50 posts categorized "Books"

09 August 2010

Who needs Modernist Cuisine?

It was announced over the weekend that the website for Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking has been launched.

Modernist Cuisine is a book due out next year.  The list price is $625 (although at the time of writing is available on Amazon for pre-order for $421.87) and is co-authored by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young and Maxime Bilet.  Myhrvold is the big name (and money) behind the book.  For those that don't know him, he came to prominence as chief strategist and chief technology officer at Microsoft.

For all that money you get a five volume, 26 chapter behemoth running to over 2200 pages.  At the list price that works out at $0.28 per page, or $0.19 per page at the current discount.  That doesn't sound so bad, but then compare that to Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking.  Widely regarded as a seminal work and essential for any kitchen, it runs to 896 pages and is listed at $40.  Or, $0.04 per page. McGee's is not illustrated and has been around for years.  But if Modernist Cuisine is going to justify the extra expense, the book will need to attain some lofty heights.

It is no great surprise to see that they're making a virtue out of the printing, at that price it needs to be a work of art.  The table of contents indicates an inexhaustible approach to the vast topic at hand, it also looks quite pretty (see below). The website however looks rather bog standard and simple.  Whilst I'm all in favour of the paired down aesthetic (look around this post), I expected a richer experience than what is currently available.

Beyond the cosmetics I do wonder about the substance and whether the book really is additive.  It feels like much of it has been written before and by similar individuals.  I've already got This, Blumenthal, who writes an introductory chapter and McGee who has given a blurb.  I'm pretty sure I'll be buying McGee's latest and Aki and Alex's Ideas in Food to learn more about what I'm cooking.  But that will set me back £36.59 at list price. I'm sorry to harp on about price, but I do fear that at $625 that is what is going to set this book apart.  And with a December publication date it is surely going to be on all those Christmas lists for "What to buy the foodie who has everything".

The website doesn't help me understand why I need this book.  Perhaps this is just a failing of the current marketing effort.  The book isn't due to be published for some time and they're still in the beta phase, trying to drum up interest, perhaps the odd blog post. (They saw you coming. Ed.)

Or is my understanding not the point?  Is it a rich man's folly?  More about the author, Myhrvold indulging his passion, than the reader?  Not having read it, I've not a clue and it would be wrong to pass judgement on the printed edition.

I don't think the website does the book any favours.  If this is to be a serious addition to our understanding of food and the way its prepared, Myhrvold will need to demonstrate that it is more than a beautifully printed book with some stunning photos.  There needs to be innovation and academy on the printed page.

I genuinely look forward to seeing one in the flesh, it's the type of thing I'm sure Foyles will stock, and then I'll revisit the subject of whether or not this is an expensive indulgence.

Modernist Cuisine Table of Contents

UPDATE: See the comment from Ryan below for further content (pdf) from the book. Ryan took the photographs for the book.


30 July 2010

The future of cookery books: iPad or Kindle?

Amazon yesterday announced the launch of their new Kindle.  The claim is that this one is now smaller, lighter, faster and easier to read than the previous version.  Obviously it's up against the iPad.

As prices stand at the time of writing, £149 for the most expensive Kindle versus £429 for the cheapest iPad, the Kindle wins the day if you just want to read.  I know that there's a ton of stuff the iPad does that the Kindle doesn't, which is why many people I'm sure will see that £280 difference as a worthwhile opportunity cost for going for the iPad.  But, what if we're looking at it purely from the cookbook perspective?

What if all you're using your device for is a kitchen tool, so that you can save those sagging shelves and replace the books with some nice artwork or a swanky 3D TV?  What then is your best option?

I ask the question as someone who has a fetish for cookbooks.  I love reading them, the prose, the recipes, the method, the photos.  Going electronic feels very wrong. 

I'm not just a browser, I also regularly cook out of them.  My argument to Mrs S is that that justifies the fetish.  But if I'd just splashed out on a $421 tome even I would be a tad concerned about getting it smattered when cooking.  Of course, I'd still need the tactile pleasure of the book itself, so would probably be tempted to buy both the hard copy and the digital version.  I could see though that this might start to get rather expensive.

By blindly dismissing digital editions, I'd be tilting at proverbial windmills.  Publishing is hard at the best of times, but cookbooks are notoriously tough sellers.  It's only down to the success of the likes of the Nigellas and Jamies, that publishers can print the decent but less popular books.  So going digital, with its inherently lower costs is attractive.

The Kindle is a reading device and more or less that alone.  It is great if all you're doing is looking at text.  But cookbooks are usually so much more than text and the iPad is so much better suited to richer content.  For example, this video is a demo of what you could do with recipes online.  It was developed by William Hereford (and all the rights are his) "as a kind of experiment combining typeface typical of magazines with video which has been shot and edited to feel like a still photograph."



It's very beautiful, of that there is no doubt.  But I'm not sure it's how I would want to interact with a cookery book.  I like to read the long-form version, where I can see ingredients and method all in one place.  But if there was an option to see someone cook the dish, well that is a very attractive idea.  Imagine being able to watch Thomas Keller or Heston Blumenthal preparing every dish they wrote about. 

I crave a stage in a restaurant to learn from these chefs how to cook.  Without any kitchen experience, that's not happening soon.  But being able to watch, time and again, them cook all the dishes in their canon, well that is a a tasty proposition.  You would learn their knife techniques, you would see their methods, you would learn why the photos in the book rarely look like what you put on the plate.

This isn't just a pimped-up version of their TV programmes.  I'm suggesting a combination of a book with long-form recipes, but also the options to go into detail about how they make the dish.  They could chuck-in interviews with suppliers if they want, but I want to see them cooking. 

It would expensive for sure, the chef's time, the design, the production costs for the video and editing and coding, but - and here's the biblio-heresy - so much more valuable to me than a cookbook. There is the obvious question of just how much value would it be to me, what would I pay for it?  I suppose it depends who the chef is.  If it was Jamie, massively over-exposed, probably nothing.  If it was Blumenthal or Keller or David Chang at Momofuku, then quite a lot.  And I'd pay a premium for beautiful style like Hereford's video above, in the same way I did for The Big Fat Duck Cookbook.

The business model is interesting to consider. Would it follow the current cookbook model where the populist items cover the cost of the niche longtail? Or are the populist titles so over-exposed that consumers would have little interest in Jamie in yet another guise?

I'm guessing the economics will err towards the former. Tablet/mobile devices are undeniably popular and mainstream. People will use these devices to consume the sorts of things they previously consumed in hard copy or online. They'll keep watching and reading the one-name-wonders, they'll just be doing it through a new medium.

I assume there are chefs already beavering away in film studios, days on end spent making dishes they haven't made in years, as publishers get ready to ditch print entirely.  If my assumption is wrong, I'm sticking a sodding great copyright symbol on this post and holding the idea as my own. 

So back to the start, if you're looking to make a decision on whether to buy an iPad or Kindle based on how you'd use it in the kitchen, the iPad wins out.  Not necessarily for what you can do with it today, but for the future potential.  I'm really quite excited. 

21 October 2009

Books (and a newspaper) to put a smile on your face

I can't get enough of having a good time at the moment.  That could be because things are a bit crappy and I'm built to have a good time, so like some crazed compass needle, I'm seeking my due north.

It could also be simply that having fun is so much more enjoyable than being a miserable sod.

I never cease to be amazed at how many people who 'enjoy their food' are thoroughly miserable when it comes to food.  They treat food as a mountain they must conquer.  Their faces are stern, their chins set.  They tend towards argument and introspection.  Not enjoying a damn good meal.

The untimely death of Keith Floyd has resulted in the loss of a man with an obvious love of what he did.  Simon Hopkinson is clearly cut from similar cloth.  It was therefore a delight that in this rather rubbish week Simon's new book The Vegetarian Option and a re-print of Floyd's Food should land on my mat courtesy of their respective publishers.

Reading their books in bed the other night I was reminded that I love food because I love it, by that I mean I get great enjoyment from cooking it, eating it, shopping for it, talking about it, even washing it up.  It's fun.

Sometimes it's not though.  As someone who keeps kosher I'm all too often relegated to the vegetarian section of the menu - and it is a relegation - it's a place you really don't want to explore.  Hopkinson makes me hopeful that others will get as excited by veggies as he clearly is. 

I challenge you not to swoon at Boiled onions with poached egg & Lancashire cheese.  If for a moment you dare think it sounds anything less than sublime, go to your local bookshop and take a look at the photo on page 73.  It's only a matter of days until I'll be feeding the family Cheese-crusted fried parsnip strips with romesco sauce and if this chilly weather is here to last the only pumpkin carving I'll be doing is to make Pumpkin soup 'Paul Bocuse'.  I might not have been tempted by Gratin of chicory with mustard sauce had it not been for Simon's closing words on the recipe "Rich, I believe, might be the word, here."

Don't be fooled that this is just a book about what to do with the bits of the veg box you get flummoxed by - try the Riverford book for that - it is a book that will make you cook better and in many ways is very classic.  His analysis of how to use agar-agar is one example of that, as his reminder of what a real Caesar salad is.

Cookbooks don't get much more classic than Floyd's Food.  Yes Absolute did do a quick print job following his death, but let's not be cynical.  It's a very good book.  It may lack the slick production and photos of The Vegetarian Option but it is the antithesis of the big cookbook.

Floyd like Hopkinson is not one to mince his words.  His instructions for Salade Nicoise are limited to "Whack the lot into a salad bowl and eat it."  His helpful tips for chip making include "You can do this hours before you intend to use them, that way avoiding the panic while you are making the bearnaise and everybody is getting sozzled in the garden."  I was rather surprised to see one ingredient in Watercress Express is instant potato mix, but because it's Floyd and was first printed in 1981, I'll let him off.  (Yes you're right, I will never forgive Delia for similar shortcuts, but this is my blog and I'll be as hypocritical as I like.)

Despite this aberration, I can't recommend either book highly enough.  They're great reminders about the sheer pleasure of food.  They may not be the best if you like to follow recipes like a religion.  If you're happy with the ebb and flow of the kitchen then purchase them in the knowledge you'll be in for a good time.

Speaking of good times, I had an all too brief drink last night at Mark's Bar for the launch of Galley Slave.  It's a freesheet edited by Joe Warwick, formerly of Restaurant magazine and briefly The Napkin Sniffer

It's very much focused at the London restaurant scene and is intended for those in the business.  But with a tag line of "Putting the wind up the London restaurant scene" and columns entitled  'Blog Standards' and 'Galley Chumps' a restaurant critic version of Top Trumps - genius - it is likely to become required reading for us obsessives as well.

19 August 2009

Do it for the kreplach

I've been thoroughly impressed by David Sax's single-mindedness in his attempt to Save the Deli in the US.

Deli, read Ashkenazi, food is a phenomena in the US, but has never reached the same vaulted position in the UK.  If David thinks things are getting bad in the US, he should look at the UK.  Well he did, and he liked what he saw.  But can there be any doubt that what we have pales in significance to the US experience.

This video is the preview for the US edition of his forthcoming book.  Having just watched it I'm hungry and drooling at all that pickled meat.

As the video reminds us, what the world needs now is schmaltz, sweet schmaltz, it's the only thing that there's just too little of.  Other than gribenes, of course.

20 July 2009

Ferran Adrià, author

In the past year I've been to two events where Ferran Adrià was speaking, both associated with book launches.  First promoting A Day at elBulli and more recently for Food for Thought. Thought for Food.  

According to Amazon there are three more Adrià related books due out before the end of the year: Modern Gastronomy (with a foreword by Harold McGee), he has written a foreword for the latest Maze book and he's featured in Coco, the latest in the Phaidon 10x10 series.

It seems uncontroversial to suggest that Adrià has morphed into a man of letters.  Yet I can't really find any reference to it.  Whilst there has been a lot of excitement regarding Adria's move into the art world, his appearance at Documenta 12 was the genesis of Food for Thought, no-one has attributed any significance to this urge to write.

He might be writing so prolifically because the money can't hurt and anything that extends the brand helps.  Adrià has form for such initiatives.

Then again, it could be that he feels a need to get his thoughts down on paper and it seems equally uncontroversial to say that much of what he has to say is interesting.

I'm thoroughly enjoying the Food for Thought, although I don't think it answers the question over whether food at elBulli is art, because it ties itself in knots trying to decide what art is.  It is a textbook on elBulli more than anything else.  It tries to encapsulate the history and DNA of the restaurant and therefore Adrià himself. 

I find the the photos of all the dishes ever made at elBulli from 1987 to 2007, fascinating, as are the various timelines in the book.  One shows the progression of Western haute-cuisine generally, another how techniques and recipes have developed at elBulli over the years. 

The transcripts of the roundtables with Heston Blumenthal, Carsten Holler, Adrian Searle and Bill Buford amongst others give an insight into how those with a unique perspective, chefs, authors, curators, artists, regard eating his food.  These discussions are important because whilst there may not be agreement on whether or not his food is art, it clearly is not prosaic and therefore deserves some analysis. 

In addition to the writing, Adrià has actively encouraged debate around his food.  The first of the two events I mentioned above was a full house at the Royal Festival Hall, the second was a panel discussion followed by luvvie party.  The point of both was to get the audience thinking and engaging with Ferran.

Whilst we're used to seeing our chefs on TV, or in bookstores, hardly any of them seem to engage in this way.  There are examples of chefs with blogs, or très a la mode on Twitter, but to me this doesn't count.  Compared to what Adrià seems to be doing it is marketing not education.

Adrià clearly is influenced from all around and the discussions and roundtables are another facet of his ongoing education.  It feels that the books are a way to codify what would otherwise be a jumble of ideas, discussion and snippets of knowledge.

I know I might be giving Adrià's intentions far more credit than they're due.  I know that many are sceptical about his food.  I know that his food is not for daily consumption - I've never consumed it and am unlikely to - but his ideas are important.  And books are the home for ideas. So I await his next outpourings with interest. 

I hope that other chefs and cooks start writing about their thoughts, rather than just pumping out more recipes.  Heston has come out of the blocks at a roaring pace.  But I feel very strongly that this space should not just be owned by the great culinary innovators.  I'm thinking more along the lines of the essays in Giorgio Locatelli's Made in Italy as an initial template.  I'd particularly relish hearing more from Shaun Hill or Rowley Leigh.  Cooks with exceptional experience of their craft (or is it art?) and who have something to add to the debate and as with any debate, will in return learn and benefit from what they hear.

15 July 2009

Banana & sour-cherry ice-cream

I first made this recipe from a combination of necessity and desire.  Necessity to use up some sour-cherries that I'd had to buy in bulk from Bea, and desire because banana and sour-cherry ice-creams are two of my favourite flavours. 

I think it was at Persicco that I was introduced to great banana ice-cream that tasted of bananas rather than nasty sweets and Matteo at Scoop got me hooked on the wonders of amarena - a fior di latte based sour cherry ice-cream. 

One change you might want to make - and I think I will next time I make it - is to roast the bananas first.  David Lebovitz does this in his book and although I wasn't keen on the consistency of his roasted-banana ice-cream, the flavour was delicious: sweet, caramel, banana gorgeousness.

Makes about 1L

  • 3 bananas
  • 250g pitted sour-cherries
  • 70g brown sugar
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 1tbp butter
  • 300ml full fat milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 4 large egg yolks

First you need to make the sour-cherry compote.  I like to keep the compote as sour as possible, so I follow a very simple method of heating the cherries with 50g of caster sugar and a splash of water.  The cherries will gradually release juice and lose their structure.  You may want to add more sugar to taste, but remember the overall ice-cream will be relatively sweet.  Puree the compote and leave to cool thoroughly in the fridge.  You won't want it melting the ice-cream later on.

Slice the bananas, sprinkle with the brown sugar and roast them in the butter until they're brown and glistening, this can take up to 20 minutes. Mash the bananas and set aside.

Whisk together the egg yolks and 100g of caster sugar.  You want them to be light in colour, quite thick but not frothy.

Heat the milk - don't let it boil - and pour over the eggs, but be sure to keep stirring so the eggs don't curdle.

Rinse the pan you've heated the cream in. Put the custard (egg, sugar and milk) into the pan and reheat. Keep stirring it.  It's ready once it coats the back of a wooden spoon.

Let the custard cool completely.  It could take up to an hour.

Stir in the cream to the cooled mixture.

Combine the mashed bananas with the cream mixture and place in your ice-cream machine and follow your machine's instructions.

Add the cherries as you decant the ice-cream from the machine into the tub you'll be freezing it in. Layer the ice-cream with the very cold compote.  I tend to add enough compote each time so that it covers the surface of the tub, then add another layer of ice-cream and so on.

14 July 2009

Strawberry ice-cream

I always feel a twinge of guilt using great fruit in anything other than its natural state.  It feels sacrilegious to poncy up what is already pretty close to perfect.

But, a glut of very good strawberries has got me over my squeamishness, they were either going to rot away or be thrown away. What with the recent heat-wave ice-cream was the only thing to do. 

My recipe is an adaption of inspiration from a few other recipes: primarily David Lebovitz's Raspberry Ice-Cream (p93 The Perfect Scoop) and Rosemary Moon's extra-rich vanilla recipe (p21 Ice Cream Machine Book). 

For good measure, I tweaked the bastardised recipes further by chucking in a punnet of gooseberries.  I'd love to say that I alighted on the idea myself, but in truth I was watching HFW's latest series and they had a spot on strawberry jam making.  The lady (no doubt from the WI) showing Hugh how to do it, suggested using gooseberries for their sharpness, instead of the more normal addition of lemon juice - an ingredient I'd originally been planning for this ice-cream. 

This was a thoroughly delicious ice-cream, with clear, sweet strawberries being nicely offset by the sharp gooseberries and rich cream. 

I think possibly next time rather than adapting Rosemary Moon's ice-cream recipe to allow me to use up the double cream I had knocking around, I should have either gone for a straightforward custard base ice cream (fewer eggs) or a traditional gelato (no or at least little, cream). 

Finally, I made this in my Gaggia Gelatiera. It's a great piece of equipment, but I note hard to get hold of now, but there are other machines available.

Makes about 1L

  • 750g strawberries, hulled
  • 150g-200g of gooseberries, topped & tailed
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 300ml full fat milk
  • 300ml double cream
  • 6 large egg yolks

Macerate the strawberries in 100g of sugar for 1 hour.

Heat the milk but don't let it boil.

Beat the egg yolks and remaining sugar until pale and slightly thickened and pour onto the hot milk.

Return the mixture to the clean pan (to prevent the custard catching & burning), stirring continuiosuly as you heat it gently.

Once it coats the back of a spoon remove from the heat and cool.  It can take up to a couple of hours to cool thoroughly.

Stir the cream into the mixture.

Puree the strawberries and gooseberries.  If you want your ice cream totally smooth then pass the puree through a sieve.  My preference is to have the bits still in.  There may however be an argument to say you should pass the gooseberries through a sieve - and possibly peel - but not the strawberries.

At this stage it's important to make sure all the ingredients are cold, so that the ice-cream machine can churn as easily as possible.  If they're not all cold, wait for them to cool.  Combine the strawberries and the creamy custard and churn in the ice-cream machine as per your machine's instructions.

It's worth noting that in his recipe for Raspberry Ice Cream, David Lebovitz recommends that to preserve the flavour of the fruit, the ice-cream should be churned within 4 hours of making the puree.