THERE’S a saying about cookbooks which I realise is quite true – the fewer the pictures, the better it is.
You’ve been there before. You buy this gorgeous cookbook that has a photo for every one of its recipes. Each picture is meticulously styled, right down to the soft-focused, artful flicks of frosting. It makes you pronounce, “I, too, can be Nigella!” That’s until you actually try out the recipe. It doesn’t tell you when to stop whipping. A listed ingredient isn’t mentioned in the method. Or the oven temperature is wrong. When the cake emerges, looking like it was trampled over by your dog, you realise: You’ve just been suckered by another Bimbo Cookbook.
It hardly ever happens with plain, no-nonsense books like Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible or my fave, Allysa Torey’s More From Magnolia. Maybe their recipes are so fail-proof, they don’t need photos to sell the books. Possible, yes?
Anyway, may I suggest another dictum in predicting the efficacy of cookbooks: The scarier-looking the author, the better it is.
I am currently testing out recipes from this book I’m reviewing for the newspaper, Mary Berry’s Ultimate Cake Book. It’s one of three cookbooks I’m covering under the theme: baking books by famous kitchen doyennes. The other two are by Martha Stewart and Julia Child. And, believe me, I wouldn’t have picked Mary Berry if not for the fact that I really couldn’t find another household-name doyenne to complete the package.
Look at the book cover and you’d know what I mean. There’s a small photo of her on it and she’s not smiling. Berry, a British food writer who hosted a few TV series on the BBC in the 1980s, has silver hair and the thin, sculpted face of a disciplinary mistress. Her lips are stretched into an uneven arc that is part-sneer, part-taunt. It is a Clint-Eastwood look that says, “Go ahead, buy my book.”
There is a bigger profile photo of her inside and it’s no better. Her facial expression is the same one I have after I’ve spent three hours stirring up a whirlwind in my kitchen and still the cake came out like a crater. It’s a look that channels exhaustion, disorientation and “I wanna kill somebody”.
Why the glum face, I don’t know. Maybe she’s got bad teeth. But one thing’s for sure, her recipes work. I tried her honey and buttermilk cheesecake – because I love anything with honey in it – and it turned out like a dream. The cheesecake is so smooth and light it was almost like a mousse. Unlike many Western recipes, this one wasn’t too sweet. In fact, her recommended drizzle of honey over the cake wasn’t just for show or a better photo op – the jolt of sweetness lifts the taste from pleasant to decadent.
After this experience, I am a sucker no more. No book with mere megawatt styling and photography is gonna fool me. And if Salman Rushdie were to write a cookbook, I’ll be the first in line.