You know the scenario - you read what sounds like an amazing recipe or watch someone cook it on TV, you go out, track down all the ingredients, come home, spend several hours in the kitchen (it always takes longer than they say) and........ it just doesn't rise, set, taste so great, whatever. But hang on you say, you followed all the instructions....... walked the extra mile to get the tricky ingredient instead of adding in something else like you were tempted to do. What happened?
Seems odd but proportions and timing are sometimes not as rigorously checked as they should be when a cookbook is being written. Any of us can make a killer dish from time to time but if you're on the TV, writing a book or in a professional kitchen you have to be able to reproduce that same amazing dish again and again and again. It's a tall order I know. Produce varies, ovens have a life of their own and even your mood can really change how things pan out but if a recipe is well researched, checked and explained it should pretty much work out every time.
If you ask who most home cooks in Britain and Ireland trust the most, Delia Smith's name comes up again and again. She's an institution. Every house has one of her books which, to date, have sold more than 21 million copies. Why? Because her recipes work. Every time. Fans (and there are many) say one of her books is all you need to be able to cook everything.
She specializes in the basics (she once famously showed viewers how to boil an egg on tv!) so for the more advanced cook some of the information might seem a little dumbed down. But while you may not need to read about the basics of pasta, you may well need a quick course on how to make a preserve, figure out how much fruit you need for a Christmas cake for 14 people, how to make a risotto..... She covers it all and in a few pages. It's one of those reference books you come back to again and again. Sometimes I use her to crossreference other people's take on recipes and proportions.
The Delia (she only needs one name, she's that big) I have is her Complete Cookery Course (1995) published by BBC Books. It was first written in 1978 and proved such a hit it was reprinted over 10 times before being updated in the 90s. It covers everything - bread and yeast cookery, meat (she's great on stews and what to do with cheaper cuts), vegetarian (a good basic introduction), barbecues, ice-cream, pastries and cakes (this is what most people turn to her for) and preserving! It's all there and more.
To some it will seem a little dated. Not for Delia, Jamie Oliver's super-casual "wicked" style or Nigel Slater's glorious writing that makes you want to eat everything or Nigella's sexed up kitchen goddesss. But without Delia these writers wouldn't exist - she paved the way and they all know it.
What most people like is that her ingredients are easy to find and she tends not to be as faddy as some food writers. Her more recent work features all the ingredients we've come to accept as part of the modern cookery lexicon - cous cous, stem ginger, feta... but her real strength lies in her ability to teach the basics and that's why this book still a touchstone in my kitchen.
There are (at least in my edition), a lot fewer photos than we've come to expect in cookbooks these days but the writing is clear, concise and while there are literally hundreds of recipes, things aren't overcrowded. It's a book you can navigate easily. As one reviewer said it's like a trusted DIY manual a book you will keep coming back to. In short, essential.
My recipe this week is for Delia's all-in-one (as in you throw all the ingredients in a bowl, mix and you're done) sponge. I chose it because I'm always amazed at how many people tell me that every time they make a cake it's a complete disaster and because this cake will cost you about €2 ($2.50) to make whereas shopbought cakes cost a lot more and are generally, well, kinda rubbish.
The easiest cake you'll ever make
4oz/110gr self'raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon of cocoa (if making a chocolate version)
4oz/110gr butter at room temperature
4oz/110gr caster sugar
2 large eggs
2-3 drops vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to Gas mark 3/ 170 degrees Centigrade/325 degrees Fahrenheit. Lightly grease two 7 inch sponge tins with a little butter and set aside for later.
Sift the flour, baking powder and cocoa together into a large bowl. Add all the other ingredients and whisk everything either by hand or with an electric beater until thoroughly combined. If the mixture doesn't drop off a wooden spoon easily when tapped on the side of a bowl add 1 or 2 teaspoons milk and whisk again.
Divide the mixture between the two tins, level each one with a spatula then bake on the centre shelf for 30 minutes. When they come out of the oven loosen the edges with a knife then turn each sponge onto a wire cooling rack to cool.
The simplest filling is jam and freshly whipped cream then a dusting of icing sugar on the top but I went all out on the chocolate as you can see from the picture and made Delia's chocolate fudge filling and topping and for this you'll need:
3 fl oz/75ml evaporated milk
4oz/110gr dark chocolate, broken into small pieces
1 1/2 oz /40gr butter
2 drops vanilla extract.
Combine the sugar and milk in a heavy pot over a low heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves completely then bring the mixture to the boil then simmer for about 6 minutes. Take off the heat, stir in the chocolate until it melts then add the butter and vanilla. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, cool then cover and chill for a few hours until a spreadable consistency.
To finish off the cake, spread half the icing on the top of one of the sponges. Place the other one on top then top that one with the rest of the icing. Decorate with some flower petals or raspberries. Enjoy.