If I could ban any phrase, it would, without doubt, be that overused, viscerally irritating, and far-from-innocent term itself, the Guilty Pleasure. I don’t think I actually groan out loud when I’m asked, every time I’m interviewed, “What are your guilty pleasures?,” but from deep within the cacophonous orchestra of my mind, the woodwind section starts up a searing wail, the cellos come in with their melancholy sob, only giving way to the brass section to end with the wah wah wah waah of the sad trombone. I may be smiling, but I’m keening on the inside.
My answer to that question is always the same, and while I worry that I repeat it so often it might be beginning to sound glib, I have to say that I feel it profoundly. And it is this: no one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating; the only thing to feel guilty about (and even then I don’t recommend it) is the failure to be grateful for that pleasure.
I am very aware that the joy I celebrate in food is a privilege. And for me, it’s vitally important not to belittle that, or to forget it. Taking pleasure in the food we eat is an act of gratitude. And truly, the world is not always rich in occasions of joy. I know I might seem soupy when I say that I see every mealtime, every mouthful, as a celebration of life, but (with lamentable exceptions) I do, or I try to. It’s such a waste otherwise.
The other day, I went to see some friends of mine whose eight-month-old baby has just started eating what we so unappealingly call solids. It was feeding time when I got there and the way his little toes curled up with pleasure every time a spoonful of mush was lowered into his mouth, the way he pumped his padded, dimpled fists, as plump as overstuffed dumplings, and gurgled with almost drunken delight, was such a joy (and yes, I repeat myself, but there is no other word adequate to the purpose) to witness. And a piercing reminder of what we can so easily lose. This was pure pleasure: it occupied his whole body, his entire being. There was nothing that interfered with or diminished it in any way, except perhaps the intervals between spoonfuls. This is the state of bliss to which we should all aspire. I agree, however, that not many mealtimes can measure against the giddy wonder of a baby eating food for the ﬁrst time, or indeed offer the total immersion of its urgent nursing at the breast. We really do fall from grace as we leave infancy behind.
But I believe we can ﬁnd our way back to that rhapsodic paradise, or at least gain temporary occupancy. I’m now going to say something which I know makes me sound like some sottish fool, but here goes: there are times when I eat that I am made so completely happy by what I’m eating, and so intensely aware of and alive to the deep-seeping pleasure of every mouthful. I used to start feeling anxious as I neared the end of my plate, horriﬁed by the knowledge that this very state of bliss was soon to come to an end. I’ve changed my ways since I’ve got older; I’ve made myself, as perhaps we all must. I can’t afford to let the dread of its looming conclusion mar my very real pleasure. (Although I’ve yet to view the approaching end of a book I’m reading and loving without a pang of panic, that regretful sense of pre-bereavement.)
And it’s not only food proper that ﬁlls me with sudden, uplifting delight. Sometimes when I’m drinking tea, I just feel seized with glad wonder that something as glorious as tea can actually exist. This is no exaggeration or expression of cute whimsy, for all, I fear, it might sound like it. And of course, the downside is I am childishly, inconsolably disappointed by a bad meal or a too-cold or too-milky mug of tea. But I can live with that. What I refuse to live with, categorically and essentially set myself against, is the erosion of pleasure by dint of turning it into a means of self-persecution.
There are times when I eat that I am made so completely happy by what I’m eating, and so intensely aware of and alive to the deep-seeping pleasure of every mouthful.
No one, obviously, chastises themselves for tea-drinking. When they talk of “guilty pleasures” they mean the food they feel they shouldn’t be eating or, indeed, the food that others feel they shouldn’t be eating. The sad refrain from women ever since I can remember has been “I shouldn’t be eating this, but…”; and when I had a daughter, I vowed those words would never come from my lips. But even—especially, maybe—the words we don’t say out loud can run rampage in our head. It perhaps sounds improbable to be able to train yourself away from the cycle of reproachful self-indulgence and self-recrimination, but I’m living proof it can be done. I was brought up by a mother—the cook I have learned most from—whose grimly exuberant output in the kitchen was set in painfully sharp relief, and indeed fostered, by an ever-expanding pattern of self-denial and self-punishment; not an uncommon syndrome, incidentally. Diagnosed with terminal cancer two weeks before her death, she started eating—for the ﬁrst time, she said giddily—without worry or guilt. How unbearably sad to allow yourself unmitigated pleasure in food only when you receive a terminal diagnosis.
And so I protect ﬁercely the deep enjoyment I get from food, and want so fervently for others to share it, too. Every gorgeous mouthful stills the world, and yet revels in it at the same time; eating joyfully keeps me in the pleasurable present. This doesn’t mean I just carry on eating as much as I can and for as long as I can. I want to maximize my enjoyment, not just eat for the sake of it. When I eat chocolate I linger over each square, deciding which I will let melt slowly in my mouth, which I chomp on rapaciously, quickly, feeling how different the sensations are. At no time do I feel guilty, and at no time do I want to carry on once the exquisite rapture has receded, and it becomes mindless or automatic. For I am not talking, I should most vehemently emphasize, about that egregious misnomer, comfort eating. For me that conjures up an unhappy search for mind-numbing obliteration: food as narcotic; not food as a celebration of life.
The accepted notions of comfort eating and guilty pleasure, while different from one another, stem from the same Manichaean universe: a foodstuff is either good or bad; ditto the eater thereof. Thus people seek to deny themselves the tastes and textures they crave, and castigate themselves when they give in to temptation. From this comes the crippling sense of shame, which gives rise to the guilty pleasure. But truly, where is the pleasure when it provokes shame or guilt?
How unbearably sad to allow yourself unmitigated pleasure in food only when you receive a terminal diagnosis.
Of course, I understand that many people, when they designate their pleasures as guilty, simply mean to indicate rebelliousness rather more than self-loathing, a strutting refusal to obey the dietary diktats of the day. But I am not entirely convinced. There is still a sense of “I shouldn’t, but…” This doesn’t surprise me: criticism is easily internalized; and a pre-emptive strike, even against ourselves, can seem, in our embarrassed defensiveness, the easiest way to deﬂect it.
And it is self-defeating. Not least because if you cling to the idea that pleasure is to be found only in those foods you are not apparently supposed to eat, you thereby limit the amount of pleasure you actually could be allowing yourself. Yes, a bar of chocolate is a true joy. But so is a plate of garlicky spinach or a lemony salad. I once posted a picture of my lunch on Instagram, comprising a bowl of sesame-sprinkled broccoli and shrimp, and was told in the comments that I was just being “good” and obviously would prefer to be having cake. I really wasn’t, and I really wouldn’t have. I ate what I wanted, what my body felt like, and I exult in that at all times. That can make me tiresome in restaurants as I focus on the menu, using what I call my Stanislavski ordering method, which entails going through each dish, in turn, in my head as I imagine myself eating it, calibrating the amount of happiness each one might bring, until I settle on the one that most instinctively matches my needs and desires. It can be a slow process, but for me a necessary one. And even though it is in my mind that I conjure up these projections of what I might be eating, it is with my body that I respond; I trust its intuition.
This is not a special gift, I assure you. But it can’t survive a diet of denial. Of course, there’s a lot of snobbery bound up in the guilty pleasure, too. Perhaps you fear it doesn’t show you in the best light, or you feel that you’ll be judged for it, and so you get in ﬁrst, as if amused by your own poor taste, a self-conscious shrug of the shoulders. Now, maybe there really are those who gain some extra thrill from thinking they are enjoying something they perceive to be illicit, but I am not persuaded that can purely—or impurely—be the case. No, you name something your guilty pleasure if you feel that were you not to jump in with the word “guilty,” others might feel you seriously thought Harlequin Romance novels high literature, or a processed cheese slice the cate of the connoisseur. But it is truly impossible to enjoy the taste of something ironically; it is just a shame-induced distancing stance.
I have as little time for purists who disdain the lowly tastes of others as I do for the puritans who shudder at our bodily appetites. Nor do I wish to ally myself with the defensive mockery of inverted snobs, who feel that those who love any sort of food they themselves ﬁnd fancy are simply pretentious frauds. Eating is such a huge and elemental pleasure: what a strangely puny act to want to police it. But perhaps it is because it is so personal and fundamental that we genuinely cannot conceive of feeling differently, and so distrust or dismiss those who do. I must admit that I have had to train myself out of forcing forkfuls of food—“just try it!”—into the mouths of those I’m eating with, even after numerous polite refusals; and I am somewhat abashed to say that I don’t mean my children here. I can’t say that I have learned to temper my enthusiasm—and nor would I wish to—but I try to keep my sorrow at not being able to share it quietly to myself.
I can’t help but feel, you see, that to share a pleasure is to increase it. I relish eating alone and cooking for myself and, on those occasions, frankly never miss a fellow diner; indeed, I positively and luxuriantly revel in this solo ceremony of the senses. But once I’m around others, I am greedy for them to ﬁnd the happiness in food that I do.
For me, too, it is not enough to eat food: I need to wallow in the whole process; stretch out the pleasure I get from it. Cooking is not just part of that process, it is full-body immersion: the rich contemplation of the beauty of the food; the feel of it in my hands; the sounds as it splutters or bubbles in the pan; the smell of it all. The more absorbed I am, the greater the rewards. Perhaps there is a particular innocence, a particular purity, about cooking just for oneself, in that it wrests cooking away from being an act of service; for all that we’d like to think otherwise, the kitchen is still a much more freighted arena for women. The joy to be got from feeding others is not to be minimized, but—perhaps counterintuitively—there is less ego involved in cooking for oneself, and that is enormously liberating.
It is for this reason that I often tell people who are nervous about cooking that the best way to learn conﬁdence in the kitchen is to cook just for themselves. When you cook for yourself, the burden of feeling you have to perform or impress is taken away, and you can, in your own time, ﬁnd a way of being in the kitchen that makes sense to you. You’re cooking to please yourself, no one else, and you neither have to second-guess your guests’ tastes nor apologize for your own. Indeed, you can develop and expand your own, take risks and give yourself the freedom to make mistakes, without which we learn so much less. When your focus is on the food rather than on the reception it will be met with—in other words, when you yourself do not feel you’re being judged—cooking itself will become so much easier, so much more enjoyable.
Photo by Jonathan Lovekin.
In considering the elemental enjoyment of eating, I have to start with bread: in life, there can be no pleasure without pain.
It also demonstrates something very important in my cooking life, namely my gratitude to other food writers, as I hope all my books express. It may surprise you to know that you cannot copyright a recipe; anyone is free, from a legal point of view, to take someone’s recipe and claim it, with a few minor changes, as their own. And many do. It has always been important to me to try, however much I adapt a recipe, however substantially it runs freely away from its original iteration, to give a fair account of its provenance. I haven’t, in fact, changed much of Jim Lahey’s recipe for No-Knead Bread, but certainly it has provided a starting point for a number of variations of my own.
I enjoy kneading bread dough, but have willingly given it up for this loaf—not out of laziness, but because of the bread this method produces. While it isn’t actually sourdough, its slow cold rise in which it begins to ferment, gives it that same desirable tang; baking it inside a heat-resistant round glass casserole dish or a Dutch oven in a hot oven yields a crumb and crust you could normally only dream of. For now, this robust, chewy loaf is an everyday miracle I can’t get over, and don’t want to. I bless Jim Lahey’s name every time I make or eat this bread.
I have given ingredients for a white loaf here, as I think it makes sense to master the basic recipe before branching out. And while you can adapt this using other ﬂours, in various ratios, I advise you—whichever ﬂour combination you go for—to make sure at least 50%, i.e., 1⅔ cups (200g), of the ﬂour is white bread ﬂour, though you may ﬁnd it better to start your experiments with 2½ cups (310g) of white bread ﬂour and ¾ cup (90g) of other ﬂour; the only exception to this is if you use regular all-purpose ﬂour instead, which works well by itself, though makes for a slightly less robust crumb. I have made this successfully using a huge variety of ﬂours, with the sole, lamentable exception—sadly—of gluten-free ﬂour.
My favorite deviation, as it were, and a loaf I make just as often as this original version, uses 1⅔ (200g) cups of white bread ﬂour, 1⅔ (200g) cups of dark rye ﬂour, with yeast and salt as below, but approx. 1½ cups (350g) of dry or medium-dry hard cider in place of the water; rye ﬂour needs a little more liquid to form a dough. If you don’t want to use the cider, increase the yeast to ½ teaspoon and add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to the water. Indeed, I often add 1 tablespoonful of lemon juice to the cold tap water for the white loaf. It seems to help the rise. But you can do this, too, by replacing the tap water with the water you’ve cooked potatoes or pasta in, left to get cold, in which case you may need to reduce or omit the salt when you mix up the bread. And sorry to sully the purity of this recipe, but if I don’t have any of this desirably starchy water to hand, I often just add 2 tablespoons of powdered instant mashed potatoes to the flour, and proceed with tap water, though omitting the lemon juice.
While this is just about effortless to make, I should warn from the outset that you have to mix up the dough the day before you want to eat the bread; you also need to factor in the second proof on the day you bake it.
MAKES ONE MODEST-SIZED LOAF
· 3¼ cups (400g) white bread flour 1¼ teaspoons (8g) fine sea salt ¼ teaspoon (1g, but it’s hard to get it to register on the scales) instant dry yeast
· 1¼ cups (300g) cold tap water (or cooled pasta- or potato-cooking water, see recipe intro), plus more as needed
· 1 tablespoon (15g) lemon juice (omit if using potato- or pasta-cooking water, or powdered instant mashed potatoes)
· Polenta or additional flour, for dusting
IN a medium-sized bowl, stir together the flour, salt and yeast. Measure the water into a pitcher, stir in the lemon juice if using water from the tap, rather than water you’ve cooked potatoes or pasta in. Pour into the flour and, using your hand, a wooden spoon or a Danish dough whisk, mix it together until you have a wet, sticky dough; this will take under 30 seconds. Add more water if you feel it needs it, but just a tablespoon at a time—you don’t want to make it too liquid. This is something you will feel surer about once you’ve made this a couple of times.
COVER the bowl with food wrap or a shower cap and sit at room temperature out of direct sunlight until the surface is dotted with bubbles and the dough almost doubled. This will take 16–18 hours. (This is the case for the white bread; other flours show a less dramatic increase in size.)
ONCE your dough has reached this point, dust a work surface or board generously with flour. Use a dough-scraper, for ease, to scrape out the dough onto your floured surface in one piece. It will be quite stringy and feel loose and sticky. Bring the edges of the dough up and over, into the middle, to form a low-slung round of dough.
DUST one half of a cotton or linen kitchen towel (not a waffle or terry cloth one) liberally with polenta or flour, and then transfer your rounded dough onto the dusted side of the kitchen towel, tuck marks down. Now sprinkle the top of the dough lightly with a little more polenta or flour before folding the kitchen towel over to cover it. Leave in a warm, draught-free spot for 1–2 hours for its second rise. I don’t find it rises up much in this time but rather it expands outwards. I tend to leave it for 2 hours in winter, but find otherwise 1 hour is best for the white loaf or it spreads too much.
ABOUT 45 minutes before this second rise is up, put a Dutch oven, ceramic or heat-resistant glass casserole dish with its lid on into the oven and heat to 450°F. While Jim Lahey stipulates the dish be 4½–6½ quarts capacity, I find this works best for me in a Pyrex casserole dish of 3½ quarts capacity.
WHEN the dough’s had its second rise, take the heated pot out of the oven, and take off the lid. Uncover the dough under the kitchen towel and then quickly and carefully invert it into the pot. And yes, you will get polenta or flour all over the place; I rather feel a handheld vacuum cleaner or dustpan and brush should be listed in the ingredients. After you’ve made this a few times, you may feel confident enough to lift it up from the cloth and invert with your hands.
BAKE for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and cook for a further 15–30 minutes until the bread is a deep golden brown and bronzed in parts. When I’m baking my Rye and Cider Bread (see recipe intro), I give it 45 minutes with the lid on, and 15 with it off. If you rap the bottom of the loaf, it should sound hollow when it’s cooked, but don’t burn yourself doing this. Once it’s ready, slip the bread out of its casserole and onto a wire rack to cool thoroughly before eating, I’m sorry to say. This, perhaps, is a counsel of perfection, but if you cut or tear into it while it’s still warm, it will stale immediately (unless you eat it all at that first sitting, of course). To keep the loaf fresh for as long as possible, store in a bread box. The next best method is to wrap it in a kitchen towel.
From Cook, Eat, Repeat: Ingredients, Recipes and Stories by Nigella Lawson. Copyright 2021 Nigella Lawson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.