- Food & Drink
Of all the vices that spatter my soul, like toothpaste across a mirror, buying secondhand cookbooks is the one I find the hardest to give up. It might not seem that terrible a habit to you. Noble even – the pursuit of knowledge and social good at a price I can afford. But if you’d ever had to troop from Oxfam to Save The Children to Scope with me and wait by the china dogs and the vinyls while I indulge my bibliophilic lusts, then you’d know there is nothing innocent about my cookery book collecting.
Whenever I see a charity shop or jumble sale, the urge to go in and root through the musty biographies and the beach reads hits me like a hunger. The prospect of getting my hands on the perfect cookbook lights up my pleasure centres, and I’m through the door and throwing old ladies out of the way before you can say: “Are you sure you’ve got the shelf space for all that?”
The cookbook that I’m after – my favourite kind, my ultimate high – has a mahogany sideboard on its cover that’s laid with a candelabra, a fruit-filled horn of plenty, crystal glasses and a meal so brown it looks like edible depression.
I’ve found many treasures of this kind over the past few years. Immediately afterwards I hug them to my heart, rustle through the pages and boggle at the recipes. But the joy doesn’t last. The jolly fonts, the dimly lit photos, the novel use of pineapple – they can only sate for so long. And like a junkie jonesing for heroin or a dieter dribbling for cake, I’m back out on the streets and searching for more tomes from the 20th century.
My friend Bellerina has a particularly good eye for secondhand cookbooks and, knowing my predilections, she hunts them out for my birthday and Christmas. Thanks to her I own Papino Papaws Please!, a 1972 celebration of “the neglected poor relation of sub tropical fruits”, which has recipes for Pawpaw cream cheese surprise, Beachcomber’s mousse and Dreamy marshmallow quickie.
I also I owe her for European Kitchen by Marie Merrington (the Gay Gourmet), a 1974 tour of the continent that takes in Tunny fish creams (Greece, of course), Lamb curry (Spain, obviously), and Health salad (Switzerland, naturally). The cover is plain, but the illustrations inside are a treat.
However, the book she gave me that has captured my attention most is Dutch Cooking by Heleen A M Halverhout. Written for “friends of our Dutch food”, it’s filled with recipes for the kind of solid Dutch food that I want to wrap myself up in when the skies are grey and low. Brown beans and bacon, meat croquettes, doughnuts, pancakes and spicy gingerbread.
Baking speculaas, the cakey Dutch Christmas biscuit, makes my kitchen smell like Santa’s grotto. It’s a bit early in the year for tinsel and twinkles, but gingerbread is as good by a bonfire as by a nativity scene and Haverhout’s recipe resulted in so much dough, I had to freeze half of it. So, in a way, I’m just getting ahead with my Christmas baking.
I’ve reduced the quantities so it only makes ‘lots’ rather than ‘tonnes’ and, instead of decorating the biscuits with flaked almonds, I smooshed them into the dough. Because I’m childish, I cut out gingerbread men and munched them limb by limb. Excellent served with warm milk and a hot water bottle.
225g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
60g dark brown muscavado sugar
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 nutmeg, grated
Pinch of ground cloves
75g cold butter, chopped
75ml skimmed milk
50g flaked almonds
1 Sift the flour into a large bowl and stir in the sugar, salt and spices.
2 Add the butter and rub it in with your fingertips to make breadcrumbs. Stir in the milk to bring the dough together.
3 Turn out onto a work surface lightly dusted with flour. Flatten out with your hands and pile the flaked almonds into the middle. Bring the edges up over the almonds and knead a couple of times to push the almonds through the dough. Wrap in clingfilm and chill for 15 minutes.
4 Preheat the oven to gas mark 4/180°C/fan oven 160°C. Dust 2 large baking trays with flour. Roll the dough out on a flour-dusted work surface until it’s 1/2cm thick. Stamp out biscuits, transfer to the trays and bake for 10–15 minutes or until the biscuits are lightly coloured. Lift off the tray with a palette knife and cool on a wire rack. Eat plain, or decorate with glacé icing.