Monday, April 30, 2007

Dusty Wesker's Cookery Book

Being a somewhat nosey person by nature, I enjoy reading blogs. In those sad, dark days before the invention of blogs I used to love to curl up (by the light of my oil lamp) with a copy what we old timers used to call a diary or a collection of published letters. This book is the old fashioned equivalent of a ‘recipe blog’: a diary of food cooked, meals eaten, together with recipes. It has an added bonus for anyone interested in modern theatre. The author, Dusty Wesker, is the wife of Arnold Wesker – a man widely regarded as one of the most influential playwrights of the last century (which makes him sound as though he should be in a marble tomb somewhere).

The meals are those she cooked not just for family but for first nights, agents and directors, journalists and actors. Anecdotes abound. I think she did intend to give an honest glimpse of home life with a famous playwright (as honest as one ever can be when writing about home life for a wider audience). The portrait she paints is of a loving exuberant relationship, a family home filled with comings and goings and encounters with interesting, artistic people. She comes across as a genuinely warm and friendly person, he as somewhat mercurial (read: moody and self absorbed).

According to, after 35 years of marriage he had an affair with an ‘old friend’ and instead of cramming him into her Magimix and making ‘Meatballs with a Sweet and Sour Mushroom Sauce’ (page 33) they separated ‘amicably’. It is unlikely then that there will be a sequel to this volume, which is a great shame as I do love it so. Dusty Wesker is not a professional chef or food writer so the recipes are those she actually loves and cooks herself, in an ordinary kitchen without a battery of staff to help her. They are friendly recipes. I’ve tried lots of them and have never had one fail. Influenced by Jewish, Mediterranean and East European cookery, they rarely require exotic or particularly expensive ingredients. The cakes and puddings are especially yummy. Three to try are the Rum Chocolate Mousse (foolproof even without the rum), Lemon Souffle (made with a packet of lemon jelly) and her Marmalade Cake (a really good ‘keeping cake’, delicious eaten with butter and some cheese).

I bought my copy as a birthday treat many years ago. I had already borrowed it from the library and copied out recipes to try. It came from Books For Cooks in Notting Hill, surely one of the nicest shops in London. It is out of print now, alas, but copies are available via Amazon Marketplace and Addall. Highly recommended: for the nosey and the greedy.

Marmalade Cake

6oz/ 175g butter
6oz/175g sugar
3 eggs (separated)
2oz/50g chopped mixed peel
Grated rind of 1 orange
3 tablespoons chunky marmalade
10oz/275g self-raising flour
5 tablespoons water

Butter an 8 inch/20 cm cake tin. Cream butter and sugar. Add egg yolks, mixed peel, orange rind and marmalade. Fold in flour. Gradually work in water. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold in. Bake at 190c/375f/ gas mark 5 for about 45 minutes and until knife comes out clean.

Note: I usually omit the mixed peel because I rarely have it about and don’t bother separating the eggs – it makes the cake a bit denser but saves time. I also usually bake it in a loaf tin because it is easier to cut and spread with butter that way. Be generous with your spoonfuls of marmalade.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The White-Watson Menu and Recipe-Book (c1930)

‘This book has been written for the modern housewife and in compiling it her many duties and varied interests have been borne in mind, for, while as interested in food and catering as her grandmother, the woman of to-day has not the time for long cooking processes nor the money for expensive dishes.’

I have to admit, I have a soft spot for recipe books with daily menus. This little gem has a whole year of them: Breakfast, Luncheon, Dinner, High Tea and Supper. Not that it was intended that one eat all five meals a day. A note in the authors’ preface states that menus for High Tea are included ‘due to their popularity in the North of England and Scotland’, although at the time High Tea and Supper might easily replace dinner for children, the rushed or just the plain strapped for cash.

The authors tell us: ‘In accord with modern opinion on diet, meals are definitely short.’

And : ‘In planning the menus, the beverages to be taken at breakfast and tea have not been suggested, neither have bread and butter and jams been given; these are not the matters which trouble the housewife; it is the obtaining of variety in such foods as meat and vegetables, soups, fish, sweets, egg and cheese dishes, which cause her perplexity.’ Indeed.

As in so many books of this period we are given a chapter on ‘Invalid Dishes’ and, more unusually, one on cooking with ‘Tinned and Bottled Foods’.

The recipes themselves are not elaborate and the menus not extravagant, or at least not for the 1930's. The book was aimed, I think, at the lower middle classes – no mention is made of servants or a cook (which would not have been at all uncommon at the time). For example, the menu suggested for today, the 24th April is:

Breakfast: Porridge and milk; Poached eggs on toast.
Luncheon: Baked Halibut, mashed potatoes; Fruit in Jelly.
Dinner: Julienne Soup; Mixed Grill, grilled tomatoes, potato ribbons; Queen of Puddings.
High Tea: Stewed Rhubarb; Vanilla Buns.
Supper: Lobster Salad (Tinned Lobster); Cheese and Biscuits.

The food suggested is always very seasonal, with lots of fish and much use of offal and such delights as calf’s head and brawn (ick).

I deliberated long and hard over buying this book. It was a little more than I would usually pay (it was in an Oxfam Charity Bookshop and they tend to be more pricey than a normal charity shop). I looked at it, put it back on the shelf and left the shop – then returned later at the end of a day of shopping, very glad to find it still there. It isn’t as delightfully quirky as some books I have from this period but who could resist a whole year’s worth of menus or indeed this

Or this

From today’s menu, a recipe for Vanilla Buns (but alas with no suggestion of an oven temperature):

½ lb corn flour (cornstarch)
6oz butter
4oz sugar
2 eggs
½ teaspoonful baking powder
½ teaspoonful vanilla essence

Cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and the other ingredients. Place in little heaps on a greased tin. Bake for about 10 minutes. Cool on a tray.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Entertaining With Cranks (1985)

I first encountered Cranks Restaurants when I was about 10 and on holiday in Devon with my parents. I was going through quite a phase for all things ‘crafty’ – dying wool, weaving, pottery, woodwork. I’ve never quite emerged from it. I was not alone in my obsession. At the time ‘natural living’, alternative medicine and self-sufficiency were quite the thing (thanks, in part, to ‘The Good Life’). If you were at all arty or bohemian then the place to visit was The Dartington Cider Press Centre in Devon, housing as it did workshops, a gallery, a nature trail and, crucially, a Cranks Restaurant.

Now my parents were not in the least arty or bohemian but they did appreciate a good cheese scone and a cup of tea and they were endlessly indulgent of their somewhat odd daughter. The visit is still vivid in my mind. There was an exhibition of hand dyed and woven textiles in the gallery and we ate carrot cake for the first time. Many years later as a student in London a trip to a local Cranks restaurant was my start of term treat (and end of term too if there was money left).

Cranks in London seems, alas, to be no more but there is still a restaurant at Dartington. The fare then was hearty, wholesome, traditional vegetarian and I think both the food and the ethos fell out of favour somewhat in the 1980’s. Thankfully, the books remain (supplemented by newer aditions which reflect a more ‘contempoary’ approach to vegetarian cookery).

My copy of Entertaining with Cranks is a relatively new purchase from a favourite charity shop. The cover is delightful, with more lovely pencil drawings by John Lawrence throughout. The distinctive calligraphy on the cover is by Donald Jackson whose work was used throughout the chain for menus and signs. Despite the title, there is nothing really fancy or intimidating here. This is not food you need to dress up for. It is relaxed, retro food that you would want to eat in the kitchen with good friends. Chapters include Appetizers and Starters, Soups, Salads and Dressings, Main Courses, Puddings and Desserts, Bread, Rolls and Toasts, Cakes and Biscuits and Drinks. Among the recipes are Mushroom Herb Pate, Curried Pea and Apple Soup, Green Lentil Rissoles with a Yoghurt Sauce and Poached Plums with a Cinnamon Cream.

The new paperback edition (in print) and the old hardback version (as pictured above and out of print) are available from Amazon in both the UK and USA

Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Recipe Book A Day?

Somebody asked me this weekend if I knew how many cookery books I had. I was smiling dreamily over a new purchase at the time (‘The White-Watson Menu and Recipe Book’ circa 1930). I couldn’t give them an accurate answer of course. Does anyone ever truly know how many books they have. Answers to such a question might range from “none” (unthinkable) through “a few”, “some”, “a lot” to “way too many to count” (which for a true bibliophile might more accurately be translated “not enough actually”).

The follow-up to this question usually is something along the lines of “and have you read them all?” Now this is easier to answer truthfully, at least as far as cookery books go: “No, of course not”. Some recipe books can be devoured like novels, others are more prosaic. As I thought more on it, however, I realised that some of the books in my collection had barely been glanced at, let alone read. I had bought them (from charity shops and boot sales in the main), exclaimed over them, shelved them and forgotten them. Shameful.

So, to rectify the situation I am thinking about doing a post for each of my recipe books. At first I thought of a daily post. Ha! Who am I kidding? But it is something to aim for. I thought I would take the books in the order they come in on the shelves (which is no order at all). If the book is out of print (and I would say that at least a third of what I have would qualify as ‘vintage’) I’ll include a recipe plus an Amazon link for as many as I can, in case you too are tempted.