IT’S been a good year for home-cooks, armchair travellers, and anyone who feels the need for speed. But the really big story this Christmas is good old-fashioned baking – and about time too, what with all the fluff and foam on even the most modest restaurant menu.
Which is why Linda Collister’s The Great British Bake Off (BBC, £20) is selling like hot cakes to first-time bakers anxious to whisk up a Victoria sponge. And also why the great Mary Berry’s Baking Bible tops the wish-list of my ten-year-old grandson who’s been glued to the series throughout. From cake-baking it’s a short step to bread-making – good reason to expand your household’s horizons with Californian master-baker Suzanne Dunaway’s revolutionary No Need to Knead (Grub Street £18.99): how to bake artisan breads – ciabatta, foccacia, baguette – in 90 minutes flat.
Getting good food on the table fast is the selling point for both Jamie and Nigella. In Nigellissima (Chatto, £26), the famously slimmed-down domestic goddess delivers instant Italian gratification with pasta, pizza and a finger-licking chestnut ice-cream. In Jamie’s 15 Minute Meals (Michael Joseph, £26), the tousle-haired campaigner delivers by reducing prep-time through shortcuts such as emptied-out sausages and ready-cooked rice: great recipes, gorgeous pics, as always. Speed of delivery comes from method rather than menu in Catherine Phipps’ Pressure Cooker Cookbook (Ebury, £18.99): pot-roast chicken with lemon-thyme stuffing is ready in 20 minutes, oxtail’s done in 45 and Boston baked beans takes less than 30, and the good news is that the new pressure-cookers are non-exploding.
On a more thoughtful note, Hugh F-W calms things down with Three Good Things on a Plate (Bloomsbury, £25): basic combinations of stand-alone ingredients that look as good as they taste. Meanwhile, in Consider the Fork (Particular Books, £20), Bee Wilson digs deep into how we come to be who we are, anthropologically speaking, by examining the consequences of human ingenuity as applied to eating-habits: “There’s just as much invention in a nutcracker,” she observes, “as in a bullet.” Original insights abound: who would have thought our overhanging bite – a characteristic not shared with apes – could have been an evolutionary response to the development of eating tools? It’s all here, from bison boiled in its jacket to 48-hour poaching sous-vide (not so very different, after all).
Armchair travellers will savour the first serious cookbook on the gastronomy of what’s now known as Myanmar. In Burma (Artisan, £25) Naomi Duguid delivers a vivid exploration of a land and people at the crossroads of India, South-east Asia and China, emerging into the light of semi-democratic day. Anyone for rice-noodle soup with river-fish and banana stem? Or you might prefer deep-forest monklets’ sticky rice cakes. Fear not: ingredient alternatives are provided along with informative recipe-shots and the author’s own evocative photos of place and people.
Revisit one of the world’s great cuisines with Paula Wolfert’s The Food of Morocco (Bloomsbury, £35). It’s been 50 years since the author first set foot as a young hippy in the rackety city of Tangier, made her way to the medina and found herself “seduced by the aroma of chickpea flour being slowly baked with olive oil and eggs to make a glistening flan in a wood-fired oven”. Fabulous pics and authentic recipes include the proper method for preparing couscous and a step-by-step guide to the preparation of ouaka, a filo-like pastry made by dabbing a dough-ball onto a hot bakestone.
Also in Mediterranean mode is Nur Ilkin and Sheilah Kaufman’s Turkish Cookbook (Grub Street, £25): stories by a Turkish ambassador’s wife and authentic regional recipes, many of them vegetarian: unusual offerings include green lentil pies made with a milk-and-butter pastry and potato-stuffed boereks with sesame seeds.
Nearer to home, Caroline Conran’s Sud de France (Prospect, £20) was 40 years in the making, beautiful black-and-white drawings by the author, a labour of love – this is the only insider-guide you’ll ever need to the Languedoc, a region that shares much with Provence but even more with Catalunia. Regional recipes and their stories include snails roasted over vine twigs, the mighty cassoulet, how to pot up the foie-gras goose and the activity known as la cueillette, the gathering of edible plants in the countryside in spring, complete with plant glossary in Latin, French and English. Wrap it up in Christmas paper and hide it in the bedside cupboard.
Practical cooks will find plenty to inspire in Tom Kitchin’s Kitchin Suppers (Quadrille, £20): Edinburgh’s own Michelin-starred chef delivers real home-cooking such as chicken soup with veg – my kind of table talk – rather than adapted restaurant-recipes. Joanna Weinberg’s Cooking for Real Life (Bloomsbury, £25) follows a similar line: Treats for two includes spaghetti with crab and chilli. Weekend cooking has venison slow-cooked with beetroot.
In Salt Sugar Smoke (Mitchell Beazley, £20), Diana Henry re-writes the rules on preserving fruit, vegetables, meat and fish without the need for 50 shades of additive – start saving your jars and bottles. Michael Raffael’s Messy Cook, (Prospect, £18) practises what he preaches: good cooking should be a matter of habit rather than a hobby for showing off at dinner-parties – and his brioche-and-butter pudding is sensational. Molecular gastronomists, on the other hand, won’t be able to live without Nathan Myhrvald’s Modernist Cuisine at Home (The Cooking Lab, £100): the domestic low-down on emuslifiers, enzymes and how to freeze ice cream in a puff of smoke. Give it to the geek in your life and hide under the table till they sound the all-clear.
Stocking-stuffer of the year is Mary Contini’s neat little pocket-book, The Italian Sausage Bible (Birlinn, £5.99): how to tell your bologna from your mortadella, the Italian version of pigs-in-blankets. Non-carnivores can pig out with Zuppe (Frances Lincoln, £9.99), hearty soups in the cucina povera tradition by the American Academy in Rome’s resident spud-basher Mona Talbott, graduate of Alice Water’s Chez Panisse. Foodie fashionistas can keep up with the New York Joneses with a subscription to cooking quarterly Lucky Peach, offspring of Momofuku, Manhattan’s Modernist-Korean noodle-bar (as if you didn’t know): contributors include Harold McGee and Anthony Bourdain and early editions are already collectors’ items. You can order this from store.mcsweeneys.net
• Elisabeth Luard’s three memoirs-with-recipes, Family Life, Still Life and My Life as a Wife are out again in paperback from Bloomsbury in April 2013.