The Big Fat Duck Cookbook reigns as one of the most impressive and intimidating cookbooks of all time. Cooks would turn the pages in awe and envy over the recipes and technical prowess of Chef Heston Blumenthal’s food, the likes of which earned him the distinction of #1 on San Pellegrino’s list of the Top 50 Restaurants in the World in 2005. Since the release of The Big Fat Duck Cookbook in 2008, chefs the world over have been infatuated with what was essentially 3 books in one; Blumenthal’s telling autobiography, the recipes from The Fat Duck and numerous essays and primers describing the unending research and theories that are constantly circulating through the remarkably small kitchen in Bray, UK. Unfortunately the culinary ambitions of the home cook seemed to fall to the way side; most weren’t equipped with the likes of immersion circulators, liquid nitrogen and pantries of hydrocolloids, all of which are required possessions when attempting most, if not all, of Blumenthal’s recipes.
Well wait no longer, home cooks. Your patience has not been in vain. Not by a long shot.
When word dropped at The Cookbook Store that Heston Blumenthal was writing a cookbook titled Heston Blumenthal at Home, skepticism abounded with visions of Blumenthal’s home being more like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise and less like the humble fridge/sink/stove setup us mere mortals possess. It seems the folks in Bray anticipated this and designed the cover of the book featuring a pajama-clad Blumenthal mid-way through his nighttime refrigerator raid in a cheeky parody of Nigella Lawson’s notorious habit of slinking downstairs in her nightgown to drag a spoon through cold, refrigerated food for midnight snacking.
Moving past the cover, one discovers that, once again, Blumenthal has exceeded the expectations of the average cookbook. In addition to recipes (we’ll get to those later), chapters are preceded by comprehensive sections explaining cooking principles from the role of each ingredient in a classic stock to the most detailed walkthrough of risotto preparation I’ve ever read. Of course, to please the ambitious students, a short chapter on sous-vide cookery is included, accompanied by a brief, yet concise notation on the benefits of the technique and its proper utilization.
Closer inspection of recipes reveals the use of grams as opposed to the more common (and inaccurate) cups, tablespoons and the like. Followers of my reviews know my position on these matters, so a cookbook that works in weights already falls under my good graces (consequentially, cooking temperatures are listed in Celsius, and thus require a simple conversion to understand). Where the Fat Duck Cookbook offered recipes for Snail Porridge and Flaming Sorbet, Heston Blumenthal at Home is noticeably tuned down with dishes such as Roast Leg of Lamb with Anchovy, Rosemary and Garlic; and Liquid Centre Chocolate Pudding filling the pages. Blumenthal also “recycles” recipes from his first book by removing excess technical procedure in favour of simplified execution. The iconic Scrambled Egg Ice Cream with Bacon and Pain Perdu is one such participant.
To remind us of his limitless creativity and child-like cheekiness, Blumenthal draws on childhood heavily with recipes for Cheese Toasties (Grilled Ham and Cheese Sandwiches on this side of the pond) where a sponge is inserted between the bread for pre-grilling to set the shape of the bread and prevent that annoying and unpleasant sensation of scalding hot cheese squishing out the far side of an over-stuffed sandwich and into one’s hands and/or lap.
For those turned off by the inherent simplicity of the latest Blumenthal book, I encourage you to at least consider the information provided on cooking principles, where culinary experts such as Harold McGee are referenced. They are impressively prolific with short notes on technique that are sure to enrich even the most experienced of professionals. The pastry chapter alone outlines the proper procedure for using dry ice at home and explains the scientific side of gelatine’s usage. Whether at home or the restaurant, it’s impossible to suppress Blumenthal’s thirst for knowledge, and as a result even seasoned cooks are sure to turn the last page smarter and more informed than when they first opened the cover.
In a year where many of the world’s greatest chefs have written homey, simplified cookbooks to appease the non-professional masses, Heston at Home stands out as the most ambitious of them all. Not pleased with just offering short recipes, Blumenthal pushes the reader to embrace the natural curiosity of the human mind and engage themselves with each recipe. Ideally, the reader gains the confidence to deviate slightly from instruction, and perhaps insert a favorite ingredient here or there to appease their unique palates, thereby expanding their culinary horizons one taste at a time. Once again, Blumenthal overachieves with his work; where The Big Fat Duck Cookbook stood as an icon of innovation, ambition and finesse, Heston at Home exemplifies simplicity, purity and technical foundation in cuisine.
Heston Blumenthal at Home by Heston Blumenthal
Hardcover, 400pp, $69
Reviewed by Kevin Jeung