Recipe Reading, Headnotes & Nigella Lawson’s Gateau Breton

If you pick up a cookbook in my house, you’ll find many recipes dog-eared or marked with a Post-It. A recipe that turns out well will always be dog-eared, with worn margins: smudges of chocolate, a dusting of flour, translucent dots where melted butter has splattered onto the page. And then there are recipes which have been thumbed through merely because I love reading them, over and over again.

Yes, you can absolutely read a recipe for pleasure. It is rather like reading a story, as described in this piece in the New Yorker, which is what inspired me to write this post. Fiction is described as the “narration of imaginary events,” and a recipe is a narration of little tasks that culminate in a dish on the table. There certainly is a fiction-like quality to it; except instead of characters and plotlines there are ingredients and steps. You don’t form an image of the protagonist on our head…instead, you imagine the ingredients in your hand; you picture the concoction bubbling away on the stove; the flour disappearing into the butter and eggs, the soft plop of the cake batter as you spoon it into a loaf tin. Then you see yourself tap it against the counter, twice. Just to make sure it’s evenly spread out.

I love the rhythm. I love reading descriptions of how a dish is taking shape. How a cake should look when it’s done, even if it’s just the plain old instructional of “the cake is done when it’s golden brown on top or when a skewer inserted comes out clean.”

I’m also a big headnote fan. I rarely buy a cookbook without headnotes. I somehow feel cheated. The title of the recipe followed by an ingredient list below feels…impersonal. Like the author doesn’t have anything to say. Like they’re just putting it out there, the rest is up to you, good luck!

Some readers prefer getting straight to the recipe, but I enjoy a backstory. I enjoy knowing what inspired the recipe. When the author first made it or ate it. What makes the recipe different, something that went wrong when the author first tried it, a note on an unusual ingredient. Just to let us know that they’ve got our backs, you know?

I don’t own any of her books, but I believe Dorie Greenspan writes wonderful headnotes, as does Melissa Clark. I own Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and her headnotes, while not anecdotal in nature, act as a guide- written in the voice of a teacher who is there to make you learn, and learn the right way. David Lebovitz’s recipe headnotes from The Sweet Life In Paris all have a fun story, plus a good where-to-eat recommendation or how-to-make tip. Amanda Hesser, in Cooking For Mr Latte, gives the reader some information on the source, some instructions on how to make the recipe better and what to avoid. Since it is a memoir with recipes, the storytelling is done in the chapter itself, like so:

Felicity Cloake in her book, Perfect, gives a long, detailed introduction rather than a headnote. The book is inspired by her “How To Make” column in The Guardian, so the notes preceding the recipe are observations, tips and tricks about what brought her to the ‘perfect’ recipe she is sharing.

Closer to home, Ritu Dalmia’s headnotes, too are a pleasure to read. A little history, a bit about the friend whose recipe it is, a trip she took when she first ate or cooked the dish- fun banter that keeps you engaged. Pooja Dhingra’s headnotes, while pithier, also give the reader a peek into the soul of the recipe, and what inspired it.

                                                                    From Ritu Dalmia’s Diva Green

Which brings me, finally, to the recipe writer I want to talk about today: Nigella Lawson. (I know I’ve been trolling on about her a lot!) I find her headnotes quite delightful. They range anywhere between 3 lines to half the page! But I love her little notes. The inspiration behind the recipe and the sugary language. And I like the fact that she continues the conversation in the recipe, too, when she’s giving directions on how to make it.

Maybe it’s the fact that she is a home-cook, rather than a professional chef. The instructions are descriptive, yet light-hearted, coming from someone who understands the limitations of a simple home kitchen. Take, for example, this paragraph from her recipe for Turkish Delight Syllabub (pg 207) from Nigella Bites:

“Combine the Cointreau, lemon juice and sugar in a large bowl (I use the bowl of my KitchenAid mixer) and stir to dissolve the sugar, or as good as. Slowly stir in the cream then get whisking. As I said, I use my freestanding mixer for this, but if you haven’t got one, don’t worry- but I would then advise a hand-held electric mixer. This takes ages to thicken and doing it by hand will drive you demented with tedium and impatience. Or it would me.”

This is someone who understands that not everyone has a KitchenAid. Someone who makes the recipe more fun than just “In the bowl of a freestanding mixer or using a hand-held electric mixer, whisk A, B & C till stiff peaks form.” That’s the kind of line one would tend to take for granted and just skim over.

It’s a similar conversational tone that drew me to her Gateau Breton in How To Be A Domestic Goddess. In it, she describes the lattice design one has to make with the tines of a fork on the surface of the cake before it’s put in the oven.

“For reasons I am not technically proficient to explain, sometimes the tine marks leave a firm, striated imprint (a bit like the lines which drive Gregory Peck mad in Spellbound); at others, as with the cake in the picture, they barely show once the cake is cooked.”

A recipe and a Hitchcock reference: how many cooks do that? And as someone with a love for Hitchcock, I had to bake it. I had limited egg yolks, so I halved the recipe and made a mini version instead, baked in little tart moulds. I went out and bought the best best butter I could get my hands on, since the recipe calls for it. I went ahead and splurged on President butter. But it was so, so worth it! The texture really is like a cross between shortbread and pound cake: dense and crumbly at the same time.


NIGELLA LAWSON’S GATEAU BRETON (From How To Be A Domestic Goddess)


For The Cake

  • 225 g plain flour
  • 250 g castor sugar
  • 250 g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
  • 6 large egg yolks

For The Glaze

  • 1 teaspoon of egg yolk from the 6 eggs yolks
  • 1 tablespoon water


  • Preheat the oven to 190 C
  • Butter a 25 cm round cake tin/Springform tin and keep aside
  • Seive the flour into a large bowl, stir in the sugar and once those are well combined, add the butter and egg yolks.
  • Using the dough hook attachment of your handheld mixer/standing mixer, slowly mix until you have a smooth golden dough. This can also be done by hand- combine the dry ingredients, make a well in the center, add the yolks + butter and knead into a smooth golden dough on a floured surface.
  • The dough will be quite sticky. Scoop it into the tin, dust your fingers with flour, then smooth out the dough with your fingers so it’s spread evenly.
  • Brush the dough with the water+yolk glaze, then make a lattice design using the prongs of a fork.
  • Bake at 190 C for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 180 C and bake for 20-25 mins more or until the top is golden and firm to touch.
  • Cool completely, cut and serve.

Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Fudge Cake + A Love For Cookbooks

It’s been slim pickings here at the blog for a while now so I thought I might as well post something rich and decadent after a-ummm-how shall I put it across? A blog-fast? A locked pantry?

We celebrated my husband’s birthday this month, and every year, he asks for a chocolate cake. He likes cheesecake and loaf cakes and citrusy oil-based cakes as well, but when it comes down to the kind of cake he’d like to cut on his birthday, it must be chocolate. Clean. Classic. Simple. Elegant.


And if there’s one cook out there who has chocolate cake recipes to suit every kind of palate and occasion, it’s Ms Lawson. Need a fancy cake? Torta alla gianduia from How To Be A Domestic Goddess. Need a cake that’s less dense, but looks difficult and laboured over? Chocolate cloud cake from Nigella Bites. Need something sophisticated and served individually? Molten chocolate babycakes. Gluten-free? Nigellissima’s Chocolate olive oil cake! So you see, she has something for the children, something for the chocoholic, something for the gluten-intolerant.

I picked up a copy of Nigella Bites a month ago, it was a nice hardcover edition, plus it was on sale. I know the number of recipes is limited compared to say, a How To Eat, Feast, or Nigellissima, and I’m well aware that almost all her recipes are available online (either on her website or a food blogger’s,) but the offer was too good to resist. I’d flipped through a copy of Nigella Bites it in a bookshop and quite liked it. (Yes, I’m one of those people- I’ll browse in a bookshop and buy it on Amazon or Flipkart if it’s cheaper there.) I have HTBADG, but I like Nigella Bites because it’s slightly different from the others- fewer recipes, but more step-by-step pictures, and a page after each chapter for notes, so you can scribble your observations and notes to self.

Okay, I’ll say it now- I am a Nigella convert. I’ve been quite open about my contempt for her in the past, but as I browse through more of her books, I began to see why she’s so popular: the pretty prose aside, she does tend cook to like many of us would at home. (I use stock cubes and frozen peas myself.) While I may not be making her ham in Coca Cola anytime soon, there are plenty of other things I can attempt, from involtini to orange breakfast muffins and Vietnamese chicken salad. And even if I don’t end up making all of the recipes, I don’t mind- like having cookbooks to hold and read!

Actually I love collecting cookbooks. I read them like I would a novel, going through recipes and techniques before bed each night, drawing some kitchen inspiration and figuring out how I can use the ingredients I have in a new way.

So most nights, before I sleep, I’ll flip through a cookbook in bed. I’ll just pick a book off my bookshelf, based on how I feel- and I’ll read a recipe or two like a bedtime story. Marcella Hazan’s tips on how best to store basil. Felicity Cloake’s recipe for perfect gazpacho. Amanda Hesser’s baked zucchini with herbs. Ritu Dalmia’s marinated eggplant sandwich recipe, or one of Nigella’s many, many muffin or cake recipes. More than the recipe itself- “…in a bowl sift together flour, salt, baking powder..,” I like reading the notes preceding a recipe. What inspired it, who it’s borrowed from, a special meal it was part of, how the author has added her twist to it.

I’ve come across other bloggers who do the same- and I wonder- do you curl up with a good cookbook? And why? For the prose, meal planning, or just to take in the beautiful photography?

Sometimes I wonder if I think about food a little too much: right now, I’m thinking about how to prepare a bowl of wheatberries, currently soaking. And this brings me back to Ms Lawson. She claims to have her mind on food almost all the time, and she’s unapologetic about it. And her recipes too, are straightforward and unapologetic about how they came to be.

This chocolate cake is chocolate cake at its simple, uncomplicated best. No 70% dark chocolate to be melted, just good old-fashioned cocoa powder, flour-butter-sugar-eggs. The way the ingredients are combined differs from some of Nigella’s other chocolate cakes, but it yields a spongy and light cake with a creamy, sweet and slightly tart frosting. It’s got more body than buttercream, so it holds up well, and it’s a nice contrast to the spongy cake.

I also feel it tastes better the day after it’s baked- the rest moistens the sponge and makes it a little richer 😀



I halved the recipe to make just one layer. I also substituted some ingredients, which I’ve added in brackets.

The Cake

  • 400 g all-purpose flour
  • 250 g golden castor sugar ( I used white castor sugar)
  • 100 light brown muscovado sugar (I used light brown sugar)
  • 50 cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 142 ml sour cream ( I used plain yogurt)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 175 grams unsalted butter, melted and cooled
  • 125 ml corn oil (I used sunflower oil)
  • 300 ml chilled water

For The Chocolate Frosting

  • 175 grams dark chocolate (minimum 70% cocoa solids)
  • 250 grams unsalted butter (softened)
  • 275 grams icing sugar (sifted)
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla extract



For The Cake

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C
  • Grease and line the bottom of two 8-inch sandwich tins.
  • In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugars, cocoa powder, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
  • In another smaller bowl or measuring jug, whisk the eggs, sour cream and vanilla until blended.
  • In a third, large bowl, beat the melted butter and corn oil until just blended, then beat in the water. Add the flour mixture at once and beat well. Add the egg mixture-sour cream mixture and continue beating till everything is well combined.
  • Pour the batter into the prepared tins.
  • Bake the cakes for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool completely before icing the cake

The Icing

  • Melt the chocolate in the microwave  or a double boiler. Allow it to cool slightly.
  • In another bowl beat the butter until it’s soft and creamy. Add the sieved icing sugar and beat till light and fluffy. Then add the vanilla and melted chocolate and mix until everything is glossy and smooth.
  • To assemble, sandwich the middle of the cake with 1/4 of the icing, and spread the frosting over the top and sides.