My very first recipe book was The Pooh Cook Book, which I got when I was 11. My name, address and school form (1P2 if you were wondering) are written in blue ink inside the front cover but otherwise the pages are distinctly unmarked. The peppermint creams are the only things I remember making and I mostly remember the fact that they never set. My second was Ginette Mathiot’s Je Sais Cuisiner which, since it was then in Livre de Poche format, was practically unreadable. I touted it round my various student houses but, despite my pride at owning a French cookery book, I never actually used it. My third, well my third was Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course which I treated myself to on my 23rd birthday, having just finished the first chapter of my PhD. And this was the book that taught me to cook or, at least, taught me to try cooking, which is not necessarily the same thing.
This year the book celebrates its 30th birthday (if only I was…) and, in the spirit of finding out exactly what it taught me I went back through the 300-odd dirty and stuck together pages to reminisce. Some of the recipes look horribly old-fashioned now, especially the vegetarian ones (aduki bean and brown rice salad anyone?) but, despite that, the majority of the book is still incredibly useful. It taught me basics such as how to make a loaf of bread, how to roast meat and how to make a pancake batter and it also formed the basis of my earliest collection of recipes: I still use it for gratin dauphinois, coq au vin and crème brulée and, twenty years after first using it, I can still find something new (honey and spice cake might be sneaking into my kitchen next week). But if I had to cite one recipe that I go back to more than any other, it is this one for moussaka which I dig out at the first sign of sunshine every spring. Forget those orange-slicked oily ones from rubbish Greek restaurants; this is much better. It needs a bit of effort, since there are three components but you can make it a lot quicker by: a) grilling or baking the aubergine slices instead of frying them which also makes it less oily; b) making the cheese sauce before cooking the lamb so you don’t have to wait for it to cool before adding the eggs. What’s great about this is that most of the required ingredients are store-cupboard staples so there’s not much shopping either. Serve it with a green salad and the first chilled rosé of the year and I defy you not to feel happy and full of the joys of spring when you eat it.
Moussaka (adapted from Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course)
For four good portions you will need:
Cupboard (or things you may already have)
plain flour, 75g
hard cheese (like Cheddar), about 50-75g to taste
salt and pepper
nutmeg (optional), a pinch of freshly grated or ground
olive oil, lots (probably 100-200ml)
white onions, a couple
garlic cloves, 3
tomato purée, 2 tablespoons
aubergines, 1-3 (that might seem vague but depending on their size and diameter, and whether you want one or two layers of aubergine you may only need one. I bought three medium ones on Monday and still have two left.)
red or white wine, 75ml (a very small glass)
minced lamb, 500g
ground cinnamon, a good teaspoon or two
fresh flat-leaf parsley, a handful
green salad, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas 4.
2. Wipe or rinse the aubergine(s), top and tail them then slice them widthways into discs about ½ cm thick.
3. Pour a good glug or two of olive oil into a bowl, dip the aubergine slices into it, then lay them on a baking sheet. You may need to top up the olive oil at some point. If using up this amount of olive oil offends you then just put the slices directly on the baking sheet, then drizzle the oil over both sides. They won’t cook as evenly if they are not covered in oil. Cook in the oven for about 10 minutes until they are golden; check on them frequently because any slightly thinner ones may burn. Once cooked, remove from the oven and leave to one side.
4. Whilst the aubergine slices are baking make a cheese sauce. First grate the cheese. Then melt the butter in a saucepan and, once melted, add the flour and stir into the butter to make a thick paste. Cook this for a minute or two, stirring to make sure it is evenly cooked then, off the heat, add the milk little by little. Once all the milk has been added and you have a smooth white sauce, return it to the heat and let it bubble and thicken slightly. Finally, stir in the cheese, some salt and pepper and a pinch of nutmeg, adding a little more of each to taste. Leave on one side to cool.
5. Last of all make the meat sauce. Peel and chop the onions and garlic and fry in a large saucepan with some olive oil for a few minutes then add the lamb. Cook the meat until brown all over (you’ll need to bash some of the bigger lumps to make sure there are no pink bits).
6. Once the lamb has browned, rinse and chop the parsley then mix it with the wine, cinnamon and tomato purée and pour over the meat. Season to taste then leave to cook for about 15-20 minutes.
7. When the cheese sauce is cool, beat the two eggs together and stir them into it.
8. Layer aubergines and meat sauce together in a gratin dish then pour the cheese sauce over the top.
9. Bake for about 40 minutes until the top is puffed and golden.