I know, I know- a little late, but here it is. I spent the most wonderful two days catching up with friends at Maison et Objet in Paris, and returned home with a full heart and a brain completely inspired from all I had seen. My weekend’s sojourn means that my Penguin Books For Cooks will be in your inboxes on Wednesday morning: apologies, and I do hope you enjoy the two little numbers.
As you may now know, each week will see me looking at two cookbooks, inspired by my wonderful Box Set: 100 Cookbook covers in one box: Cookery Postcards from Penguin. Lots of people have enquired about the box set- and you can purchase them easily: I have provided a link here to Waterstones, as they have them in stock, and the box set is often stocked in independent shops and galleries. It is quite the most worthwhile purchase- you won’t regret it!
I suppose it seems appropriate post my Parisian weekend that I should examine a little Penguin devoted to a classic French dish, and pair it with another interesting title which caused me rather a lot of delight, and frustration when researching it: so here they are: Narcissa Chamberlain’s The Omelette Book, and The Savannah Cook Book, by Harriet Ross Colquit.
The Omelette Book, Narcissa Chamberlain, illustrated by Hilary Knight
I have a copy of this: and, with its rather niche title, it is not as slim as one would imagine. I have always loved the idea of an omelette; I do however choose to cook the rather more robust frittata on frequent occasions, and in my kitchen a tortilla may be favoured over the traditional French classic. It is perhaps to do with my not-so-gentle touch in the kitchen: I am a little slap dash, and I can be clumsy. Of course, I also have a Stanley cooker and temperature can sometimes not be as exacting as an omelette often requires. I do, however, love this little book for its wonderful verse, and its sublime ideas. Narcissa Chamberlain was born in New York, and then lived in France with her husband Samuel Chamberlain, a writer on gastronomy, and an etcher and photographer. She considered herself a “home-made” cook, with later studies at the Ecole du Cordon Bleu furthering her knowledge. Chamberlain researched many culinary histories, using Samuel’s extremely large library of gastronomy titles. She discovered that the omelette appeared in so many guises, across a huge range of cultures and countries, and what fascinated her were the roots of the omelette deep in antiquity- she poured this research and fascination into this definitive collection of 300 omelette recipes. It is an absolute delight to read, and will urge you to rediscover this simple little dish.
In the opening “The Chronicle of The Omelette”, Chamberlain’s voice is wonderfully present, and it is one which I instantly warmed to. She warns against the actions of the unskilled in the kitchen: when describing the last crucial stages of the omelette, she advises, “The fact is, take care, the coagulation is abrupt, the exact degree easily overstepped, and you mightily risk turning out a pretty piece of cardboard in guise of an omelette. In this case, it is no longer an omelette, it is a little projectile good for breaking window panes.” Again, in extolling the wonders of the dish as an everyday supper, she writes, “Dishwashers and automatic blenders replace many pairs of hands, but no mechanical voice answers the eternal question, “What shall we have for dinner?”. I do rather love a woman with a practical and humorous heart.
I have taken a recipe directly from this little book for you today: it is a sweet one, and employs the souffle method: but it sounds just wonderful. I also have to admit to something: as I have been writing this post, I had to stop and go downstairs to the kitchen. I opened the fridge and foraged a few ingredients and, in 10 minutes, had made myself the most perfect little 2 egg omelette for Elevenses.
I will transcribe the recipe exactly as it appears in the book.
Coffee and Almond Souffle Omelette
Beat the yolks of 4 eggs with 6 tablespoons of sugar long and thoroughly until thick and pale. Add 3 tablespoons of extremely strong coffee. Fold in 6 whites beaten stiff and ½ cup grilled chopped almonds (unsalted). Drop the mixture into a buttered oval baking dish, smooth the surface with a spatula, leaving it in the center.
Place in a hot oven and when the omelette begins to rise (which should be in about 5 minutes), make a long slit in the surface, and continue to cook about 10 minutes more.
The Omelette Book was illustrated by Hilary Knight. I have included a few of these delightful pen and ink drawings in the post, and I find both the book cover and the illustrations incredibly contemporary: these could appear in a 21st century cookbook and not look out of place. Of course, as a self-confessed paper lover and corkboard enthusiast, I love Knight’s use of the pin motif throughout his illustrations: reminiscent of the kitchen and a pinboard, the cook’s notes to herself, the proper pinning of paper before the adhesive likes of post-it notes and the virtual pinboards we adore today, these little illustrations remind me of simple kitchens, and corkboards filled with reminders and good ideas for mid-week meals. Hilary Knight is a prolific illustrator: 90 years old, he has two new book projects coming out this year, and you may well know him better as the creator of the Eloise drawings (the series by Kay Thompson). He also illustrated the wonderful I Hate To Cook by Peg Bracken, among many other titles. I adored looking through his work and reading all about him: his blog is here, and of course you can also follow his Twitter account.
Ribbons and roosters, ducks and hare-lidded tureens, pepper mills and frying pans- Knight’s little illustrations are quite perfect: I would have loved to have seen more than just the chapter plates, however!
The Savannah Cook Book, Harriet Ross Colquit, illustrated by Florence Olmstead
This is one that I don’t have in my collection: published in 1933, it is a collection of “the receipts that made the Savannah hospitality famous”. The cookbook focusses on the historic and often colonial recipes passed down through generations of families and cooks, from Savannah, Georgia . It’s difficult to find much out about the book, the writer and the illustrator. The cookbook includes an introduction by Ogden Nash, extolling the virtues of Georgia’s cookery and hospitality. Recipes such as Chicken Gumbo, Veal in Curry Sauce, Possum and ‘Taters, and Chatham Artillery Punch (a rather splendid sounding infusion, it must be said) are included. Preceding the Possum recipe, readers are instructed in a few methods on the best way of hunting and catching the little animal, and then, while cooking, to “place four slices of breakfast bacon reverently across his breast”- a phrase which of course took my fancy. As I say, my research here has been purely internet based, as I don’t have the edition, so information is a bit thin on the ground. Receipts were collected from a variety of sources: word-of-mouth, family albums and old letters. Receipts is a Southern word, and I love this description from Charleston Wine and Food, explaining the difference between receipt and recipe: “Recipes are instructions; receipts are biographies, shared at the table”. You can find out a little more on charlestonwineandfood.com, which is a most interesting site. Another website which threw up an amazing series of books on Southern Cooking was omnivorebooks.com: I now follow them on Instagram too, and will be lovingly looking at their collections for years to come I think!
If anyone can provide any information on Florence Olmstead, I would be most grateful: and as I don’t have a copy of the book, I can’t even post any pictures for you!
Until next week’s instalment- goodbye, and have a wonderful week.