* Prices may differ from that shown
Since my best friend introduced me to the delights of Rachel Allen and her cooking I've been a big fan. I have several of her books and am always on the lookout for others that are on special offer. I generally find them to be great quality and full of delicious sounding recipes accompanied by irrisistible photography and, on the whole, end up turning dozens of corners of pages down in each book for the recipes that I want to try. So, when I saw her Entertaining at Home book on special offer with The Book People down from £25 to only £3.99 I knew it was heading for my kitchen shelf to sit proudly next to her others.
Before I had chance to order it, however, I spotted it sitting on the the shelf in our local library and decided I may as well "try before I buy" and so took it home with me. Appearance and quality-wise it is up to the usual standards for a Rachel Allen cookbook ie; it is hardbacked with quite thick pages and beautiful photography and all in all feels like a very high quality tome.
The cover shows Rachel setting a pretty table with candles and flowers and says that inside we'll find "inspiring recipes for all occasions" and the back cover has a delicious looking picture of a raspberry cheesecake type thing and tells us that the book has been made using sustainable foresting.
The book is split into the following sections:
- Brunches and lunches
- Eating outdoors
- Canapes and small bites
- Small celebrations (2-4 people)
- Dinner parties (4-8 people)
- Large gatherings (8-12 people)
- The buffet party
I think this is a good way to split the recipes up, rather than by ingredient or season as other cookbooks do. As it's a book specifically for entertaining it makes it easier to find recipes suitable to your particular occasion, although obviously if you were just having a "small celebration" you could still use recipes from other sections, you'd just have to adapt the quantities to suit a smaller number of people and vice versa if you were having a "lareg gathering". Having said that, it isn't an efficient way to have the book laid out if you're looking for a specific course. The other night I was looking for dessert ideas and as I feel perfectly capable of adapting a recipes quantities to suit the number of guests I have I ended up having to trawl through each section and then find the dessert part of that section, rather than just having one section on desserts to look through.
At the beginning of each section there is also a page which lists the recipes to be found in that section and splits them down further into starters, main courses, side dishes and desserts, along with a further little introduction to that particular section. In the Dinner Party section there is also a useful little guide to preparing a cheeseboard which I found rather helpful. My godparents bought us a beautiful cheeseboard set a few Christmases ago but as I don't really know much about cheese I just select a few chunks from the cheese counter or deli, stick them on the board and plonk it on the table. But this gives tips such as choosing fewer better cheeses, providing something sweet to go with it like honey and fruit, what temperature to serve cheeses at etc.
I don't often bother with the introductions of cookbooks as I usually find them a bit dull with the author just rabbiting on about what inspired them this time and what fantastic places they went to for research. This one, however, is slightly different to the norm and gives useful tips on being a host/ess when entertaining. It covers such topics as considering your guests when choosing your menu, how to create a good atmosphere in your home, setting the table appropriately for the occasion, preparing things ahead of time, which drinks to serve and, most importantly, how to keep calm throughout! I would imagine most people would find this section quite handy when planning a special occasion or something more out of the ordinary. I did find it useful, although personally I tend to prefer informal dinners with friends and family and so normally just plonk a bottle on the table and tell them to help themselves rather than planning what to drink!
The recipes are all laid out as most of her other books are; with the title in bold, a brief introduction - often including a personal anecdote, which I like - a list of ingredients along with telling you how many it serves and whether it is suitable for vegetarians or not, what dish to use and finally a method, neatly laid out and numbered to make it easy to follow. What I tend to like about Rachels recipes are that usually they are easy to follow, don't use 78 different ingredients and are generally as fuss-free as possible. Whilst I love cooking, and feeding other people, I'm not a faffer. I don't decorate my cakes beautifully, I slather them in frosting usually. I don't make small fiddly things, I prefer big, hearty "dig-in" dishes. SO, whilst I usually try to make my dishes look nice I'm not overly bothered about them looking beautifully presented and decorated so this kind of home-cooking suits me down to the ground.
Another thing I like about the recipes in the book is that, whilst they're all geared at celebrating something or entertaining groups of people and so trying to be a bit more special than your bog standard food, none of them use overly exotic or hard to find ingredients. Anything you need should be readily available locally (unless you live in the back of beyond!) and despite just living in a small town and relying mostly on the local market for my fresh produce I've never had trouble getting hold of any ingredients. There is also a good mix of meat, fish and vegetarian dishes, all of which are clearly marked so you know if they're suitable for any veggie guests.
Recipes I have tried from the book so far have been; oven-baked courgette tortilla, orange meringue roulade (this is given as a Brunches and Lunches dessert but for me is far too much for a lunch so I used it as a dinner dessert), thai chicken cakes with sweet chilli jam (described as a canape, but I did as a proper starter and they were absolutely DELICIOUS!), beef wellington and the raspberry and amaretto tart. Each recipe was easy to follow and well laid out and they all went down very well whether it was with my mother in law when she came for dinner or just my husbands beef wellington treat (he doesn't normally get fed that well, don't worry!). One little criticism I do have, however, is that the recipes don't give you an estimated time of preparation and cooking which I always find useful in cookbooks. It means I have to sit down and read the recipe thoroughly before I start and work all the timings out for myself from the method, when it would be much easier if there wa a little box that told you how long it would take.
Overall I have found this to be much like Rachel Allens other books when it comes to quality of the overall book and variety/easiness/adaptability of the recipes in it but, although I have enjoyed making - and eating! - several of them whilst I've had it on loan from the library, I have now decided that I won't be buying it after all, even at the bargain price of £3.99. The vast majority of my cookbooks are battered and tattered and have a multitude of pages turned down with dozens of tempting recipes that I want to try, but this one, unfortunately, doesn't. Don't get me wrong, the recipes that I have tried have all gone down well, but for me there just aren't enough others in it to tempt me into making them, so I don't think it would be worth the money for me.
If you, however, are looking for a book to take the pressure out of entertaining and which will give you entire menu ideas for specific occasions then it could be useful for you. I really don't think it's worth the full RRP of £25, but so few cookbooks are worth their full asking price nowadays, especially the hardbacked, celebrity chef endorsed ones, but if The Book People still have it on special offer it could be a worthwhile addition to your collection.