If you pick up a cookbook in my house, you’ll find many recipes dog-eared or marked with a Post-It. A recipe that turns out well will always be dog-eared, with worn margins: smudges of chocolate, a dusting of flour, translucent dots where melted butter has splattered onto the page. And then there are recipes which have been thumbed through merely because I love reading them, over and over again.
Yes, you can absolutely read a recipe for pleasure. It is rather like reading a story, as described in this piece in the New Yorker, which is what inspired me to write this post. Fiction is described as the “narration of imaginary events,” and a recipe is a narration of little tasks that culminate in a dish on the table. There certainly is a fiction-like quality to it; except instead of characters and plotlines there are ingredients and steps. You don’t form an image of the protagonist on our head…instead, you imagine the ingredients in your hand; you picture the concoction bubbling away on the stove; the flour disappearing into the butter and eggs, the soft plop of the cake batter as you spoon it into a loaf tin. Then you see yourself tap it against the counter, twice. Just to make sure it’s evenly spread out.
I love the rhythm. I love reading descriptions of how a dish is taking shape. How a cake should look when it’s done, even if it’s just the plain old instructional of “the cake is done when it’s golden brown on top or when a skewer inserted comes out clean.”
I’m also a big headnote fan. I rarely buy a cookbook without headnotes. I somehow feel cheated. The title of the recipe followed by an ingredient list below feels…impersonal. Like the author doesn’t have anything to say. Like they’re just putting it out there, the rest is up to you, good luck!
Some readers prefer getting straight to the recipe, but I enjoy a backstory. I enjoy knowing what inspired the recipe. When the author first made it or ate it. What makes the recipe different, something that went wrong when the author first tried it, a note on an unusual ingredient. Just to let us know that they’ve got our backs, you know?
I don’t own any of her books, but I believe Dorie Greenspan writes wonderful headnotes, as does Melissa Clark. I own Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and her headnotes, while not anecdotal in nature, act as a guide- written in the voice of a teacher who is there to make you learn, and learn the right way. David Lebovitz’s recipe headnotes from The Sweet Life In Paris all have a fun story, plus a good where-to-eat recommendation or how-to-make tip. Amanda Hesser, in Cooking For Mr Latte, gives the reader some information on the source, some instructions on how to make the recipe better and what to avoid. Since it is a memoir with recipes, the storytelling is done in the chapter itself, like so:
Felicity Cloake in her book, Perfect, gives a long, detailed introduction rather than a headnote. The book is inspired by her “How To Make” column in The Guardian, so the notes preceding the recipe are observations, tips and tricks about what brought her to the ‘perfect’ recipe she is sharing.
Closer to home, Ritu Dalmia’s headnotes, too are a pleasure to read. A little history, a bit about the friend whose recipe it is, a trip she took when she first ate or cooked the dish- fun banter that keeps you engaged. Pooja Dhingra’s headnotes, while pithier, also give the reader a peek into the soul of the recipe, and what inspired it.
From Ritu Dalmia’s Diva Green
Which brings me, finally, to the recipe writer I want to talk about today: Nigella Lawson. (I know I’ve been trolling on about her a lot!) I find her headnotes quite delightful. They range anywhere between 3 lines to half the page! But I love her little notes. The inspiration behind the recipe and the sugary language. And I like the fact that she continues the conversation in the recipe, too, when she’s giving directions on how to make it.
Maybe it’s the fact that she is a home-cook, rather than a professional chef. The instructions are descriptive, yet light-hearted, coming from someone who understands the limitations of a simple home kitchen. Take, for example, this paragraph from her recipe for Turkish Delight Syllabub (pg 207) from Nigella Bites:
“Combine the Cointreau, lemon juice and sugar in a large bowl (I use the bowl of my KitchenAid mixer) and stir to dissolve the sugar, or as good as. Slowly stir in the cream then get whisking. As I said, I use my freestanding mixer for this, but if you haven’t got one, don’t worry- but I would then advise a hand-held electric mixer. This takes ages to thicken and doing it by hand will drive you demented with tedium and impatience. Or it would me.”
This is someone who understands that not everyone has a KitchenAid. Someone who makes the recipe more fun than just “In the bowl of a freestanding mixer or using a hand-held electric mixer, whisk A, B & C till stiff peaks form.” That’s the kind of line one would tend to take for granted and just skim over.
It’s a similar conversational tone that drew me to her Gateau Breton in How To Be A Domestic Goddess. In it, she describes the lattice design one has to make with the tines of a fork on the surface of the cake before it’s put in the oven.
“For reasons I am not technically proficient to explain, sometimes the tine marks leave a firm, striated imprint (a bit like the lines which drive Gregory Peck mad in Spellbound); at others, as with the cake in the picture, they barely show once the cake is cooked.”
A recipe and a Hitchcock reference: how many cooks do that? And as someone with a love for Hitchcock, I had to bake it. I had limited egg yolks, so I halved the recipe and made a mini version instead, baked in little tart moulds. I went out and bought the best best butter I could get my hands on, since the recipe calls for it. I went ahead and splurged on President butter. But it was so, so worth it! The texture really is like a cross between shortbread and pound cake: dense and crumbly at the same time.
NIGELLA LAWSON’S GATEAU BRETON (From How To Be A Domestic Goddess)
For The Cake
- 225 g plain flour
- 250 g castor sugar
- 250 g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
- 6 large egg yolks
For The Glaze
- 1 teaspoon of egg yolk from the 6 eggs yolks
- 1 tablespoon water
- Preheat the oven to 190 C
- Butter a 25 cm round cake tin/Springform tin and keep aside
- Seive the flour into a large bowl, stir in the sugar and once those are well combined, add the butter and egg yolks.
- Using the dough hook attachment of your handheld mixer/standing mixer, slowly mix until you have a smooth golden dough. This can also be done by hand- combine the dry ingredients, make a well in the center, add the yolks + butter and knead into a smooth golden dough on a floured surface.
- The dough will be quite sticky. Scoop it into the tin, dust your fingers with flour, then smooth out the dough with your fingers so it’s spread evenly.
- Brush the dough with the water+yolk glaze, then make a lattice design using the prongs of a fork.
- Bake at 190 C for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180 C and bake for 20-25 mins more or until the top is golden and firm to touch.
- Cool completely, cut and serve.