Here's what happened.
"So, how do you turn on the oven?" asks Nancy Silverton, standing in her kitchen at home in Hancock Park, Los Angeles. The James Beard Award–winning chef-restaurateur and F&W Best New Chef alum isn’t doing a bit. As she attempts to set the temperature to 340°F, the wall-mount unit emits a rapid sequence of shrill beeps, and she’s not wholly convinced she has succeeded. She doesn’t cook that often at home; she does that at work, at her L.A. restaurants Osteria Mozza and Pizzeria Mozza. But today, she’s making an exception because she’s cooking from a new cookbook: Nigella Lawson’s At My Table.
Since the arrival of How to Eat two decades ago, Lawson has published 10 titles and has hosted a number of television shows at home in the U.K. and abroad. The food in her latest book “comes from my kitchen, is eaten at my table,” the British culinary icon states. She assures readers it “doesn’t require technique, dexterity, or expertise”—qualities that Silverton has in spades.
Silverton has written nine of her own cookbooks, all of them full of recipes for others to follow. But she doesn’t use cookbooks—not her own or anyone else’s: “I have to say that I am the worst person to follow a recipe. I don’t have the patience to read through them.” Yet here she is, preheating her oven just as Lawson has instructed.
The chef cracks the spine with an open mind and is immediately struck by two things: the book’s lack of structure and the lax plating of its food. Although desserts are relegated to their own section, the rest of the recipes are clumped together in no particular order. The disorder is deliberate, Lawson writes: “The messiness of having no chapters, no breaks in the run of the recipes felt so much more like the way I actually cook and live.” That “honest jumble” extends to the presentation of the food itself. Lawson, who may be one of the original practitioners of what we now call “self-care,” does not believe in stressing over salad leaves on a platter.
The first recipe that piques Silverton’s curiosity is the simply titled “Turkish Eggs.” Silverton chooses it because it is the first one in the book and because it pairs a poached egg with Greek yogurt, a combination of which Silverton is dubious. She’s equally skeptical of the techniques involved. Warming the yogurt, even over indirect heat using a double boiler, strikes her as risky since it’s an ingredient that’s quick to separate when cooked. And, while remarking that “anyone who still poaches an egg is all right by me,” Silverton wonders if the step of straining the excess water from the egg white before poaching is gratuitous. It seems an unnecessarily complicated flourish in a book with such a casual agenda.
Still, she goes along with Lawson, whisking the yogurt on the stove and stopping when it looks like sour cream, to be safe. “I think the heating up changed the consistency,” she says approvingly. “It really changes the mouthfeel.” She’s not sold on the egg-straining technique and, to test its efficacy, poaches a second egg as she normally would—she deems Lawson’s hack a waste of time and effort. As she tastes the swirled mess before her, she is, as the Brits would say, chuffed at how it’s turned out. It is quite beautiful in its imperfect way and, as she points out, only took 10 minutes to complete, yet it yielded something complex in flavor and texture.
A few moments later, she pulls Lawson’s blondie pudding out of the oven. What Silverton really wants to know is whether this thing can hold itself together. Made with white chocolate and ground almonds instead of flour, it is gluten-free, and Silverton worries it’s lacking in structure. However uncertain the outcome, the directions are straightforward. Silverton appreciates Lawson’s descriptive accuracy and winsome use of language: “‘Once it’s a sludgy paste in buttery liquid’—how charmingly attractive that sounds—‘remove from the heat,’” she reads. Silverton approvingly acknowledges that “none of the dessert recipes is more than a page and a half, and none requires anything other than a bowl and a whisk.”
Like the eggs, the blondie batter is done in no time, and it’s just as Lawson has advertised. Once baked, it’s a textural cross between an un-sticky toffee pudding and a flourless chocolate cake. “Wow! I’m pleasantly surprised,” Silverton says. “I’m also pleasantly surprised I can follow a recipe.”