THE Bake Off judge talks to Taste about returning to cookery books, and why her freezer is now always full of cake.
Prue Leith had barely written a recipe in 25 years. For more than two decades, the culinary mind of the legendary Prue Leith – the woman who set up the prestigious Leiths Cookery School and London restaurant of the same name – lay pretty much dormant.
And then she found herself appearing on the Great British Menu, replacing Mary Berry on the Great British Bake Off, and “pinching” recipes off the contestants. Telly provoked her interest in cooking again, and luckily she found a whole new audience interested right back at her.
“When I stopped writing cookery books 25 years ago, half the people who are now watching Bake Off weren’t even alive,” she notes dryly. These people, as well as faithful Leith fans, are fully catered for in her new cookbook, Prue: My All-time Favourite Recipes.
Packed with classics like roast pork and cottage pie with black pudding, the South African cook is also sharing fresher, zingier dishes, like baked sea bass with samphire and cucumber, Colombian chicken, and potato soup and burrata with kumquats.
It makes a change from the novels she’s been writing. “The last thing they wanted was a new novelist,” she says of her publishers of 25 years ago. “What they wanted was a tried-and-tested cookery book writer who was very successful. The only way I could make them think, ‘Right, I’m now going to write novels’, was simply to refuse to write another recipe – which I did.”
An autobiography and eight novels down (“All quite successful, not, I must say, as successful as the cookbooks!”), on scrapping her self-imposed rule and returning to cookbooks, she says: “I’m 78 – I can do what I like now, haha.”
It helped that this time around, a doyenne of the food world, she got to skip the “tedious” bits of making recipe collections, namely the extensive recipe testing (a job that went instead to talented cook Georgina Fuggle). “It’s like writing a maths book, you don’t dare have a mistake in the recipe because somebody’s going to spend their hard-earned money on buying the ingredients and making the thing, and if it doesn’t work, it’s your fault,” explains Leith. “It doesn’t matter if you make a mistake in a novel – it’s not going to ruin somebody’s life, but if you’ve invited people round for dinner and spent a lot of money on something and you spoil it for them…
“I cooked everything at least once,” she adds with a laugh, “but I didn’t have to cook it four times!”
While Bake Off has encouraged her to start inventing recipes again, it’s also triggered a new interest in cakes. “I’ve never been much of a cake-maker,” muses Leith, who’d only bake them on special occasions. “There wasn’t cake in the house like there was in my grandmother’s.”
But now there is: “John, my husband, gets quite: [shouting] ‘Where’s the cake?’ – ‘Well you make it!'” Her freezer is now usually stuffed with fruit cake or a lemon polenta (“so there’s always some cake for him”).
She hasn’t managed to pass on her enthusiasm to fellow Bake Off presenter Noel Fielding though. “But Paul [Hollywood] has him making bread. I don’t know how many loaves he’s made, but he’s certainly made at least one.” So Fielding is trying, then? “Well, Paul’s trying with him, whether Noel’s trying is another thing,” she replies with a cackle.
Leith is ever prepared with a quick comment or dry remark, however, her (somewhat accidental) catchphrase – “Is it worth the calories?” – might be one of her abiding principles, but it wasn’t meant to become her personal slogan.
“I always judge things by, ‘I don’t care how many calories it’s got, it’s so delicious I’m going to eat it’, or, ‘It’s a special occasion, it’s worth the calories’. I won’t eat something which is high in calories and not particularly wonderful, because that’s just not worth it, you feel guilty after,” she explains, adding: “Now I hardly ever say it because I feel self-conscious!”
Talking of guilt and food, she admits she’ll occasionally diet “because I get too fat!” But that ‘diet’ – more of a rebalancing, really – consists of “laying off the booze and too much food”, while the deep-seated association of guilt with food, she says, is “really dangerous”.
“All this worry about clean gut and stuff just makes people nervous about what’s going in their mouths,” says Leith. “It’s such a boring thing to say but it’s the absolute truth, that the answer to a healthy Travel is moderation. Even people who are fanatic runners and run millions of miles, they’re the ones in old age who are so crippled with arthritis they can barely move – too much exercise is as bad as no exercise, and too much food is as bad as no food.”
There have been developments around eating and cooking over the past few decades that she does find encouraging though: “There’s much more interest in food now because of television mostly,” she notes. “One wants them to move from watching the telly to actually doing it.”
She believes TV is beginning to prod people to pick up a frying pan but is adamant there needs to be more focus on learning cookery skills at school, and more support for people who aren’t adept in the kitchen. “Life has got tougher and tougher for people on a real tight budget, so people who have never learnt to cook, who didn’t learn at school and their mothers didn’t cook, who have basically grown up on junk food, it’s really difficult for them to change unless someone will give them a hand,” she says, “because if you can’t cook, you’re not going to risk your benefit money on something the children won’t eat because they’ve never seen it before.”
Endlessly practical and committed, Leith is a patron of the Chefs In Schools charity, which aims to get professional chefs into school classrooms, alongside her Bake Off role.
“I have never managed to put my feet up, ever,” she notes. “I’m having a little revival here in my old age, a kind of renaissance, it’s all very exciting.”
‘ALMOST THAI’ FISH CAKES
Here are a couple of recipes to try at home:
A fresh and zingy starter.
“Little Thai fish cakes – as sold on the streets of Bangkok – are almost always delicious, usually made with no potato and a lot of chilli, but here I have combined the South-East Asian flavours of lemongrass, coriander and chilli with English potatoes,” says culinary legend, Prue Leith.
300g floury potatoes, peeled
1 medium egg, beaten
3tbsp coriander leaves and stalks, finely chopped
1/2 green chilli, finely chopped
300g salmon fillet, skinned and cut into 1-2cm cubes
3cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated
Finely grated zest of 1 lime
1 lemongrass stem
3-4tbsp dried breadcrumbs
2tbsp sesame oil
1tbsp unsalted butter
Salt and pepper to season
For the dipping sauce:
4tbsp rice wine vinegar
2tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 red chilli, deseeded and very finely chopped
1. Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, add the potatoes and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain well, and while still boiling-hot, crush (rather than mash) the potatoes and allow the steam to escape – the drier the mash, the firmer your fish cakes will be.
2. Leave the mash to cool before stirring in the egg, coriander and green chilli. Generously season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
3. While the potatoes are cooking, whizz the salmon, ginger and lime zest in a food processor until they form a thick paste.
4. Peel the outer layer of the lemongrass and discard. Cut the stem in half lengthways and chop as finely as you are able. Add to the salmon paste, then add the salmon mixture to the cooled potato, combining well. Divide the mixture into eight and shape into patties.
5. Dip each one into the breadcrumbs to coat and put onto a large plate or baking tray. Chill in the fridge for at least an hour to firm up the fishcakes.
6. Place a large, heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Heat the sesame oil and butter together in the pan until beginning to foam, then fry the fish cakes in batches, until golden on both sides.
7. To make the dipping sauce, combine all the ingredients and pour into a small serving dish. Serve the hot fish cakes with the dipping sauce.
FRESH GNOCCHI WITH TOMATOES AND SUMMER HERBS
A quick and simple supper.
“Potato gnocchi are easy to make, but you can buy good fresh gnocchi (potato or pasta) in large supermarkets,” explains Bake Off’s Prue Leith. “You will need 500g. This dish is good baked with a sprinkling of Parmesan on top too, but I like it as here,” she adds, “with the herbs almost raw and brilliant green with the bright red blobs of roasted tomato.”
1kg ripe, plum tomatoes
About 3tbsp olive oil
1tsp fennel seeds
1 large onion, diced
2 large garlic cloves, sliced
150ml full-fat creme fraiche (half-fat will split during cooking)
A large handful of summer herbs, roughly chopped (dill, basil and parsley)
Salt and pepper to season
Grating of Parmesan or vegetarian hard cheese to serve
For the potato gnocchi:
500g potatoes, peeled
250g plain flour
1 medium egg, beaten
1. Heat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4.
2. Halve the tomatoes lengthways and put them, cut-side down, in an oiled roasting tin. Sprinkle with most of the oil and the fennel seeds and season with salt and pepper. Roast for one hour, turning the tomatoes over halfway through cooking. When cool enough to handle, cut each tomato into smallish pieces with scissors.
3. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, fry the onion gently in one tablespoon oil for four to five minutes until soft. Add the garlic and fry for a further minute, then set aside.
4. For the gnocchi, boil the potatoes in salted, simmering water for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain, mash, taste and season well. Mix in almost all the flour and the egg. Flour your hands and knead into a ball. Using more flour to prevent sticking, roll out into long batons 2cm thick. Cut these into 2cm pieces. See the ‘Tip’ below if you want to give them a traditional gnocchi shape.
5. Cook the gnocchi for exactly three minutes in boiling water, then drain and spread out on a clean tea towel, separating them to prevent sticking.
6. Now back to the sauce: Tip the tomatoes and their juices into the onion pan and add the creme fraiche and herbs. Very gently, combine until everything is evenly distributed. Check the seasoning, then stir the gnocchi into the sauce and serve with the Parmesan.
TIP: To get the traditional gnocchi shape, put a table fork, preferably one with four tines, face down on a board so the tips of the tines touch the board. Shape each piece of dough into a ball and roll it gently down the tines of the fork to make grooves in its surface. You should end up with a rugby-ball shape with indentations running around it.
BRAISED DUCK SALAD WITH POMEGRANATE, JUNIPER AND GINGER
A bright and vibrant salad.
“I once saw Jamie Oliver do something like this (though I never managed to get the recipe) years ago at a Good Food Show. The audience consisted of 2000 schoolchildren and even before he appeared, they were pretty hysterical, shouting, ‘Jamie, Jamie!’ at the top of their lungs while music pounded and the word ‘JAMIE’ pulsed in neon colours,” recalls Prue Leith.
“There was a huge drum kit on one side of the stage and he leapt onto the stool and played a riff with all the expertise of a rock star. Then he came centre stage and gave a cookery demonstration, involving kids from the audience at every step, with two of them shredding the duck, others chopping, peeling, etc.
“I remember his trick with the pomegranate: Instead of following my method below, he bashed the fruit all over (like you might tap a hard-boiled egg to make peeling it easy), then cut it in half and squeezed the fruit in his fists, holding them high over the bowl. The seeds and juice rained down on the salad.”
5 celery sticks, finely diced
1 large red onion, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, crushed
6cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2tsp juniper berries
Juice and finely grated zest of 1 orange
A glug of vegetable oil
4 duck legs, skin on
1 large pomegranate
1 bunch of spring onions, finely sliced on the diagonal
Salt and pepper to season
For the dressing:
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2tbsp pomegranate molasses
2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. Heat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas mark 4.
2. Put the celery, onion, garlic and ginger in the bottom of a shallow casserole dish. Bash the juniper berries lightly in a small pestle and mortar (or in a bowl with the end of a rolling pin) and add them to the casserole. Add the orange juice and zest and drizzle with a good glug of vegetable oil. Give it a good mix and spread out to make a bed for the duck legs.
3. Rub the za’atar all over the duck legs and lay them on top of the vegetables in the casserole. Season well with salt and pepper. Now simply place in the oven and cook, uncovered, for roughly one-and-a-half hours, depending on the size of your duck legs. The duck is done when the flesh easily pulls away from the bone with the touch of a fork.
4. Meanwhile, remove the seeds from the pomegranate. The best method for this is to score the tough outer skin into quarters. Submerge the fruit in a large, deep bowl of cold water and, using your hands, gently pull apart the quarters and ease out the seeds with your fingers. The seeds sink to the bottom and the skin and pith will float to the top and can be scooped away. Drain off the water and the seeds remain. (Don’t leave the seeds in the water too long – tip them out onto kitchen paper to dry.)
5. Remove the duck from the oven. Pour off the duck fat from the vegetables. Allow the duck to cool for a few minutes to make removing the meat from the bones easier.
6. Shred the duck and skin and tip into a large mixing bowl. Tumble together with the roasted vegetables and then turn out onto a generous serving platter.
7. Make the dressing by combining the lemon juice, pomegranate molasses and olive oil.
8. Serve before the duck cools completely: Drizzle the dressing all over, then top with the pomegranate seeds and sliced spring onions.
Prue: My All-time Favourite Recipes by Prue Leith, photography by David Loftus, is published by Bluebird, priced £25. Available now.
Source : BournemouthEcho