For someone who considers herself a creature of culinary habit, Observer journalist Rachel Cooke has a hell of a lot of recipe options to hand. She adores books — one of the reception rooms in her North London home is used solely as a library — and an ample part of the collection is of a cookery nature.
Some 200 cookbooks can be found lining her bookshelves and sitting in neat stacks in the dining room. It's only down to regular donations to a charity shop that her collection does not explode much beyond this figure.
Rachel regularly writes book reviews, refreshingly non-formulaic profiles, and a column in Observer Food Monthly magazine. She's my favourite writer at The Observer and I got in touch with hopes of interviewing her for the blog. Happily, she agreed to meet. I went round to her North London home, which has an enviably grown-up decor (love the drinks cart) to talk about pages of taste.
We had a chat at the kitchen table where she divulged which cookbooks she takes to bed, what it’s like interviewing celebrities over a meal, recipe pet hates, and “the greatest thing that has ever happened” to her (hint: it involves a cookbook).
A remarkably humble baked good has recently attained celebrity status. It’s not French. It’s not covered in gold foil. And it certainly doesn’t take years of training to perfect. Soda bread has become a media darling, simply for being a quick and trustworthy loaf that the beginner baker can accomplish.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater, Lorraine Pascale, and Nigella Lawson have all baked soda bread on their TV programmes recently. There are two cookery trends that have helped push soda bread into the spotlight — home bread baking and 'simple' recipes.
The convergence of these two trends set off a flurry of encouragement to make soda bread. Why does it fit the bill so well, for so many? This bread doesn’t require many of the steps that fill new bakers with fear and loathing: kneading, proving, and shaping. Even if you do feel comfortable baking, soda bread is a delight because it can be ready in under an hour.
Recently there has been a massive swell of interest in bread making, and baking books and classes have been popping up in abundance. First time bakers, keen to get their hands in and start making their own, can easily feel deflated if their initial loaves don’t meet expectations.
It doesn’t help that everything is touted as being just SO easy and quick to make now. Or to translate that into Jamie Oliver speak; while preparing a dish for his 30 minute meal TV series he exclaimed: "Even a raving lunatic can do this!"
The problem with, uh, encouraging sentiments such as this is, when you’re in your kitchen trying to prepare a simple-easy-quick-lunatic-friendly recipe and it’s not going well, you feel so raving inadequate.
I’m here, as someone who has taken a couple of bread making classes but still struggles to consistently get all the elements quite right (there are good loaves and there are what-the-hell-happened-there loaves), with assurance that you can make soda bread.
With its pillowy centre, crusty shell, and comforting nostalgic fragrance, soda bread will become a staple once you take the plunge and make your first batch. It's a gate-way bread — once you bake it, you'll be eager to try other bread recipes. That’s an addiction I’m happy to enable.
This article was written for the Bake with Maria website. Click here to read the remainder of the article and try the recipe! While you're over there check out Maria's brilliant selection of baking classes, which take place at her Baking Lab in West London. I've taken classes taught by Maria and heartily recommend.