Life

Prue Leith: I'm 78, I can do what I like now says Bake Off presenter

Bake Off judge Prue Leith talks to Ella Walker about returning to cookery books, and why her freezer is now always full of cake

South African cook, TV presenter and novelist Prue Leith

PRUE Leith had barely written a recipe in 25 years. For more than two decades, the culinary mind of the woman who set up the prestigious Leiths Cookery School and London restaurant of the same name lay pretty much dormant.

And then she found herself appearing on the Great British Menu, replacing Mary Berry on the Great British Bake Off, and "pinching" recipes off the contestants. Telly provoked her interest in cooking again, and luckily she found a whole new audience interested right back at her.

"When I stopped writing cookery books 25 years ago, half the people who are now watching Bake Off weren't even alive," she notes dryly. These people, as well as faithful Leith fans, are fully catered for in her new cookbook, Prue: My All-time Favourite Recipes.

Packed with classics like roast pork and cottage pie with black pudding, the South African cook is also sharing fresher, zingier dishes, like baked sea bass with samphire and cucumber and potato soup and burrata with kumquats.

It makes a change from the novels she's been writing. "The last thing they wanted was a new novelist," she says of her publishers of 25 years ago. "What they wanted was a tried-and-tested cookery book writer who was very successful. The only way I could make them think, 'Right, I'm now going to write novels', was simply to refuse to write another recipe – which I did."

An autobiography and eight novels down ("All quite successful – not, I must say, as successful as the cookbooks!"), on scrapping her self-imposed rule and returning to cookbooks, she says: "I'm 78 – I can do what I like now."

It helped that this time around, a doyenne of the food world, she got to skip the "tedious" bits of making recipe collections, namely the extensive recipe testing (a job that went instead to talented cook Georgina Fuggle). "It's like writing a maths book; you don't dare have a mistake in the recipe because somebody's going to spend their hard-earned money on buying the ingredients and making the thing, and if it doesn't work, it's your fault," explains Leith.

"It doesn't matter if you make a mistake in a novel – it's not going to ruin somebody's life, but if you've invited people round for dinner and spent a lot of money on something and you spoil it for them..."

While Bake Off has encouraged her to start inventing recipes again, it's also triggered a new interest in cakes. "I've never been much of a cake-maker," muses Leith, who would only bake them on special occasions. "There wasn't cake in the house like there was in my grandmother's."

But now there is: "John, my husband, gets quite: [shouting] 'Where's the cake?' – 'Well you make it!'" Her freezer is now usually stuffed with fruit cake or a lemon polenta ("so there's always some cake for him").

She hasn't managed to pass on her enthusiasm to fellow Bake Off presenter Noel Fielding, though. "But Paul [Hollywood] has him making bread. I don't know how many loaves he's made, but he's certainly made at least one." So Fielding is trying, then? "Well, Paul's trying with him, whether Noel's trying is another thing," she replies with a cackle.

Leith is ever prepared with a quick comment or dry remark; however, her (somewhat accidental) catchphrase – "Is it worth the calories?" – might be one of her abiding principles, but it wasn't meant to become her personal slogan.

"I always judge things by, 'I don't care how many calories it's got, it's so delicious I'm going to eat it', or, 'It's a special occasion, it's worth the calories'. I won't eat something which is high in calories and not particularly wonderful, because that's just not worth it, you feel guilty after," she explains."

Talking of guilt and food, she admits she'll occasionally diet "because I get too fat." But that 'diet' – more of a rebalancing, really – consists of "laying off the booze and too much food", while the deep-seated association of guilt with food, she says, is "really dangerous".

"All this worry about clean gut and stuff just makes people nervous about what's going in their mouths," says Leith. "It's such a boring thing to say but it's the absolute truth, that the answer to a healthy lifestyle is moderation.

"Even people who are fanatic runners and run millions of miles, they're the ones in old age who are so crippled with arthritis they can barely move – too much exercise is as bad as no exercise, and too much food is as bad as no food."

There have been developments around eating and cooking over the past few decades that she does find encouraging, though: "There's much more interest in food now because of television mostly," she notes.

But she is adamant there needs to be more focus on learning cookery skills at school.

"Life has got tougher and tougher for people on a real tight budget, so people who have never learnt to cook, who didn't learn at school and their mothers didn't cook, who have basically grown up on junk food, it's really difficult for them to change unless someone will give them a hand," she says, "because if you can't cook, you're not going to risk your benefit money on something the children won't eat because they've never seen it before."

:: Prue: My All-time Favourite Recipes by Prue Leith, photography by David Loftus, is published by Bluebird, priced £25. Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.

GNOCCHI WITH TOMATOES AND SUMMER HERBS

(Serves 4)

1kg ripe, plum tomatoes

About 3tbsp olive oil

1tsp fennel seeds

1 large onion, diced

2 large garlic cloves, sliced

150ml full-fat creme fraiche (half-fat will split during cooking)

A large handful of summer herbs, roughly chopped (dill, basil and parsley)

Salt and pepper to season

Grating of Parmesan or vegetarian hard cheese to serve

For the gnocchi:

500g potatoes, peeled

250g plain flour

1 medium egg, beaten

Salt

Method

Heat the oven to 180C/fan 160C/gas mark 4. Halve the tomatoes lengthways and put them, cut-side down, in an oiled roasting tin. Sprinkle with most of the oil and the fennel seeds and season with salt and pepper. Roast for one hour, turning the tomatoes over halfway through cooking. When cool enough to handle, cut each tomato into smallish pieces with scissors.

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, fry the onion gently in one tablespoon oil for four to five minutes until soft. Add the garlic and fry for a further minute, then set aside.

For the gnocchi, boil the potatoes in salted, simmering water for 20 minutes or until tender. Drain, mash, taste and season well. Mix in almost all the flour and the egg. Flour your hands and knead into a ball. Using more flour to prevent sticking, roll out into long batons 2cm thick. Cut these into 2cm pieces.

Cook for exactly three minutes in boiling water; drain and spread out on a clean tea towel, separating them to prevent sticking.

Tip the tomatoes and their juices into the onion pan and add the creme fraiche and herbs. Gently, combine until everything is evenly distributed. Check the seasoning, then stir the gnocchi into the sauce and serve with the Parmesan.

'ALMOST THAI' FISH CAKES

(Makes 8)

300g floury potatoes, peeled

1 medium egg, beaten

3tbsp coriander leaves and stalks, finely chopped

1/2 green chilli, finely chopped

300g salmon fillet, skinned and cut into 1-2cm cubes

3cm piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated

Finely grated zest of 1 lime

1 lemongrass stem

3-4tbsp dried breadcrumbs

2tbsp sesame oil

1tbsp unsalted butter

Salt and pepper to season

For the dipping sauce:

4tbsp rice wine vinegar

1tbsp mirin

2tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

Juice of 1 lime

1tsp honey

1/2 red chilli, deseeded and very finely chopped

Method

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil, add the potatoes and simmer until tender. Drain and while still boiling-hot, crush (rather than mash) the potatoes – the drier the mash, the firmer your fish cakes will be.

Leave the mash to cool before stirring in the egg, coriander and green chilli. Generously season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

While the potatoes are cooking, whizz the salmon, ginger and lime zest in a food processor until they form a thick paste. Peel the outer layer of the lemongrass and discard. Cut the stem in half lengthways and chop finely. Add to the salmon paste, then add the salmon mixture to the cooled potato, combining well. Divide the mixture into eight and shape into patties.

Dip each one into the breadcrumbs to coat and put on to a large plate or baking tray. Chill in the fridge for at least an hour to firm up the fishcakes.

Place a large, heavy-based frying pan over a medium heat. Heat the sesame oil and butter together in the pan until beginning to foam, then fry the fish cakes in batches, until golden on both sides.

To make the dipping sauce, combine all the ingredients and pour into a small serving dish. Serve the hot fish cakes with the dipping sauce.

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