Literature Opinion

BOOK REVIEW: The Culinary Canon

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Megan Jane de Paulo's cookbook, The Culinary Canon, aims for gourmet greatness but sadly misfires, writes Elizabeth Spiegel.

DURING COVID LOCKDOWNS, millions of people discovered – or rediscovered – domestic arts. Some took their new skills to social media and a few to books.

A few of these books are delightful, like B Dylan HollisBaking Yesteryear. It takes boldness, though, for a person with virtually no experience in a professional kitchen to title her self-published book The Culinary Canon.

“Most” of the recipes, we’re told in ‘About this book’, are for one-to-two serves because it’s easier to double or triple a recipe than to halve it. Which makes sense, except that there’s rarely any indication of whether, to serve four people, I should multiply by two or four. Or in some cases, like the butter chicken, to just use the quantities listed.

The ‘Introduction’ includes some interesting facts about measurements – in particular, the variation in cup and spoon measurements throughout the world – to explain why she has chosen to use only millilitres for liquids and grams for dry ingredients. I’m not entirely convinced that this achieves a more consistent result than spoon measurements when it comes to spice measures of a few grams, but perhaps that’s just my scales.

You might expect that the list of equipment basics would be sufficient to prepare the recipes in this “foundation” text, but not so. For example, while it includes an Instant Pot, air fryer and toaster, it doesn’t include a wok or silicone mat.

The work lacks consistency on many levels. In the pantry, flour (no specific type) is grouped with sugar (granulated, caster and brown) under ‘Dry goods’, while white rice and puy lentils are listed under ‘Misc’. ‘Vinegars’ and ‘Oils’ have their own groups, while passata appears under ‘Liquids’, chicken stock under ‘Seasonings’ and coconut milk under ‘Canned’.

In the fridge, one new-to-me condiment is toban djan; when used in a recipe, this becomes ‘doubanjiang’. (This spicy bean paste is marketed under both names, but a cookbook author should either stick to one or explain that they’re both the same thing.)

Each section leads with a quote, or a few quotes, often in small, pale grey text. Many of these are still in copyright, so I have to wonder whether permission has been obtained — particularly since some are incorrectly cited. Good Omens is by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett; Baron Harkonnen’s statement in the movie adaptations of Dune that ‘He who controls the spice, controls the universe’ is uncredited as ‘Whoever controls the spice controls the universe’.

I haven’t tried every recipe in this book (and won’t), but have tested a few.

Butter chicken with spinach was very tasty — a little heavy on the cumin, but that may be either personal taste or the vagaries of using a digital scale rather than measuring spoons to measure small quantities of spices. The quantity listed, satisfied four hungry adults.

However, considering that this book is described as “foundation[al] knowledge”, the reader should perhaps be told not to add all chicken to the pan at once, but instead to brown it in batches. Similarly, the Chai nuts were delicious, but a new baker might not know that the butter must be at room temperature before creaming with sugar. I’m not convinced that an inexperienced cook – or indeed anyone – should risk laying tempura-battered shiso leaves into hot oil ‘with two hands’ rather than tongs or chopsticks.

The ‘quiche formula’ of one egg to 120ml dairy is followed by a recipe calling for three eggs and 375ml dairy. ‘Dairy’ in this case presumably means milk, cream or some combination of the two – but not cheese, which is separately listed – because it isn’t spelt out anywhere.

Attractive photos, that enhance the book’s appearance, are either the author’s own or licenced from Few are captioned (while Unsplash asks that photographers be credited, it does not insist), so it’s impossible to know which are which.

Serving suggestions – oddly headed ‘Plate analysis’ – are attractively photographed with clear instructions as to how the result was achieved. It’s a pity, then, that some require recipes promised for volume two.

A copy editor could have been expected to suggest revisions to the idiosyncratic punctuation and many run-on sentences; to pick up errors like ‘it’s usage’, ‘finally chopped’ garlic and shallots, the ‘Goldilocks Principal’ and a note that it’s best to use brown/yellow/white onions – in a recipe for roast pumpkin that doesn’t include onions.

A cookbook editor would almost certainly have identified recipes where an ingredient was omitted (pear tarte tatin) or included twice (butter chicken) or where an item of equipment was listed but never used (Nanna de Paulo’s scones). An editor might also have pointed out that a sandwich gets its name from the Earl of Sandwich and the noun is a century older than the verb (to sandwich something).

My final verdict: a book with many interesting facts and some tasty recipes, but it desperately needed the intervention of an experienced professional editor — ideally one specialising in cookbooks. Despite its attractive presentation, the myriad of errors and inconsistencies make the overall product an unprofessional one.

Elizabeth Spiegel is a professional editor (but not a cookbook editor) and experienced home cook.

'The Culinary Canon, Foundation Knowledge: Volume 1, Edition 1' by Megan Jane de Paulo is available here for $40.00 RRP (paperback) or $11.99 RRP (digital edition).

This book was reviewed by an IA Book Club member. If you would like to receive free high-quality books and have your review published on IA, subscribe to Independent Australia for your complimentary IA Book Club membership.

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