I hadn’t originally planned to include Josceline in my celebration of 1980s-and-older cookbooks. But then I was reminded of her by Maggie. It made me realise that apart from one of my favourite old standbys, her fusion of blanquette and goulash, I hadn’t cooked any of her recipes for absolutely ages. Maggie says “Thirty years ago, way before Nigella, we had a ‘posh’ cook in the guise of Josceline Dimbleby. She is a great, innovative cook and I can’t understand why she isn’t more widely known and more highly regarded”.
Me neither! I first encountered her via a book picked up in a second hand shop for 50p, entitled Taste of Dreams. It was a good introduction, highlighting her creative, unusual approach, with dishes that are often titivated to within an inch of their lives presentation-wise (the water-lily timbale is a shocker, a flat cake of carrots and avocado wrapped in spinach and surrounded by chicory leaves like petals ). Maybe we can blame the 1980s for that. But she often shows real flair in combinations of ingredients and, especially, textures; Middle-Eastern influences are omnipresent since she spent part of her youth there.
Later, I occasionally picked up the little 50p cookbooks with my shopping in Sainsbury’s, and the most tattered and food-stained one I have is Josceline’s A Traveller’s Tastes. Nearly every recipe in this book is a winner, but for this vintage feast I decided to give myself maximum flexibility by using The Josceline Dimbleby Collection, a Sainsbury’s omnibus of recipes from several of those little books. And it turns out that my choice of author is apposite after all, because after a long break, during which all of her books have gone out of print, she has very recently published a new book: Orchards in the Oasis: Travels, Food and Memories.
I think the dishes I chose for this meal are fairly representative, if short on the Middle-Eastern element. Josceline does tend towards “posh dinner party” food, but there are some family-friendly recipes too. Browsing through the book, I realised that I’d never actually made my own chicken liver pâté, so that seemed a good choice as a starter, especially her “mild” version with orange juice, cream, and chopped almonds in it. I was somewhat peeved, then, to discover that the supermarket was clean out of chicken livers, but recovered by buying a tub of rabbit livers instead. This could only improve it; rabbit liver is gorgeous. My confidence was well-placed; it was delicious served with thin, crispy toast, and so easy to make that I will definitely do it again as an easy dinner-party starter; see recipe below.
I continued the bunny theme with a “rabbit in the orchard” pie; classic flavours of rabbit, cider, mustard and cream, with apples, mushrooms, and tarragon added. The recipe has a Josceline signature to it: no onions. I think she must have an onion-hater in the family, because a lot of her recipes lack them where you would expect to see them. It’s ages since I made one of these very English meat-and-sauce filled pies. Despite my care in decorating the pastry, it looked terrible when it was dished up; the runny beige sauce looked really unappetising. It did taste good though, and we liked the way the juices had soaked into the bottom of the thick pastry lid; yum!
Josceline is very fond of fancy desserts. I chose one featuring one of her favourite ingredients, dried apricots. Here, they are poached and then covered with a “caramel cloud” of vanilla cheesecake and a brûlée topping. I had a bit of a problem with the topping; she suggests sprinkling sugar over the top of the cheesecake, caramelising it under the grill, and then putting it in the fridge for several hours. Surefire recipe for soggy caramel. It seemed to me that sprinkling sugar on the uneven top and trying to burn it wasn’t going to work that well anyway. So I ended up making caramel in a pan and pouring it over the cheesecake once it had been chilled. This worked, although it was a bit thick in places. But it was another dish that looked a total mess when served. Definitely a candidate for small individual dishes. But the taste wasn’t exceptional, so I wouldn’t make it again. I find you do have to be selective with Josceline Dimbleby recipes; sometimes she’s too creative for her own good, and they certainly aren’t foolproof the way Delia Smith ones are. But when she gets it right (as in the paprika-flavoured blanquette), they work really well.