Today started simply enough: Take something with us visiting friends for afternoon tea.
I have a rhubarb plant in the garden that was ready to be harvested, so that was an easy choice. I started looking through some of my cookbooks for inspiration.
I found something promising – rhubarb yeast cake – in Stephanie Alexander’s original The Cook’s Companion. It’s a well-worn old-favourite cookbook, battered and splattered with bits of sauces and spills.
For various reasons I don’t use it so much any more, but it is on the list of those I trust implicitly. And there are increasingly few of those. There are a lot of glossy cookbooks out there, by some pretty high profile chefs, but I’ve found quite a few to be more gloss and pretty pictures than substance.
Some of the recipes I’ve tried from those shiny books have been so full of mistakes I ended up having to guess. I can’t believe the chef concerned actually bothered to check them over before publishing. So long as those pretty pictures were perfect, that seemed to be enough. Maybe they don’t expect anyone to actually cook from these books, or maybe they’re too famous for such mundane details as making sure a recipe works.
The result is I approach celebrity chef recipes with caution – go right through them first to see where the logic fails, and then adapt as necessary. Treat them as an inspiration rather than a concrete recipe.
But there are those I trust. I’ve cooked my way through Greg and Lucy Malouf’s Turquoise (Turkish) and Saraban (Persian/Iranian) and they are uniformly magnificent. I know if I follow it properly, each recipe will work. I like trying something properly first to see what the intention is and then playing with it to see what happens.
Maggie Beer, too, is completely reliable. Madhur Jaffrey is a favourite, and so is a newcomer to my kitchen, Yotam Ottolenghi. With those I’ll launch straight in and trust that they’ll work. (Which isn’t always a good idea. I started on a Maggie recipe one morning – the quickest skim of the recipe I’d done encouraged me to start early. When I actually read it in detail, I discovered it required 3 days. Still, that was my fault.)
But today is the first time a recipe of Stephanie Alexander’s has collapsed on me. I still feel a bit shocked and betrayed, but I guess in a book with that many recipes one or two are bound to be flawed.
First: the mix was supposed to create a smooth dough, but what I had was pretty sloppy. I added more flour until it was at least capable of holding together.
Then came the assembly instructions: roll dough out to a 16cm square. That’s a pretty small square. And in the middle third of that square, I was supposed to put 500g – half a kilo – of blanched, chopped rhubarb and some added raisins, walnuts and sugar. The filling volume was twice that of the whole cake dough.
I didn’t have time to start again with more dough, so I decided to persist and see if maybe some magic happened along the way. I rolled the dough out to a 30cm square, which was too thin but at least it was big enough to just hold the rhubarb. I was supposed to cut the dough (with scissors) and fold over the edges, but the dough was still too soft and it just broke.
The result is distinctly disappointing, and nothing like what I was expecting. I’m not including the recipe, since there’s no point. I’ll try again at some stage, adapting to take into account what didn’t quite work.
But I do think it could be quite nice with ice cream.