Completely Perfect
By Felicity Cloake

It takes a certain confidence to title a cookbook Completely Perfect. Published by Penguin, this is the fourth in Felicity Cloake’s Perfect series, compilations of the award-winning food writer’s recipes which have appeared in her weekly column in The Guardian since 2010.

I was delighted when this book was published because I often read Cloake’s recipes online, leaving my iPad continually splattered with oil and covered in sticky fingerprints. I am of the generation that prefers having my go-to recipes in book form where the pages of my favourite dishes wear their stains and smudges like a badge of honour.

Subtitled 120 Essential Recipes for Every Cook, the book would be a great gift for beginners who will benefit from recipes for boiling an egg, making a jacket potato and cooking rice. Yet there are plenty of ideas to interest confident cooks. In less pressured lives some may enjoy passing the days paging through food magazines, but many people lack the luxury of time. Hence, we need someone whose recipes are trustworthy. Cloake cleverly does all the research, provides a precis of the diverging methods that renowned chefs use in preparing a dish, tries them all out in her kitchen and, finally, presents her perfect recipe.

Cloake writes with a down-to-earth honesty and wit. She is just the right side of opinionated in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. I find her recipes especially helpful when I arrive at the stove half an hour before the hungry mouths gather around the dining table and I have no time to consult the umpteen cookbooks that line my shelves in search of the best way to make fish cakes. Even though I am an experienced and confident cook, I appreciate the tweaks and tips with which Cloake seasons her recipes — fennel seeds in meatballs, coffee in the chilli con carne or parmesan and a squeeze of lemon in the garlic bread. I am trying that one out at my next braai.

When Cloake describes pork skin as being as “desiccated as an old camel bone in the Kalahari” I think I spot an imperfection. Surely she means the Sahara? I google it and discover that camels were once imported to the Northern Cape for use by police “mounties”. This is one well-researched book.

I learn a lot besides the presence of dromedaries in the desert. Think moussaka is Greek in origin? It’s originally Arabic. Know when baking powder was developed? When golden syrup was invented? After reading through Cloake’s recipe notes I am ready to take a pub quiz. Food nerds like me delight in Cloake’s tips. Now I too can store eggs with their pointy end downwards, thus keeping the air pocket at the top and delaying the ageing process.

The recipes range from breakfast to puddings and present a solid set of dishes that will refresh and invigorate the weekly cooking regime which can become tedious for cooks and diners. While many of the recipes are staples of the domestic kitchen — roast chicken, cottage pie or macaroni cheese, for example — others will impress on special occasions. Beef Wellington is achievable in six steps. A somewhat retro dinner party dish, especially in an era when vegetarians and vegans are likely to be at the table, it is handy if feeding a clutch of carnivores who will no doubt greet this delicious offering with a round of deserved applause.

In these carb-averse times we live in, it is sheer delight to savour the recipes for perfect chips, roast and dauphinoise potatoes. For braai enthusiasts, Cloake has a mouth-watering recipe for pulled pork. Fortunately, liquid smoke (imported from the US and available online) is optional.

I appreciate the way Cloake critiques the great and the good of food writers from Elizabeth David onwards and takes them to task if she finds their recipe below par — too much butter, too little taste, too dense and too moist are but some of her objections. Her recipe for Ragu Bolognese takes readers through the advice proffered by some of the doyens of Italian cooking — Marcella Hazan and Giorgio Locatelli — while further considering contributions from Heston Blumenthal.

Cloake is concerned primarily with respecting the tradition of Bologna, the city where the dish originated. Spaghetti is not the pasta of choice there — so no more Spaghetti Bolognese please — serve the sauce with tagliatelle.

I have one quibble with the notion of perfection when examining Cloake’s recipe for carrot cake. One look at the list of ingredients which omits ginger and includes raisins, convinces me that my version of this noble cake reigns supreme.

Yes, I feel a bit smug. It just proves that one woman’s idea of perfection is simply a matter of taste. And as all cooks know, nothing is ever completely perfect.