Miranda Gore Browne's passion for baking took her all the way to the final of series 1 of The Great British Bake Off. Now the author of two essential baking recipe books - Biscuit and Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can (out on 28th August 2014) - she is also the owner of an enviable collection of cookbooks. Here, she gives The Happy Foodie an exclusive tour...
Decisions, decisions, decisions…. which are my favourite cookbooks, and why? It really is little wonder I can’t decide, as I look at all the piles of cookbooks that are so plentiful in our hallway, utility room and kitchen. They are still in stacks, having been squirrelled away for months while we lived in a building site and renovated our house. One thing that is very clear is that we need more bookshelves – soon! Rediscovering all my cookbooks has been a merry reunion made even sweeter by our separation over the last year.
I will start with an apology to The Happy Foodie for taking so long to come back with my favourite cookbooks. I have, however, had the loveliest of times being reunited with old friends…dreaming of ‘diabolical roses’ after late nights re-reading Elizabeth David’s Italian Food, rediscovering my Padstow food journal and the menus from anniversary meals at Rick Stein’s Seafood Restaurant, sharing my grandmother’s handwritten recipe book with my children, and discovering recipe cuttings I thought I had lost, but which are tucked in the pages of other books. I have cooked recipes that I haven’t enjoyed for years, and all in all I’ve had a wonderful foodie adventure. It has really reminded me just how important all of these books are to me.
I have managed to clear a shelf in our utility room for a large number of cookbooks which are now lodging comfortably above my collection of mixers. My more honoured cookbook friends are roosting on a rather more luxurious shelf in my heavenly new kitchen. This is to be my "shelfie", and its occupants have been shuffled endlessly over the last month as I’ve tried to settle on which need to be with me in the kitchen at all times.
So, the books that have made it through the process are the ones that have shaped me most, have inspired me, have kept me company and have comforted and reassured me over the years.
The first books that encouraged me to bake and cook were not actually cookbooks; they were the storybooks of my childhood. The bedtime stories of Little Grey Rabbit and the birthday cake in a bee-hive at the bottom of her garden. The dresser piled with cakes and meringues as the Brambly Hedge mice prepared for a summer wedding. The beautiful illustrations by Shirley Hughes in the Lucy and Tom books. I was over-joyed to find Peter Rabbit’s Cookery Book in my stocking (when I was about six). On re-reading this, I recalled immediately having loved it so much, but being disappointed that it didn’t have more recipes for baking, or indeed for chocolate. I did, however, make a lot of Pig-wig ‘conversation peppermints’ (which I don’t think any of us really liked very much) and plenty of Mrs Rabbit’s currant buns!
My love of food and stories continued as I tried to replicate Swallows and Amazons picnics with sticky iced buns, and as I devoured the seasonal recipes in The Lark Rise Recipe book. The Cadbury’s Chocolate Cookbook quickly came to dominate my childhood baking with its fabulous 1970s photography that captured the taste of an era to perfection. At last, I had found a recipe book that would allow the sweet tooth of my chocolate passion a free rein. Packed with gloriously Wonka-like recipes from ‘Popper bars’ to ‘Frosted malted bars’, ‘Owl madeleines’ and ‘Chocolate concrete’, it was what I rushed home from school for. I made all of its sickly delights – many of them eaten straight from the pan. Some never even made it into the oven, and those that did filled the kitchen with a comforting chocolatey fug.
My cookery ‘coming of age’ came at Christmas 1989. With Delia holding my hand, I perfected choux pastry, chocolate mousse, tarts and bread - always quick to add my own twists and variations as I worked my way through her (Delia Smith’s) Complete Cookery Course. This is one of the few cookbooks that was squeezed into my rucksack and went with me to university as well. The pages are stained and marked, the loose cover long gone, and there are many cuttings and handwritten notes for recipes and cuttings stuffed between its utilitarian brown covers. Delia’s Summer, Winter and Christmas books joined me soon after, and nurtured my love of seasonal and celebratory baking (as did Nanette Newman’s Summer Cookbook).
In the late 1990s, I travelled to Vancouver to be my cousin’s bridesmaid, and after only a couple of days baking, sewing and arranging flowers I was renamed Martha for the rest of my stay. I brought home a stash of Martha Stewart magazines, signed up for Jane Packer floristry courses, walked wistfully around cook shops and cake shops during my work lunch-break in London. I collected biscuit-cutters, baked endlessly and made foodie presents tied with ribbons from my ever-growing collection. My first Martha Stewart book was Good Things and this still remains a much-loved favourite. Her Baking Handbook and Wedding Cakes (not shown on photo as it is too large for this particular shelf) also make it onto my kitchen shelf and are truly inspiring. In Martha Stewart, I had discovered someone who loved all the things I loved doing – decorating cakes and biscuits, cooking for friends, crystallising flowers, and for the first time I felt it was ok to celebrate all these things I loved. Perhaps, just perhaps, I could dream that they might become my life.
Living by some gorgeous allotments in our first house together in London, my husband and I transformed our 12-feet square paved garden into a tiny productive plot (the allotment waiting list was years long). Fork to Fork by Monty and Sarah Don made me even more determined one day to live in the country, but in the meantime we grew our own rhubarb to make chutney and endless puddings and tarts, and we planted an olive tree and a pear. When we ran away to our tiny Sussex village, Annie Bell’s Vegetable Book gave us an endless repertoire of recipes for every vegetable we could grow or find. I began to apply this same theory of cooking and baking to all types of seasonal produce, voraciously exploring different ways to bake and cook plums, blackberries and cobnuts and any produce I could lay my hands on.
When Jamie Oliver bounced onto our TV screens, I was addicted instantly to his energetic style and his simple heartfelt cooking. This was just how I felt about food and exactly how I loved to cook and bake, with friends and family in the kitchen laughing and chatting and loving cooking and eating together. My brother was working as a manager at Waterstone's when Jamie was on one of his first book signings. He met Jamie and asked him to sign me a copy of The Naked Chef. I cherish his message on the inside cover.
I love Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat for its innovative, yet logical, content - packed with ideas for a spring lunch or autumn supper. It helped me to refine my own recipe journals, and I have a record of all the menus I cooked for friends and events during this time. Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess also joins the select bunch on my shelfie.
After years as a food buyer at Marks & Spencer, travelling with product developers and visiting amazing restaurants, my obsession with taste and flavour was fuelled by the gift of The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. If I were to have to choose my desert island cookbook, I think this would have to be it. It’s a book that lets your taste buds dream, and which can be read like a novel…but only with a sturdy pencil and pad to hand, because it entices me to make endless lists of recipe ideas, places to visit and food to buy, taste or try.
Another thing that inspires me to travel, to try new things and to recreate them at home is the wonderful writing in Amaretto, Apple Cake & Artichokes by Anna del Conte. For me, food is about creating memories, and just reading the title convinced me it would do that. My mother–in-law was a neighbour of Anna in London and was lucky enough to be able to enjoy her real cooking and talk to her about her love of food and writing.
Nigel Slater’s 30-Minute Cook has been a stalwart friend during long years of juggling working long hours and the demands on my time made by sleepless children. In my weariest of hours, I have opened the door of a near empty fridge and grabbed my well-thumbed copy from the shelf to make a quick and reassuringly good meal. Thank you Nigel for being there! Toast should also be on my kitchen shelf, but I think someone must have borrowed it (and I suppose it is not officially a cookbook!)
Here, then, is my cookbook shelfie, with all of the above, and some significant others listed below.
Significant others on my bookshelf:
Twelve – A Tuscan Cookbook – Tessa Kiros
Falling Cloudberries – Tessa Kiros
The Great British Book of Baking – contains my first published recipes from The Great British Bake Off
Crust – Richard Bertinet
My Grandmother’s recipe book – 1935
My recipe journals – full of cuttings and handwritten recipe collection
My books – Biscuit; Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can!
Thank you for letting me share my ‘shelfie’ with you,
Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can by Miranda Gore Browne is published on 28th August 2014. Her indispensable first baking book, Biscuit, is out now.