Books & Literature

Cookbook Review: The Secret Garden Cookbook, by Amy Cotler

The Secret Garden Cookbook serves up a bounty of comfort foods from the times of Victorian England.
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British-born American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic tale of the blossoming lives of three young children is a favourite that has been loved since it first appeared in serial form in 1910. It was published as a novel in 1911 and since then has been adapted in multiple incarnations for both stage and screen.

The story follows the plight of Mary Lennox (an orphan returned to England from India), her cousin Colin and their friend Dickon as they work together to restore an abandoned garden, in the meantime growing stronger and healthier as a result of their outdoor adventures and hearty meals.

In The Secret Garden Cookbook, food writer and former chef Amy Cotler takes inspiration from Hodgson Burnett’s characters and settings to introduce readers to the foods and customs one might have encountered in the grand country houses and modest estate cottages of Yorkshire in nineteenth century England.

This revised edition (The Secret Garden Cookbook was first published in 1999) is a 112-page hard-cover book featuring updated recipes with photos and illustrations. It’s a great concept. Cotler introduces each recipe with a sentence or two explaining the history of the dish and placing it in the context of the era in which the story was set.

It’s a pretty book that you’ll want to prop somewhere safe to avoid spills or finger marks (the book sits open neatly, making it simple to follow the instructions while cooking). Author Amy Cotler’s other publications include The Locavore Way, One Pot Vegetarian Dishes and My Little House Cookbook, with recipes inspired by Laura and the Ingalls family of Little House on the Prairie fame.

The recipes in The Secret Garden Cookbook are grouped across seven chapters, including sections on breakfasts, ‘proper’ English tea parties and picnic fare. There’s a good mix of sweet and savoury offerings, with most being reasonably easy for the cook with little or no experience in the kitchen. In addition to the 50 recipes there are quotes from the Hodgson Burnett’s novel and bite-sized facts to reveal a little of the historical context. We learn for example, that Queen Victoria’s kitchen garden was a huge 12.5 hectares, keeping 150 gardeners busy maintaining the fruit trees, terrace and enormous fountain.

One key theme of the book is the celebration of a robust appetite. Cotler has included lots of very simple dishes that use common ingredients—for the most part, it’s not fancy food. There’s a focus on baked goods and comfort foods, as well as an emphasis on ‘building strength’ through the scoffing of good, solid meals and the enjoyment of hard work in the fresh air.

This book has arrived at the perfect time (now that we’re all stuck at home) with its collection of cooking projects to occupy minds and hands. The Secret Garden Cookbook is obviously an ideal gift for fans of Mary, Colin and Dickon and their magical garden, but it will also appeal to young cooks who are starting to experiment with baking, or those who are fond of a traditional high tea.

Recipe 1: ‘jam roly poly’

This dessert is one for cooks with some experience in handling pastry. There are several steps (making the pastry, spreading it with jam and then forming it into the ‘roly poly’ log before baking). I found the recipe resulted in a dough that was quite dry, which made rolling it up a test of dexterity. On my next attempt I plan to add some more liquid (the recipe calls for buttermilk or yoghurt—I chose the latter, but I might go for the buttermilk option next time to see if that makes a difference). The end result was definitely on the stodgy side, although it was tasty. I substituted fig jam for the recommended raspberry or blackberry, as that’s what I had in the cupboard. Any flavour of jam or pureed fruit would work just as well.

Recipe 2: ‘cozy currant buns’

I chose this one because the photo reminded me of childhood treats that I enjoyed at school. This recipe required the currants to be soaked beforehand to plump them up, and unfortunately most of their softened forms didn’t survive the dough hook of my mixer. Even with only a few recognisable currants visible in the end result, the buns had a pleasant, chewy texture and were tasty, with flavours of cinnamon and nutmeg. They were good when eaten just after being taken out of the oven but were too firm to eat untoasted the next day. Don’t start this one unless you have some free time on your hands, as there’s a fair bit of kneading and proving to ensure the yeast dough develops correctly.

Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Twitter: @JoVabolis

Distributed by: Murdoch Books
Released: February 2020
RRP: $24.99

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