what we all seem to do.
Unless, I suspect, you already have a copy of Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook. First published in 1995, over 880,000 copies have been sold and this, its third, edition, is already being reprinted. It’s a classic and, with 1,000 recipes it’s hard to see how any of us could justify eating the same dish week in and week out.
I confess to thinking it looked a little dull. Despite being re-photographed, some of the pictures have a distinctly retro look. Was it a trifle old-fashioned? And then I started on it in earnest. An hour later I put it down, not even a third of the way through, having noted over 30 recipes to try straight away.
This is a cosy fireside of a book. There’s no memoir, no showing off, no attention-seeking. It isn’t challenging or competitive; it makes light work where others demand toil. It assumes knowledge of techniques within each recipe – because each chapter includes a know-how section. You can skip it if you know-it-all, or become confident and assured. It’s as valuable to a first time cook as it is to the experienced.
It shows you how to scramble an egg, make your own pasta, carve a joint on the bone, prepare a lobster and, yes, bake bread. Every recipe is in easy to follow steps (the most, I noted, was seven; this is a very clever book indeed). Of course there are some recipes from yesteryear – it covers 20 years of classic world cooking. Baked Alaska deserves a place just as much as bang up-to-date pink almond macaroons.
All chapters start with a double page spread of recipes based on how long it takes to make each dish. Got up to 45 minutes? An hour? Longer? In the fish chapter, among those timed options are: cod steaks with anchovy and fennel; spiced monkfish with coconut; halibut in filo parcels. And very delicious indeed was the cod (here’s the recipe). And all explained without a thumping ‘Done” or a cheeky ‘Lovely jubbly”.
Already have an earlier edition? This one brings new recipes and adaptations to meet modern tastes. Way back then when the first edition came out, decorative vegetable rosettes were a near-ubiquitous garnish. Gone. Plates were heavily patterned. Gone. This new edition reflects our preference for less fuss.
With the current trend for quirky cookery books offering an esoteric range of recipes from celebrity chefs, restaurateurs and bloggers, Mary Berry’s Complete Cookbook plays the role of wise mother to their naughty children. It won’t set you up as a here today, gone tomorrow pop-up or supper club host but it will make your home-cooking repertoire much more varied – and your life a lot easier.