Nigel Slater's latest cookbook, Notes From the Larder: A Kitchen Diary With Recipes, was released in the early fall but feels right at home this time of year. The pages are filled with much-needed kitchen therapy from all those online recipes that promise to be even better than that best-of-the-best holiday dish you made last year. (Was it really? Right.) Time to sit down with simply "another wonderful sandwich," as Slater dubs a recipe for a mushroom-cheese version on crusty bread, all smashed together and fried.
The longtime food columnist for The Observer promises "nothing flashy, or showstopping, just straightforward, everyday stuff. The kind of food you might want to come home to after a busy day ... something to be shared rather than looked at in wonder and awe." But if you have worked your way through Slater's previous cookbooks, like Ripe, you know there's still find plenty to find awe-inspiring in a simple lemon tart (p. 87), "dark and sticky fruit chutney" (p. 342) or mincemeat cheesecake (p. 486) for the holidays.
The book is formatted as a diary. But unlike a blog, which these days often read more like a magazine with a set personal theme (baking, Thai food, budget cooking), Slater jumps sporadically from one topic to the next. Whatever struck him as important to jot down, usually after a day of recipe testing, is here: tips for grating Parmesan in one, his newfound appreciation for the flesh of lemon after making a simple dish of asparagus with lemon and herb sauce (he typically prefers the zest, peel and juice) in another. Or why orzo is now his favorite pasta when "pasta in all its forms -- tubes, ribbons, curls, shells, and chubby little gnocchi" used to be his go-to. Recipes follow many of the entries.
As with Slater's other cookbooks, the prose first draws you in, but the recipes keep you circling back. When he tells you via that Oct. 18 pasta entry that "it took 40 years of cooking and eating pasta before it dawned on me that I prefer [pasta] without the accompaniment of tomato and the ever-present cheese," you can almost hear him in your kitchen, sharing those revelations. His current preference is for "less gut-pounding portions ... simpler sauces, more imaginative accompaniments."
Slater writes as we imagine he talks, veering off on tangents within each topic, maybe giving a brief history lesson in an entry (orzo is "historically made from barley, whose shape it echoes") before circling back to the dish at hand: here, orzo with zucchini and Grana Padano.
Like most of the recipes in the book, it isn't particularly complicated. But look more closely. There is usually an interesting tweak to a cooking technique or an ingredient, the sort of thing someone who has developed and tested thousands of recipes might do. In the pasta recipe, for instance, Slater calls for an entire cup of white wine, not the usual splash, to deglaze a pan of sautéed onions with crispy chunks of pancetta (he partially reduces the wine then uses the remaining liquid to cook the zucchini).
Reason enough to dog-ear the page before turning to Slater's entry, two days later, about his less-than-perfect tart pan. "Blueberries leave an indelible stain; rhubarb leaks acidic pink juice through the holes in the bottom; damsons did it no favors," he says. "Yet my tart pan has changed the way I bake."
Short of making best-of-the-best holiday recipe claims, who knows, Slater's mincemeat cheesecake might very well do the same for us.
From: Notes From the Larder by Nigel Slater
Note: Looking for ways to use mincemeat outside its short, traditional yuletide window, I have long been wondering whether it would work in a cheesecake, either as a layer between crust and curd or rippled through the cream cheese. Today I decide to have a go at the latter. The result is a creamy cheesecake, thick and sticky in the Austrian style, but with a familiar festive note. It is sweet, and good with strong black coffee.
Makes: Enough for 8 to 10
For the crust:
butter: 4 tablespoons (65g)
shortbread: about 10 ounces (300g)
For the filling:
full-fat cream cheese: 21/2 cups (600g)
golden baker's sugar: 1 cup (200g)
an extra egg yolk
finely grated zest of a small orange, plus a little extra to finish
vanilla extract: a few drops
sour cream: 11/4 cups (300g)
mincemeat: 9 ounces (250g)
1. You will need a round cake pan with a removable base, or a springform cake pan measuring 9 inches (22cm) in diameter and about 3 inches (7.5cm) high. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan. Crush the shortbread to fine crumbs in a food processor and stir them into the melted butter. Remove from the heat and put all but a couple of tablespoons of the crumbs into the lined cake pan. Smooth flat, but avoid the temptation to push down too hard; you don't want a tightly packed, impenetrable crust. Put in the fridge for half an hour to set.
3. Preheat the oven to 275°F (140°C). To make the filling, put the cream cheese and sugar in a stand mixer and beat for a couple of minutes, till smooth. Add the eggs and the extra yolk one at a time, beating each one in thoroughly before adding the next. Scrape down the sides of the bowl regularly.
4. Add the orange zest and vanilla extract. Stop the machine and stir in the sour cream with a large spoon or spatula. Fold the mincemeat in with a spoon, stirring only enough to ripple it lightly through the cheese mixture.
5. Remove the cake pan from the fridge, wrap it in aluminum foil, place it in a roasting pan, and pour in the cream cheese filling. Pour hot water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the outside of the cake pan. Carefully slide into the oven and bake for an hour. You will find that the middle of the cheesecake will feel uncooked and wobbly, but that is how it should be. Switch off the oven, close the door, and leave the cheesecake for a further hour. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, and then refrigerate overnight (don't try to skip this step, or your cake won't set).
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6. Scatter the top of the cheesecake with the reserved shortbread crumbs and a little orange zest before serving.
Reprinted with permission from Notes From the Larder by Nigel Slater, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House."
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