As we're in last minute Christmas shopping territory today, I thought I'd share with you some of my absolute favourite cookbooks which I think would also make great gifts. Also, I hope this serves as a useful little guide to what to do with the inevitable Amazon vouchers you'll be receiving on the 25th. I thought long and hard about my selection, but ended up going with my instincts. There are many great books that are not on this list: Mary Berry's Ultimate Cake Book for example, which I learned to bake out of and usually give as a gift, and Florence Knight's One, one of my favourite new books of recent years.
Instead I just wondered the shelves, rifled through the kitchen and checked under my bed for the books I always seem to have to hand, pull out first when I want to look something up or find a recipe for a certain ingredient, and have very much become part of how I cook and eat at home.
Speaking of Amazon vouchers, I had some leftover from my 21st birthday spend on Leith's How To Cook (a great reference book in the kitchen I'll be sure to share with you once I've had a chance to use it a bit more) so I put out a shout out on Twitter for cookbook recommendations. I really wish I knew who it was who recommended The Flavour Thesaurus to me, because it has become my first (and usually only) point of reference when I'm trying to figure out flavour pairings. The book does have recipe suggestions, but honestly I grab it down from the shelf when I want to know what I can pair with things like cardamom in biscuits, or cinnamon in cocktails. One for the adventurous home cook, or for people like me who develop recipes as part of their job.
In my Los Angeles kitchen I only had three cookbooks. One of these, the book for everyday eats I got at Deb's book signing in Beverly Hills about two months after I moved to America. While I have so many general, everyday books I think this one has a special place in my heart because it is both so accessible, original (Deb told me that she'd tried to make the book full up of her own twists and updates on classics) and full of things that I really did cook everyday. I cooked out of this book at least once a fortnight for 8 months. I do not reach for any other book first when I'm trying to figure out what to make myself for supper.
The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook was my everyday dinner book when I lived in California. The totally wonderful and lovely Joy Wilson's debut book full of sweet treats was my baking book, which really taught me about American baking and really is what is responsible for my being able to pretty seamlessly go back and forth between both British and American recipe and baking. This book is an exciting modern classic, and a great gift for someone who wants to bake something different in the kitchen, or a Brit who wants to get into American baked goods; it is much more accessible for British techniques and ingredients than Joy's second (still brilliant) book, Homemade Decadence.
Really, I'm using The Kitchen Diaries volume I to demonstrate both volumes here. The Kitchen Diaries are the books I'd be sure to hand someone if they asked me about the type of cookbook I'd want to write. It has a story, and I read these volumes cover to cover. The writing is vibrant, comforting and enticing, and makes you want to cook the recipes in a far more compelling way than if each of the eats were accompanied with a glossy, Pinterest worthy food porn photograph. This is a book of skill, passion, but also shows that home cooking does not have to be difficult, fussy or perfect. It is not just a book about cooking, but also one about eating. And shouldn't that be the point? I received both of these volumes as a main Christmas present from my parents last year, and for me it was the most exciting literary present I'd received since my volumes of The Norton Anthology of English Literature. (I know. Deep down I am that geek who'd read Paradise Lost a whole year before I first did it at school, who reads Shakespeare on the tube and wrote my undergraduate dissertation on a terribly niche literary topic!)
Baking bread has always been one of my favourite things to do in the kitchen, so I've got quite a few bread books by all of the usual suspects. But since I was given The Great British Bake Off's James Morton's debut bread book by his publisher to review last year, I have simply not opened another. You can read my full review of the book here, but what I can tell you right now is it is the perfect bread book for everyone from total beginners to enthusiasts. The difficulty increases as you work through the book, and it is filled with no nonsense descriptions that explain everything, where some other books may assume foundation knowledge and leave you behind.
I love Nigella (who doesn't), but I have a particularly special place in my heart for her earlier books. Feast in my mind her greatest masterpiece, full of history, whimsey and the all important fantastic recipes. Feast is the book I turn to for celebration food; it is essentially my Christmas bible. I cook so many things from this volume every single December, and I look forward to the recipes gracing our table. I'm being pretty impatient, to be honest, for our ham to arrive so I can cook it in cherry coke with a lovely cherry jam and clove glaze from the volume. This is one for people who love to cook for other people, inviting them into their home for a feast.
While I have still not got my hands on Plenty More, I own Plenty and Jerusalem. I also have several fantastic other books on Middle Eastern food such as Honey & Co., and the unbeatable Book Of Jewish Food. However, the original Ottolenghi cookbook will always remain my favourite from all of these because of the sheer variety of recipes from one of my favourite London restaurants grace its pages; meat for a dinner party, colourful salads and the cakes from their famous window displays are all there. It is my first stop for entertaining, and something you need to buy for anyone who unbelievably does not own a copy yet.
As ever, I'd love to hear about some of your favourite cookbooks that you just could not live without. The ones that you would instinctively replace if your house were to burn down, the ones that you'd automatically notice are gone if they were to suddenly go missing from your shelves. I think a cooks all time favourite volumes tell a lot about them in the kitchen. My selections show that I value a good recipe that does not necessarily have to be complex to be impressive. It shows that I have no hesitation introducing new flavours and updates on the classics into my cooking, and most importantly (for me, anyway) I think good writing is just as important as good food in a book.