A cookbook to savour – The Food Almanac.
A rainy, cold Saturday afternoon is the perfect time to snuggle down with a book about food. The Food Almanac: Recipes and stories for a year about food (Pavilion), by Miranda York, editor of At The Table, is just the ticket.
For those, and I include myself, with far too many cookbooks plus the internet on which to search for recipes, a book about food without too many recipes is a welcome relief. Not that I don’t love cookbooks – that’s why I have so many – but the truth is that I enjoy the essays that nowadays often accompany the recipes more than the umpteenth instruction for how to prepare a roasted cauliflower. I am aware that the essay-prefacing-recipe style of cookbook is not universally popular and that many readers just want the recipe and no faffing about with the writer’s stories. Yet I love them. Some of my favourite cookbook writers are those, like Claudia Roden, who educate me, enthral me with their memories and knowledge. The Food Almanac is as full as a Christmas stocking with small gifts in the form of stories and reminiscences.
Divided into months of the year, each section of The Food Almanac contains a short story or poem that pertains to the season. The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who in British food writing with many of my all-time favourite recipe writers like Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden, Diana Henry, Meera Sodha, Olia Hercules, Rachel Roddy, Zoe Adjonyoh, and Russel Norman. Food stories are written by another set of favourites including Felicity Cloake, Fuchsia Dunlop, Marina O’Loughlin, Itamar Srulovich, and Elisabeth Luard. I was introduced to many more writers and poets and recipe creators of whom I had no prior knowledge.
Each chapter, or month, begins with a shortlist of seasonal ingredients, followed by essays, stories and poetry related to some of the produce. Next follows a menu for the month, with three recipes, and finally a reading list. I just loved this. I haven’t seen such a welcome reading list since I was a university student! This should keep some of us food geeks happily researching for months ahead.
Once I managed to tear myself away from the text, I gave The Food Almanac a whirl in my kitchen. I turned to October to find something seasonal to eat and found a section on soup with a recipe by one of my favourite, go-to recipe writers, Meera Sodha. Sodha is one of those writers whose recipes are always tasty and work well. I trust her and have enjoyed many meals under her instruction. Even her vegan recipes are ever popular in my household although we have no vegan members. I knew I was in for a bowl of nourishing goodness when preparing her parsnip and carrot mulligatawny soup.
I grew up in a family in which soup was served every day of the year, came rain or shine. Hence, I love to come home knowing there is a Tupperware of soup in my fridge just waiting for me. I always make a double batch if not more. Sodha’s soup got better and better as the days went on – as soups do – and by day three was at its best.
A soup supper is all very well but in this weather, one needs something after, more sustaining than a piece of fruit from the bowl. Keeping to the fruit theme, I found the perfect recipe in January. Charlotte Druckman’s spiced blueberry muffin cake caught my attention because it is baked in a cast-iron skillet and is described, intriguingly, as a cross between a muffin and a cake mixed up with a bundt and a spiced breakfast pastry. While I didn’t have any blueberries, I did have a cast iron pan so I simply substituted with frozen raspberries which worked beautifully. Fair enough, my cake had a red rather than a purple hue but I am sure that Druckman would agree that the reader should be allowed to take a few liberties. This is the kind of baking I like – very easy, not too much concentrating, and quick results (you can find the recipe at the end of this article). I was tickled by the cast iron pan method and the baked muffin popped out onto a serving plate with ease. Once baked it was sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar which took me right back to my grandmother making me pancakes, mixing the cinnamon and sugar together for me to spoon over. I served the muffin for dessert, warm with a good dollop of Greek yoghurt but you could happily serve it with cream or even custard on a cold night. The muffin was large indeed and there was plenty left over for teatime the next day. That’s the best bit, isn’t it?
Not able to resist another soup from this collection, I happened upon Anna Jones’ recipe for Wild Garlic and Puy lentil soup. It was one of those serendipitous occasions when I just happened to have all the ingredients in my fridge – fennel bulbs crying out to be used, carrots, banana shallots looking neglected, celery and spinach. I always keep a box of Puy lentils in my store cupboard so whipped those out. The only ingredient I lacked was wild garlic – the recipe is from the March chapter and hence is not in season – but I substituted ordinary garlic which was fine too. In no time I had a soup ready and lunch was looking up. I usually wait a day or two to eat soups I’ve cooked but this one had flavour bursting out in every direction from the toppings. Roasted hazelnuts with lemon zest and olive oil provided great crunch and accentuated the nuttiness of the lentils. The garlic purée with spinach was just lovely. I got them acquainted in a mortar and pestle where they produced a light pesto-type, emerald green, punchy garnish. Let’s face it, lentil soup is never going to win awards in any beauty competition, but with its quiet, dependable flavours, other ingredients allow it to shine. I tucked in right away, layers of flavours from lemony hazelnuts to garlicky spinach, lifting this lentil soup from its basic beginnings.
The Food Almanac is a treat and one that keeps on giving from month to month whether to cook from or to dip into its stories. It would make a great seasonal gift. Christmas is coming up and finding gifts for foodies who already have everything is always a bit trying. The Food Almanac will keep the foodie in your life happy all year round.
I’m sharing that recipe for the blueberry muffin cake so you can try for yourself – but I’d recommend you simply buy the book – then you can pick your own favourites!
A fruity teatime treat, a cross between a muffin and a cake
- 190 grams plain flour
- 100 grams granulated sugar
- 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 egg lightly beaten
- 125 ml full-fat milk room temperature
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 75 grams unsalted butter melted and cooed slightly
- 340 grams blueberries fresh or frozen. I used raspberries
- For the topping:
- 35 grams unsalted butter melted
- 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
- 50 grams granulated sugar
Preheat oven to 180 C /350 F/ gas mark 4 and place a 25 cm cast-iron frying pan in the oven.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, nutmeg and salt. Make a well in the centre of the mixture.
Use a second mixing bowl to stir together the egg, vanilla, milk and melted butter. Stir in the mashed portion of the blueberries. Add this mixture to the flour mixture and stir until just moistened. Fold the whole blueberries into the mixture. It may all be a bit lumpy but this is not a problem.
Remove the hot pan from the oven and add a little butter to it (1 - 2 teaspoons) so it melts and then brush the pan. Pour the batter into the hot pan. Bake for around 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
Mis the cinnamon with the sugar for the topping.
Once the cake has cooled in the pan for 15 minutes, remove it from the pan and place it on a cooling rack.
Brush the top of the cake with the melted butter for the topping, let the butter soak in slowly. Then sprinkle over the cinnamon and sugar.
Let the cake cool before serving. Best eaten on the day it is baked.