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Ruby Tandoh: what it’s really like to write a cookbook

by Julia Pal

published on 5 September 2014

Ever since Ruby Tandoh delighted the TV-watching nation as a finalist on The Great British Bake Off, we’ve been in complete awe of her. The knowledge that she was taking part in such a tough contest while in her first year of a Philosophy and Art History degree made her feats of baking bravery all the more inspiring. In the time since, the pace hasn’t slowed for Ruby. She is now a popular weekly baking columnist for the Guardian and the author of the fabulous cookbook, Crumb. This delectable new collection of over 100 recipes bursts with joy and passion. As much as the recipes themselves – which surprise and thrill – it is Ruby’s writing that makes this book special. Her prose is delicate, understated and full of warmth, making Crumb a book to cherish, as well as an essential kitchen companion.

In an exclusive feature for The Happy Foodie, Ruby lifts the lid on the writing process, depicting it with her trademark honesty and wit. For anyone who harbours a dream to write their own book, this is an essential read; an eye-opening insight in to what it means to be an author.

When I first sat down to plan Crumb, I had a clear idea of what it was to be a food writer. I stocked up on the sort of flour that comes in thick brown paper bags, I lay three ink pens side by side on a clean desk. Sachets of vegetable seeds, fancifully named – Kelvedon Wonder, Radish Sparkler – fell through the letterbox along with heavy new cookery tomes, most of which still sit stiffly on my shelves, their spines not yet cracked.

Ruby Tandoh | Chef

The ink pens smudged, of course, under the drag of my left hand – words like ‘demerara’ and ‘whisk’ fractured across the edge of my palm. The seeds never were planted, and it wasn’t long before my tidy desk was swimming with papers, notes and scraps, which would, every now and again, cascade onto my bedroom floor.

For my delusions about food writing, I lay the blame at the feet of my favourite cookbook authors – Nigel Slater, Claudia Roden, Nigella Lawson. Their passages about a vegetable patch or a feast with friends are so vivid it is as if the food has marched straight off the table and into the rank and file of prose on the page. My own book proved very different.

I found myself using two sets of scales for each recipe, each time calibrating success in smaller and smaller increments, fussing over a few seconds in the oven or a drop of vanilla extract. A dull throb of paranoia pulsed through the days, from the electric buzz of the Sainsbury’s delivery man at the door each morning to the late night squeaks and scuffles of  mice, roused by the promise of darkness.

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Ruby Tandoh | Chef

And yet the process was surprisingly cathartic. What started as two hundred recipe ideas – scrawled in fat black marker, veering across margins and between lines – soon crystallised into dozens of recipe lists. As the weeks rolled by, these lists were truncated, the bin lid slammed down on evidence of a failed dessert and another idea boldly struck through in red. New pages of ideas – fewer this time – were stacked into a spreadsheet document.

Soon came the photoshoot, the recipes brought to life through the camera lens. I saw the things I’d fondly described – a shock of blackcurrant against custard, a pillowy brioche loaf – drawn into focus in joyous shades of magenta, ochre and gold. My editors raked tirelessly through the manuscripts, pinching out rogue apostrophes and plucking the key words into sharp relief. We bound the distillation of these momentous efforts in a cloth cover of muted teal.

Holding Crumb ceremoniously in my hands now (I must feel the weight of it to believe it’s real), I’m tremendously proud. And yet I can’t help feeling that the process isn’t quite finished. In people’s hands and in their homes, I hope that butter smears creep across Crumb’s pages, grains of sugar crackle in the binding and the cover is proudly decorated with daubs of crimson jam. After months of determined testing, tweaking and refinement, seeing my book being messily reclaimed by the kitchen might be the biggest thrill of all.

Crumb | Cookbook

Read our exclusive interview with Ruby earlier this year here.


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