My Favourite Cookery Books

I quite enjoy cooking and trying out cuisines from many different countries, so obviously I have a bit of a cookery book collection. However, when you have children, at first fussy, then constantly hungry, your plans for sophisticated cooking go out the window and you end up providing the same stalwart reliable and quick crowd-pleasers over and over again.

There are some books that have stood the test of time, however, as well as recent favourites which I can foresee will become my go-to cooking bibles. Like all UK-based people, I have enjoyed Delia, Nigella and Nigel Slater, but I only occasionally use their recipes. I have not gone down the Mary Berry and Yotam Ottolenghi route. I tend to prefer something more filling and simpler to source, without having to hunt out the ingredients in five different shopping sessions at Waitrose or specialist stores. I have been lucky enough to grow up with a solid mix of Viennese, Romanian and French cooking in my childhood. As a student I learnt Japanese, Italian and Chinese cooking – from friends rather than from a cookery book, so I don’t actually own reliable recipe books from those countries. Later, I learnt Greek and Lebanese cooking from family and friends – a limited number of recipes, but still among my favourites.

However, what you see above are the books that I find myself picking up most frequently. Tessa Kiros is a global citizen like myself (Finnish mother, Greek Cypriot father, grew up in Australia), and her cooking reflects this mixed heritage. Her Apples for Jam contained many recipes which even my super-fussy youngsters enjoyed at the age of 4-5.

My major regret, food-wise, is that I did not sit down with my aunt, who was a fantastic cook, and write down all her recipes. However, I can compensate for that somewhat with my most recent acquisition: Carpathia by Irina Georgescu – This is a book I have bought for many of my friends, as it contains a lot of cultural detail as well as Romanian recipes for an English audience. It also has slightly more detail about exact quantities than the book lying open in the picture below, which is my well-worn, by now coverless copy of the classic of Romanian cookery books, Sanda Marin, first published in 1936 and never out of print since (although with considerable modifications during the Communist period, to disguise the fact that many of the ingredients were unavailable or restricted). The four volumes you see to the far right of the picture is a box set a schoolfriend living in France sent me between my first and second move to France (knowing that I missed the area very much). It has a recipe for every single day of the year, divided according to season, and the produce available at the time, or special traditional recipes for Christmas, Easter and other holidays.

Another French book which I used at least once a week when I lived in France but not quite so often nowadays is Sophie’s Cakes – which are savoury or sweet cakes you can bake in a bread tray, once again grouped by season. Best party food – I made them whenever we were invited anywhere, as well as for events at school.

Since returning to the UK in 2016, however, what with working in London, long commutes, rapidly growing teenagers and financial struggles, cooking has become more of a challenge. So the three books below have been very welcome: Jack Monroe‘s down to earth recipes on a budget, plus the appeal of ‘just bung it in the oven’ of Rukmini Iyer‘s roasting tin recipes.

So what kind of cooking do you like to explore? Do you have any favourite recipe books or food writers? And has that changed over the course of the years?

Romanian Road Trip: Mountain Country

When I was young, I always wanted to go to the seaside on holiday in Romania and couldn’t understand why we had to follow the national tradition of a week at the seaside followed by a week in the mountains. Nowadays, however, I much prefer the mountains (at least in my home country – for beaches are pretty similar everywhere in Europe).

The first part of our road trip was heading north out of Bucharest up the picturesque Prahova Valley (particularly colourful at this time of year) to Braşov. We only stopped for lunch because both the cable car at Buşteni and the Peleş Palace in Sinaia were closed on a Tuesday, but if you ever go that way, you should stop and check out both. (By the way, the s with cedilla is pronounced ‘sh’).

Peles, the summer residence of the Romanian kings in the 19th/20th century. From gandul.info
The Sphinx, rock formation caused by the heavy winds at the top of the Bucegi mountains, accessible only on foot from the Busteni cable car.

We stayed a few days in Braşov, also known as Kronstadt in German, because its symbol is of a crown on an oak tree. Not to be confused with the Russian Kronstadt near St Petersburg, it was a bustling medieval and Renaissance town of craftsmen and merchants, where German, Hungarian and Romanian ethnicities lived together in something resembling harmony.

The coat of arms of the city on the town hall.

While it does not have the grand architecture of Sibiu (which is where the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy lived), it is still full of beautiful old buildings, some of them more renovated than others.

Nightfall in the main square of the Old Town, with the Hollywood-style lit-up sign of Brasov.
View of the city from behind the sign.

It is also home to one of the narrowest streets in Europe, appropriately known as ‘Rope Street’. Each window looking out onto the street has been decorated by a different artist.

I have a soft spot for Braşov, though, and not just because it has been the scene of many an escapade during my high school and university years (it is only 2 hours from Bucharest, so we went skiing or hiking nearly every other weekend). It is also surrounded by mountains, so in just a few minutes you can be in the forest and feel that you have left all the urban hustle and bustle behind you.

We stayed at a very nice hotel here too, in the Schei neighbourhood, which was just outside the Old Town walls and was traditionally the only place where Romanians were allowed to settle. This was the view from our balcony.

The weather was not as kind to us here as it was throughout the rest of our trip. It only rained a little bit, but there was cloud cover, which meant we didn’t get the best views of or from the mountains. And it was very cold for two days, with some snowfall, especially up in the ski resort Poiana Braşov, where I learnt to ski again as a grown-up after a ski accident in my childhood put an end to winter sports for me, as far as my parents were concerned.

A world away from the mellow autumnal landscape below.
All is well, however, when you can warm up your icy toes in a hot tub at the Hotel Sport.
Since it was out of season, we had the whole place practically to ourselves.

But it was the interplay of nature and architecture, as well as the friendly cats, which made us love Braşov.

Gate to the Old Town.
The tower of the famous Black Church in the background.
We kept passing this abandoned house on our way back to the hotel. I would love to renovate it and keep a few cats there. 

This is getting too long, so I will have to tell you about the next stage of our journey in a separate blog post. I had some hard choices to make about which route to take to Sibiu, where my younger son’s godparents live. I was initially planning to go via Sighişoara, which is the most beautiful medieval towns in Romania, but a bit farther away. In the end, time and other circumstances made us opt for another route. But, as you will see, we discovered a lesser-known treasure there as well.

One last fond look at Braşov. 

If you go there, try their Bulz (a sort of polenta and cheese mix rolled up into a ball) and their Papanaşi – enormous doughnuts traditionally served as a pair with blueberry jam and cream. Extremely filling – I can’t believe I used to be able to tackle those as a dessert. I now could barely finish one as a main course!

From retete.unica.ro

Breaking Bread

Let me help you break the bread

with my family this holiday.

You step over the threshold, ignore the salt,

admire the braided beauty on the plate.

Chew it and savour,

linger on the aftertaste of generations’ toil.

Your family has a Domesday entry.

Mine is self-sufficient.

Grains are the pride of every house: maize and wheat,

we pat our mămăligă,

we mould our bread with tears and laughter,

age plum brandy in lop-sided barrels,

magic forth the salt from deep mines.

For what more do you need

for your gut to be satiated

for merriment to bubble up

and your face to flush with our endless questions?

Welcoming guests with bread, salt and drink. From doxologia.ro
Welcoming guests with bread, salt and drink. From doxologia.ro

Over at dVerse Poets we are talking bread in all its forms, getting ready for the holidays.

Food for Thought: You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

Over at dVerse Poets, Abhra is urging us to write about our own cultural heritage via the uniqueness of our food and recipes. I thought I’d attempt something different: a prose-poem of sorts about experiencing Romanian food as an outsider, a child who had spent most of her life abroad.

You’ve Never Had Anything Like This

‘You’ve never had anything like this before.’

Uh-oh, here it comes, with warning lights!

As if I’d fall for tricks like that again. They’ve said it before, they can say it again. Too many times.

Usually, it involves something that looks like dog’s vomit covered in mayo.

Or meat wrapped up – for no good reason – in cabbage that’s gone off. They fill my mouth with sour revenge. For living abroad, for escaping them for ten months a year.

But this time, it’s a dessert. I have a sweet tooth, which I’m not allowed to acknowledge. However, this time… my carrot-munching, sugar-banning mother isn’t around. And even she cannot control what my aunt gives me in her own home.

I move in closer.

It’s foamy-white and quivers at the bottom of a bowl. I sink a spoon into its springiness and scoop it into my mouth. It melts on my tongue with creamy-egged smoothness and lingering longings of vanilla.

I gobble it up and ask for more.

‘What is it?’

‘Birds’ milk.’

retetelebunicii
From the recipe website http://www.retetelebunicii.ro