These are some of the best cookbooks of 2020 to test your culinary skills or as a slice of Christmas gift inspiration
Lockdown saw many of us blow the dust of some old recipe books as we found ourselves with more time on our hands. So if you’re still hungry to test your culinary skills on some new recipes, or simply looking for Christmas gift ideas, food writer Nicola Miller introduces some cookbooks to whet your appetite.
Usually at this time of year I would focus on books published between September and November, but because of lockdown, authors have found it harder to publicise their books and sadly a few excellent books that came out earlier in the year didn’t get the fanfare they deserved. So here I offer you a list of some of my favourite books of 2020 (from a pile of around 150!); each and every one will make a beautiful, seasonal gift for you or others.
* Look out for part II of Nicola’s cookbook guide next week
Parwana: Recipes and Stories From an Afghan Kitchen by Durkhanai Ayubi, recipes by Farida Ayubi (Murdoch Books, £20)
“Our world today is held captive by the firmly ingrained idea of an irreconcilable schism between East and West, but somewhere beyond this reduced narrative lies a rich and intertwined history,” writes Durkhanai, and what an origin story it is!
Afghanistan was situated at the heart of the busy Silk Road and its history as “the host of great empires that rose and fell on its lands” created a nation whose culinary traditions are woven into skeins.
Dahls and spices from India, herbs from Persia, and hand-rolled noodles from China and Mongolia, as well as Afghanistan’s productive dairy, cereal and fruit farming come to fruition in this wonderful book where the recipes are interwoven with beautifully written stories of a nation, its people, and Parwana, the restaurant which inspired the book.
I am tempted by great piles of Bolani (stuffed and fried flatbreads), steaming trays of the Afghan national dish, kabuli palaw a rice pilau studded with sultanas, almonds and slivered pistachios; aush, a soup thick with knife-cut noodles, turnips, chillies and turmeric, and delicately spiced milk custards layered with fruit, compotes and nuts.
Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, recipes, and stories by Nigella Lawson (Chatto & Windus, £26)
So much has changed since Nigella Lawson went on tour to mark the 20th anniversary of her first book, How To Eat, in 2018.
Here we are with a new book which deepens the conversation she began all those years ago, in the form of essays, ‘formal’ recipes and hundreds of suggestions in the text as to how we might cook variations on each theme, which, let’s face it, is how many of us have to cook.
This is a book of its time (it was written during lockdown and in part reflects the changes this has wrought in the lives of cooks, hosts and eaters) which nevertheless will not date because Nigella understands the power of community and memories both collective and personal, and how cooking reflects the seasons of one’s life.
So, this is a book which both celebrates cooking for one with a recipe for two large chocolate cookies, yet keeps us focused on a post-Covid future where we can once again gather around the table and help ourselves from a communal bowl of colcannon with brown butter or a billowing passionfruit and blood orange pavlova – all without denying the present.
Be here, right now, she seems to be saying. And her writing is so exquisitely calm, with not a word out of place. You will feel soothed and you will feel empowered to cook, and to experiment and not worry if it turns out less than perfectly.
The soupy rice with celeriac and chestnuts, ‘chocolate, tahini and banana, two ways’, her paean to rhubarb with its “slender, Schiaparelli stems” (rhubarb and ginger flapjacks, and a deeply pink rhubarb ginger and beetroot soup), an incredible ox cheeks bourguignon with caraway, and a bowl of smoky squid and beans sound fabulous.
One Tin Bakes by Edd Kimber (Kyle Books, £17.99)
We know that bakers are alchemists, turning easily recognisable ingredients into amazing creations far more than the sum of their parts, but they are practical people too and this book is a perfect example of this.
Winner of the first series of The Great British Bake Off, Edd recognises that most people do not ‘have a magical cupboard full of every baking vessel known to man’, so he has written a bright chonk of a book where every recipe can be baked in one tin.
And what recipes! They tap into our need for attainable home comforts in an extremely difficult year and range from freshly-interpreted English classics (a strawberry-topped scone traybake) to Mexican baking (passionfruit and tres leches cake), peanut butter ‘brookies’ (the love child of a brownie and cookie) and a southern Californian-inspired apple fritter monkey bread.
You are in safe hands, too; his recipes are easily followed and meticulously tested.
The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained + More Than 100 Essential Recipes by Nik Sharma (Chronicle Books, £26)
How do emotion and memory impact upon the way we relate to flavour? How might a scientific approach applied by a former molecular biologist turned passionate cook and evocative writer help us understand this? And does this sound too dry and earnest for you?
Well, you would be wrong because what Nik Sharma has given us is a book underpinned by careful research that is also a work of love and great beauty.
Its cover alone is so tantalising I picked the book up to sniff it because I genuinely thought, for one moment, that I could actually smell the citrus slices of its cover image.
Organised around an exploration of the seven notes of cooking: brightness, sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, fieriness, savouriness and richness, and how these interact with our senses and feelings, each section comes equipped with imaginatively illustrated data alongside personal essays and delicious recipes which bring together both ours and the author’s learning on one plate.
I can’t wait to make cherry and pepper granola bars, the potato and roasted corn raita, a hot and fiery Indo-Chinese soup called Manchow, grilled hearts of romaine with chilli pumpkin seeds, and a coconut cake which is a wonderful marriage of Mexican tres leches and the Goan coconut and semolina cake known as baath.
The Little Library Christmas by Kate Young (Head of Zeus, £15)
I love a Christmas cookbook but at a time when we are not sure how Christmas is going to pan out, images of feasting and partying and busy markets can be a bit upsetting.
This is where the always empathetic Kate Young comes to the rescue with a gentle book in a jaunty red cover which focuses very much on the smaller pleasures of Christmas, all seen through the prism of literature and an understanding that this time of year can be difficult and might not measure up to our fantasies.
These are achievable recipes: Not-Sausage rolls (inspired by DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers), Mitfordesque champagne cocktails (more affordable if you are not many at the table this year), lussekatter (Swedish saffron buns), pear, chocolate and sherry cake, Joycean tea-roasted figs for the cheeseboard, and little pepparAkakor, the spiced cookies baked by Pippi Longstocking in their hundreds are just some of the delights that await you, accompanied by gorgeous images of Quality Street, fir trees heavy with snow and squidgy blanket-laden sofas. Absolutely one for your Christmas stocking.
Good Book of Southern Baking by Kelly Fields with Kate Heddings (Random House USA £27.50)
I have been lucky enough to eat at Willa Jean, the New Orleans restaurant where chef Kelly Fields and her team weave their magic, so I have been impatiently waiting for this book.
Now we can recreate her fantastic, many-layered biscuits whose image adorns the cover, the Willa Jean cornbread baked using a signature technique (and which I have brought to eat on the plane home twice now), cosy favourites like coconut cream pie, her stellar chocolate chip cookies with vanilla milk, a classic Nola Bananas Foster bread pudding and all the crisps, cobblers, galettes and pies you could ever need. The American South runs its roots deep into Kelly’s food, but she is not mired in the past.
These are innovative, comforting and whimsical recipes devised by a chef possessed of the steadiest of teacherly hands.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale
Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020