Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Nigella Lawson
Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 9780701183226, RRP: $69.95, November 2008
I must confess here that I’m one of those bah humbug types who is probably going to be visited by Jacob Marley in chains one of these day. Christmas to me is mega-fuss, greedy children (mine mainly), overwrought days of forced shopping, and too much of everything. Having said that, I’m inclined to do things like make my own pickles and sourdough bread, and love the idea of decorating a tree with home made decorations, together with my three generous singing children (same ones as above). Tradition and festivity, I love. Chaos, fuss and overspending, I don’t. Call me inconsistent. I won’t deny it. I get the feeling that Nigella Lawson is the same.
Though her latest book is big, beautiful, and expensive, it’s also one of those wonderful heirlooms that you could keep and refer to year after year. Like all of Nigella’s books, it’s as lovely to read as it is to work from. She is one of the most literary of all chefs (she once judged the Booker Prize), and it is certainly possible to just sit down and read this through as if it were a lighthearted, Christmassy novel. Each recipe is full of reminiscences, quirky and well written prose, and a kind of accessibility that makes you feel like she’s whispering in your ear:
After a pomegranate, the lychee feels the most seasonally celebratory of fruits, and it didn’t seem fair to leave it out of the Christmas canon, just because of its unfestive pallor. Plus, I stumbled across the most beautiful bottle, in the form of a French crème de lychee…that begged to bought [sic]. I couldn’t resist, and I love this lychee martini it was born to make. (5)
This book is really a complete compendium on how to enjoy Christmas, and for those who tend to get jaded, like me, it should be brought out in mid November each year to set the tone for the season and get you in the mood. The book begins with Christmassy cocktails, canapés and how to cater for lots of people without getting crazy (the later applies throughout the book – Nigella is a practical goddess), and moves through soups, salads, and sauces to suppers, big main dinners, sweet stuff and baking, edible presents, a full scale brunch menu, hot drinks, and two serious cures for overindulgence (as you might expect, they aren’t pristine – “I will never be a nil by mouth kind of person”). All of the recipes include make ahead and freeze ahead tips. If you’re really organised, you could have all the catering done by end November, and spend the rest of the silly season drinking Nigella’s cocktails. A day or two ahead is about all I can manage, and Nigella caters for all types, including the last minute cook.
As you might expect in a book of this quality, there are lots of large, enticing photographs, some of which provide serving ideas and decorating inspiration, and others which provide guidelines to the recipes. As with How to Be A Domestic Goddess Nigella has a canny knack of both choosing and presenting recipes that you feel almost compelled to try. Perhaps it’s because she is realistic about what a home cook can be expected to do, and perhaps it’s because there are a range of secret tips that actually make it sound like you can succeed, even with complicated things like a “spiced and superjuicy turkey with allspice gravy” (she’s convinced me – I’m definitely doing this one for the dinner this year – even my vegetarian in-laws are going to be tempted), or “chocolate fruit cake” (might be the word “incredibly easy” in the title that tempts me). Almost all the recipes include hints on substitutions, and many contain anecdotes about the recipe’s origin or mistakes that Nigella has made.
The edible presents section could pay for the price of the book if you decide to make your gifts this year (and please include me on your list in that case as I love homemade gifts). They aren’t complicated either – with basics like vanilla sugar, “Christmas Spiced Salt”, chutneys, vinegars, and peanut brittle. Teachers receiving a mason jar of “Steeped Christmas Fruits,” or a box of “Christmas Puddini Bonbons” would have cause for celebration (that’s a heads-up if any of my kids’ teachers are reading this). The “Main Event” full scale meal is edged in red, and even includes a staged timetable which goes from Christmas Eve through to lunch, with alternatives and recipes for the leftovers afterwards.
This is an exquisite book, which manages to combine the most outrageous frivolity (it’s kind of like the Manolo Blahnik of cookbooks with its green ribbon, sumptuous pictures, and the big hardcover red and greenness of it) with absolute practicality in terms of the useability of its recipes, the practicality of its suggestions, and the tempting nature of the items chosen. If you feel in need of some real seasoning this holiday, then get this book for yourself, well in advance of Christmas. It will very likely tempt even the Scroogiest of people to do a big Christmas meal and invite family, friends and even neighbours and good looking strangers over to partake.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, The Art of Assessment, and Quark Soup.