13 December 2008

On My Rickety Shelves: Nigella Christmas

Thanks to the lovely people at Random House Canada, a copy of this month's cookbook selection was delivered to my kitchen.

Nigella Christmas: food, family, friends, festivities
By Nigella Lawson
Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Canada
288 pages; $50

Christmas does strange and occasionally deluded things to people. Overcome with seasonal cheer, nostalgic traipses to family dinners which may or may not have actually happened, or simply psychic pressures for those who need a GPS to find their kitchens to become instantaneous domestic goddesses (or gods) sees many people planning grand yet intimate entertaining. Booksellers line windows with covers featuring beautifully simple yet ornate tables complete with celebrity authors with whiter than white teeth bared in a welcoming grin that exudes “There’s no way you can mimic in a few hours what the small militia of cooks, stylists and other sorts take weeks or months to do…but I’ll let you believe you can…” Television specials are little better: perfectly coiffed, presenters with nary a drop of exertion or stress-induced dew punctuates the ease in which Stepford homemakers can pull together a perfect Christmas for the perfect set of family and friends.

Perfection is never my goal. Deliciousness is. Mind you…when others seem to push their culinary envelope, I’m more than content to fall into familiar routines. Don’t get me wrong. I love my November-December foodish rituals: fruitcakes and sticky toffee puds, dozens upon dozens of cookies, turkey with the trimmings…cognac. There’s a sense of comfort in doing the same old-same old. But at the same time there’s a part of me that searches for something new or, at the very least, a new-to-me way to prepare something not so new…that doesn’t eat up the last remaining moments of a far-too-crammed schedule.

Nigella Lawson’s latest recipe collection, Nigella Christmas: food, family, friends, festivities, promises readers practical, no-nonsense holiday inspiration. A companion tome to her 2007 three episode Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen, Lawson provides additional recipes and advice to those hoping for entertaining that can run from elegant to homey.

The book itself is what I’ve come to expect from a post How To Be A Domestic Goddess Lawson: gorgeous, glossy with La Lawson herself as the ultimate bit of food porn, tucked between sparkly-topped biscuits, glistening and glazed cocktail sausages, and juicily studded gammon. Recipes are divided into nine sections, each focussing on a different part of cheery holiday entertaining, including suggestions for “mass catering” and not-so mass catering for cocktail parties, side dishes friendly suppers, Christmas baking edible gifts, pages on both the main holiday meal along with a Christmas brunch, hot drinks and, as is her way, foods to combat the season of overindulgence. Heck. She even offers a stress-relieving Christmas rota to help plan the big day.

For me, Lawson’s lure is her words. My goodness, she’s not afraid to use her vocabulary…nor does she seem overly concerned with dumbing herself down for the masses—where else, in modern writing, would one read
“So the following, I hope, will allow the abstemious to raise a garish glass
with the rest of us.”
Her turns of phrase are voiced with experience, practicality and an honesty that never seems forced or contrived. One of my favourite lines is about the Tiramisu Layer Cake (p93):
“I wish I were the sort of person who could make enough but no more, but that’s
never going to be the case: when I made this for my brother’s birthday, he came
back round for a couple slices the next day. And that’s the way I like it.”

The recipes are trademark Lawson: practical, delicious and rooted in tradition but updated to modern flavours and tastes. For example her “luscious dinner for 6-8” (p70) features a lamb and date tagine, red onion and pomegranate relish with gleaming maple cheesecake for dessert. No, in this case it’s not everyday food, but it’s warm and hearty food to be shared with friends. Each recipe is easily followed and has make-ahead or freeze-ahead tips within the margin. Most, if not all, are photographed. Most of the recipes serve at least six people, with relatively few for smaller groups of diners.

One thing I was quite concerned about prior to receiving the book was North American publisher’s preoccupation with translating weights into volumes—grams of flour to cups of flour. Rarely, in my experience, are the Americanised instructions as accurate as the original (and dare I venture a guess that there are problems when going the other way ’round); mentions of problems in her earlier tomes are scattered far and wide throughout the blogosphere. Thank goodness the good people at Random House Canada did not winkle away at the original text. As far as I can tell everything is left in its original English. Yes this may pose problems for some, but really…all you need to do is buy a scale (mine’s from Canadian Tire) and look up the Centigrade to Fahrenheit conversion.

All that said, the value of a cookbook is in the cooking. Wherever possible, I scaled down the recipe to serve four or so people.

Cuban Cure Black Bean Soup (p264)
This is what I call a “pantry soup”—pretty much everything can be procured from a tin (okay, not the sausage, herbs or onions, but still) and combined into something quite tasty. This is my new favourite soup—spicy, hearty and a flavourful broth.

Potato, Parsnip and Porcini Gratin (p64)
Loved the smokiness and sweetness from the star anise and parsnips. The only thing I didn’t like was how the fat separated from the cream, leaving a bit of an oil slick. I’d probably increase the amount of milk while decreasing the cream.

Rolled stuffed loin of pork (p 158)
My friend called this pork-stuffed pork, wrapped in pork, which is an incredibly accurate description. A great balance between sweet and salty and very, very easy to make. Chose to forego the ruby sauce...wasn't in a saucy mood.

Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake (p180)
As its title beckons, it is incredibly easy to make. I’ve made it for our Christmas pudding so I can’t say how it will taste…but it’s bound to be moist—not for its regular boozification, but for the chopped prunes.

Truth be told, I’m usually sceptical about holiday cookbooks—they overpromise on dreams and underdeliver on ease. Not Nigella Christmas. Her home-friendly recipes and guidelines make this book extremely easy to use…at Christmas and whenever you need to cook a special meal for family or friends.

So how does it rate?
Overall: 4.5/5
The breakdown:
Recipe Selection: 4/5
Writing: 5/5
Ease of use: 4.5/5
Yum factor: 4.5/5
Table-top test: Lies flat

Kitchen comfort-level: Intermediate
Pro: Gorgeous words that accompany easy and delicious recipes
Con: This is crowd cooking—not many options for intimate entertaining


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lisi said...

thank you for posting! i am cuban, and will enjoy trying the cuban black bean sopa!! woohoo!

K and S said...

everything looks great!

NKP said...

I got this book as soon as it came out. I was surprised to see it released here in Canada before the States. It really is a lovely book, and I like how it lays flat for cooking.
You write excellent reviews, I love that you have made 3-4 things from a book before reviewing it. I would always be confident in your opinion.
I agree, the purchase of a digital kitchen scale opens one up to a lot of great food writing. And Nigella truly is entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, the old metric/imperial measure difficulty. The irony is that Canada went metric in 1979 and yet you still have to worry about converting Centigrade to Farenheit and grams into cups. I have found a solution of my own. I have a complete set of measuring cups and spoons that I bought during one of my visits home and a digital scale, so I can happily follow the original recipe no matter how it's written!

Nicola said...

This was actually on TV here in the UK last night, and she made the tagine which I have to say looked really good. I also had a problem with weights, not with this book obviously, but a lot of the recipes on the internet and on people's blogs are in American measurements and I really don't trust the conversion things on various websites, I had a disaster with making bread once, so I invested in some cups and a digital scales and it all workas perfectly!

Unknown said...

Nice to hear that they left out the translation this time as that has been a big factor in my not buying one of her books.