Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book

Belgian bun cake: Margaret Costa's Four Seasons

Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book has always lived in the reserve collection. I honestly don’t know why. Nigel Slater himself says: ‘If I had to choose only one book to cook from for the rest of my life it would be this one.’ Picking it up and starting to read, I instantly saw that she and I were of the same mind. The preface begins:

Professional chefs are notoriously bad at giving recipes for domestic kitchens. They are unable to think in small quantities for a start, they are maddeningly vague about times and temperatures, they use words which create total, unreasoning panic in the mind of the ordinary cook: déglacer, dégorger, tomber, revenir, beurre manié — no wonder we lose our heads.

Even the words we think we recognise — blend, beat, sieve — all mean something different to them because they use different equipment. And then they are used to having things to hand. “Garnish with truffles,” they cry, “cook in clarified butter, stuff with a duxelles, finish with a spoonful of hollandaise.” “The sauce? Oh, just a simple jus lié with the addition of a little demi-glace.”

She sums up everything I don’t like about 99% of cookbooks by professional chefs (the Roux brothers are a very honourable exception). And she was married to a chef! I like her introduction to the canapé section too:

Just listen to the next big party you go to: a party where there are enough nice little things to eat has a warm, contented sound, a sort of purr, quite different from the harsh, strident noise where there’s nothing but alcohol and cigarette smoke.

I’d love to go to a party catered by her; her “nice little things to eat” are all mouth-watering, and most are easy to do.

Four Seasons cookbook

It’s a wide-ranging book, organised roughly by season (some dishes can be cooked all the year round though) — and within each season by theme. So Winter for example includes chapters like Christmas Classics, Party Pieces, Comforting Breakfasts, Winter Soups, Cooking with Wine (a sign of the 1970s that you had to have a special chapter for this!), Proper Puddings, Marmalade … Costa is from the same school as Jane Grigson: erudition worn lightly, with unpretentious yet elegant and classic dishes covering the whole range from dinner parties through everyday meals to preserves and bread baking. Perhaps part of the reason I don’t use this book more is precisely because Jane Grigson is my first port of call when I’m looking for this type of book.

Again like those traditional writers (Grigson, Elizabeth David, Patience Grey) this is a book you can read for sheer pleasure, even if you don’t cook a thing from it. The party pieces, the “proper puddings”, and the preserving chapters are the highlight of the book for me. So this post isn’t exactly a vintage feast, just a sampling of a couple of items from the book (which now sprouts a forest of bookdarts heralding future cooking sessions).

I have never cooked chutney in my life, apart from a brief and fairly successful flirtation with mango chutney. This is possibly due to traumatic memories of a house reeking of vinegar from top to bottom when my mother was engaged in her annual days-long chutney-making session, during which the rest of the family would move out to the garden for the duration. So it’s perhaps surprising that the first recipe I chose from here was the tomato and red pepper chutney, from the very comprehensive preserving chapter. Partly because I bought a big bag of peppers from the market for 3 euros, partly inspired by the chutney-making fervour displayed at the Cottage Smallholder forum.

Costa doesn’t weigh you down with instructions — she just tells you to mince or chop everything up, put it in a pan with the vinegar, sugar, and spices, and “simmer till thick”. The suggested 2 hours’ simmering stretched to 5 hours; I think my simmer must have been too low. But it did eventually acquire a jammy consistency, and I decided this was good enough. Into the jars it went, looking very convincingly like chutney. Verdict in a month or so, when it’s matured! Meanwhile, all the windows are open to eliminate the vinegar smell.

While that was bubbling away, I made some Belgian bun cake, because I’d made some lemon curd a couple of days ago. This is basically a rich brioche dough, spread with lemon curd and sprinkled with candied peel and currants, rolled up and baked. It turns out like a lemony panettone, best eaten while still slightly warm and fragrant from the oven. Delicious, and I already have plans for a very luxurious bread and butter pudding with part of it.

I won’t give the recipe for the chutney here, because I’m waiting to see how it turns out. But here’s my version of the Belgian brioche.
Read More

The Art of the Tart

mjuk toscakaka

Like almost all keen cooks, I can’t resist buying cookbooks even though I know I already own far too many, with enough recipes in them to last several lifetimes of daily cooking. But even if I don’t cook from them, I love to browse and fantasize about cooking elaborate recipes, or just admire the photos (at least in modern books).

But still. The shelves in our living cum dining room cum kitchen are full, and the reserve collection has overflowed onto the landing upstairs. Some books are well-thumbed, others are pristine and have never risked the slightest gravy splatter or smudge of grease. It was time to take action, I decided, and cook at least one recipe from each of these neglected tomes, if only to establish whether they are unjustifiably taking up shelf space. I don’t know how long it will take me because I haven’t even dared to count them. But along the way I’ll review the books and hopefully find some hidden gems.

I started with The Art of the Tart, by Tamasin Day-Lewis. This lives in the reserve collection, even though I have actually cooked a couple of recipes from it. I’m not usually a fan of “single-dish” books (it was a present) — but it’s true that the tart is a very versatile concept. And some of these aren’t even what I would call a tart, in that they don’t involve pastry. There’s so much you can do with pastry and storecupboard ingredients, from a down-to-earth quiche made from the leftovers in the fridge to a drop-dead elegant dessert. And after all, many of my most successful and popular signature dishes are tarts (see the list at the end of this post).

I’m not keen on the arch title (she even published a follow-up called Tarts with tops on), or Tamasin’s wordy style and the odd bit of name-dropping, but there are some gems all the same. The recipes here range from the obvious (quiche lorraine, apple pie, tarte tatin) to the exotic or just odd (a tart filled with aligot??). The little tomato and prosciutto tarts on the cover are both beautiful and delicious — ideal dinner-party starter material — and quick to make into the bargain. I don’t usually like chocolatey desserts, but I made an exception for Simon Hopkinson’s chocolate tart (in the “Other people’s tarts” section).

For the purposes of this blog post, I started with cheese strata — one of the “not a tart” recipes. It’s basically a savoury bread and butter pudding. I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me before to make something like this, given that buying baguettes inevitably results in a surplus of stale bread. A big chunk of two-day old pain de campagne, an ancient bit of Comté only fit for grating, some eggs approaching their sell by date, mustard, onion and cream. The result is well worth the status of default dinner, and I’ll certainly make it again. I skipped the lardons, but some sun-dried tomatoes would be a nice addition and would keep it vegetarian.

Next, I quickly cooked Mjuk Toscakaka, one of several Swedish recipes. This is another one that is easy to do and uses what you have on hand (and doesn’t involve pastry) — basically a simple sponge cake with a slightly crackly, fudgy topping of sugar and flaked almonds. On its own, a bit dull, and cream didn’t make it any more interesting. But it was considerably livened up with the complementary addition of some Italian cherries in syrup (an impulse buy in Lidl when they were having one of their Italian weeks). Any tart poached fruit would go well with this.

Verdict: I wouldn’t rush out and buy this book if I didn’t have it, but it’s a lot more useful and attractive than I expected it to be. It’s staying on the shelf!

My artful tarts

Apple crumble tart
Apricot frangipane tart
Courgette, cheese, and herb tart
Filo tarts with goat’s cheese
French tarte aux pommes
Pineapple tarte tatin
Prune and Armagnac tart
Rosemary-spiked apricot and almond tart
Tarte à la moutarde
Tarte au citron
Tarte aux myrtilles, or bilberry tart
Tarte Tatin