The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander

I bought this when it first came out and then I bought the second edition as well. Perhaps this will speak better than words as to the estimation with which I hold The Cook’s Companion.

Still. I like words, and I’m a bit shocked to discover that I’ve never written about this book. It is, in my opinion as the chief household cook, as a person who loves to read cookbooks, and as a bookseller of cookbooks over the years, one of those classics which will be with us in a hundred years’ time.

The aim of the author was to appeal to ordinary folk and so it is full of things that anybody can do. Its Australian bent discusses food from that local perspective, ingredients by class, what one should and shouldn’t, can and can’t do with them. Its generous layout permits margin notes, small ideas which are as important to the book as the more lavish recipes which take most of the page. Grate apple, says one such note. Breakfast is strong toast, generously buttered, with the apple on top. Cinnamon, of course. I discovered this in a period where I didn’t eat sugar and it was a revelation as a simple, healthy dessert breakfast. Alternatively, I discovered, mash banana and have it the same way instead. This book is not about slavishly follow it, you will also think for yourself. One thing will come from another.

On my personal blog, where I keep my cooking notes, amongst other things, quite a few of my favourite things start off as recipes from this book and then take a direction to be something else as well, or instead. Her recipe for Vietnamese Chicken and Mint Salad is a wonderful summer dish, but how about deconstructing it? I turn it into something one puts together at the table, rice paper rolls. The engagement, both with the food and each other that takes place in those sorts of meals is special.

Or take her Italian Olive Paste. A revelation to me, I was astonished at how good it was. Alexander has suggestions as to what to do with it, but I offer my own. It becomes part of a sauce for spaghetti, which is tuna based.

There were a couple of reasons I wanted the second edition. One was that I have used the first so much that it is covered in the evidence. Some pages look like Jackson Pollock’s got at them. Now I have another copy that will remain pristine for ever. But the second reason was curiosity to see what’s been revised, corrected, changed. No book can be this big and detailed without having the odd mistake. Living in Melbourne and sharing the cooking for Christmas one year, I decided to make the avocado mousse of the first edition. It was an inedible disaster. The best reason not to make it, if you haven’t already discovered, is that the recipe is not in the second edition. It was that irredeemably flawed.

To end conventionally, that is to say with dessert, The Cook’s Companion shines here too. Easy banana cake is one of those cakes that can stand a few days hanging around – though it has a tendency not to. Her sponge topping is a perfect way to dress up stewed fruit in winter. I serve it with creme fraiche or strained yoghurt, but here it’s with Gruyere double cream, what else in Switzerland?

apple with sponge topping

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