Pippa Middleton, the world's most celebrated bridesmaid, has released Celebrate: A Year of British Festivities for Families and Friends.
Middleton tackles the obvious issue in the opening sentence of the introduction: "It is a bit startling to achieve global recognition (if that's the right word) before the age of 30, on account of your sister, your brother-in-law and your bottom."
Well, there you are then. We're glad she brought it up first.
Middleton's book is a good example of the publishing industry's growing tendency to get things ass-backwards, if you will. In the old days, you published a cookbook and then got famous (like, say, Julia Child). Nowadays you get famous for something other than cooking, and then you get to publish a cookbook (like, say, Gwyneth Paltrow).
Pippa is no Julia -- or even Gwyneth -- but clearly she doesn't mean to be. Celebrate may combine there'll-always be-an-England cookery with glue-gunning crafts and party-planning tips. But for most people this will be an idle, dreamy, flip-through coffee table book rather than a practical tome. Filled with lifestyley prose and lovely visuals, it offers four seasons of lavish celebrations -- a wintry Burns Night supper, an Easter feast, a summer barbecue, a Halloween party -- illustrated with many photos of Middleton, her friends and scores of photogenic (possibly hired) children.
The 29-year-old Middleton received a reported £400,000 advance for Celebration, but sales have been sluggish, with copies already being sold off in discount bins. And the British reviews have ranged from snarky to savage.
Critics skewered Middleton's "twee" party ideas, which often involve merchandise sold through her family business, Party Pieces. They scoffed at the book's odd mix of aspirational fantasy (quail's eggs and gold-leaf jellies) and stunningly obvious points. (On how to run a sack race: "The first person to cross the finish line is the winner.") Many English commentators have basically consigned the book to colonials. "What is the point of this thick, colourful book," asks the writer for the Telegraph, "except as a sort of cultural tea bag for the American market?"
North Americans will no doubt find the Englishness wonderfully exotic, but also potentially frustrating. Why all this goose fat? Why do the baking tins come in such arcane sizes (who owns a 9x10 inch baking dish)? What the hell is gas 4?
Then there's the fact that flour and sugar are measured in grams. (British bakers generally weigh dry ingredients, which is a more accurate system if you have a kitchen scale but hell to.)
Still, Middleton should be commended for advancing -- and exporting -- the great British tradition of Sunday lunch. This venerable meal usually involves meat and two veg with a pudding. (Pudding here is used not in the American sense but as a more general word for dessert). You invite friends and family over for a long, lazy, slightly boozy afternoon, giving everyone a civilized pause before the busyness of the coming week.
You might think that Sunday lunch involves cooking too much food, but that's actually the idea. You start with a big joint of meat -- a lamb leg, a beef rib roast, a tarragon chicken -- and then use the leftovers later in the week. The meat is rounded out with side dishes (Middleton includes recipes for red cabbage, roast potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli cheese), with a pudding to finish. This can be a steamed pudding or just some kind of creamy, comforting dessert -- a fruit crisp or sponge cake, a trifle or fool.
On the whole, Celebrate seems like a daft but ultimately harmless book. Perhaps the proof is in the (sticky toffee) pudding. I made three recipes from the Sunday Lunches section. And I confess, I did not decorate with rustic name-place cards or plan rousing round games. My children did not bob for apples or make paper bunting or play pin the tail on the donkey.
But we did have a very good meal.
Slow roast leg of lamb
2.2-2.5 kg bone-in leg of lamb
salt and freshly ground black pepper
30 ml (2 tbsp) olive oil
4 red onions, peeled and cut into wedges
4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
3 bay leaves
3 sprigs rosemary
1 x 750 ml (about 3 Öì cups) bottle red wine
400 ml (1 3/4 cup) lamb or beef stock
8 plums, cut in half and stoned
15 g (2 tbsp) butter, softened
15 g (2 tbsp) all-purpose flour
15-30 ml (1-2 tbsp) redcurrant jelly
Preheat the oven to 160 C (325 F). Season the lamb with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a pan and cook the onion and carrot for a few minutes until softened. Place the lamb in a very large, thick-bottomed, lightly oiled roasting tin or casserole pot. Add the softened vegetables, garlic, bay leaves and rosemary. Pour in the wine and stock, cover tightly with foil and cook in the preheated oven for 3 hours, basting occasionally with the cooking juices. Remove the foil and cook, uncovered, for another 30 minutes, then add the plum halves and cook for a further 20-25 minutes until the lamb is tender, almost falling off the bone, and the liquid has reduced slightly.
Remove the lamb, vegetables and plums from the tin, set aside and keep warm. Remove the bay leaves and discard. Place the roasting tin on the stove over a high heat. Mix together the softened butter and flour in a small bowl until it forms a smooth paste, then whisk into the sauce. Simmer for 10 minutes or until the sauce has thickened and reduced. Stir in the redcurrant jelly and season to taste. Return the lamb and accompaniments to the sauce and warm through. Serves 8.
Tester's notes: Wonderful. This isn't like a roasted spring lamb with a hint of pink inside, but more like a lamb pot roast, in which the meat is covered and cooked in liquid until fork tender, a low, slow process that feels perfect for a winter's afternoon.
Preheat the oven to 200 C (390 F). Parboil 8 unpeeled medium baking potatoes for 10 minutes, then drain. Using a sharp knife, make slices widthways across each potato about 3-5 mm (Öõ-Öï in) apart, but don't cut all the way through the potato. When all the potatoes have been sliced, place them cut side up in a shallow baking dish or small roasting tin. Drizzle with 30 ml (2 tbsp) melted butter, then season with salt and pepper.
Bake for 15-20 minutes. Remove the potatoes from the oven and drizzle with another 30 ml (2 tbsp) melted butter. Sprinkle 60 ml (4 tbsp) finely grated Pecorino cheese and 30 ml (2 tbsp) bread crumbs on top of the potatoes and season with a little more salt and pepper. Return to the oven and bake for another 20 minutes, or until nicely browned. Serves 8.
Tester's notes: A tasty elaboration on the baked potato.
Sticky toffee pudding
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F). Lightly grease a 26x24 cm (10x9 in) rectangular baking tin. Mix 100 g (3 1/2 oz) chopped dates and 5 ml (1 tsp) each of vanilla and baking soda with 450 ml (1 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp) water. In a separate bowl, cream 60 g (1/4 cup) softened unsalted butter and 170g (3/4 cup plus 4 tsp) light brown sugar together until pale and fluffy, then gradually beat in 1 egg. Sift 225g self-raising flour (1 4/5 cup) (*see note below) and gradually add this to creamed mixture with 5 ml (1 tsp) mixed spice [use pumpkin pie spice] and 2 ml (1/2 tsp) ground cinnamon, then add the date mixture, stirring to combine. Pour into the baking tin, and bake for 40 minutes until it's spongy to touch. To make the sauce, put 100 ml (scant 1/2 cup) whipping cream in a pan with 30 g (2 tbsp) unsalted butter and 60g (1/3 cup) dark brown sugar. For extra spice, you can also add 3 balls of chopped stem ginger to the sauce. Stir over a low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Serve over the sticky toffee pudding and drizzle with cream. Serves 8.
Tester's notes: Not the stickiest sticky toffee pudding I've ever had, but still pretty delicious. (Though I suspect that a recycled telephone book would taste good covered with toffee sauce and heavy cream.) I often find when baking with British cookbooks that British ovens seem to be a different species from ours: my cake was done at just over half the baking time. Do check regularly.
* To make 250 ml (1 cup) self-raising flour, which is basically flour with leavening and salt already added, put 7 ml (11/2 tsp) baking powder and 2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt in a cup measure and add all-purpose flour to measure 250 ml (1 cup). I doubled the quantities to make 500 ml and then measured out the amount I needed.