The Better Reading team spoke to Donna about the inspiration behind Basics to Brilliance, advice she has for amateur and young cooks, and the food and books she loves.
BR – What delicious recipes can we expect from Basics to Brilliance? What are your favourites to make from it?
DH – I designed it specially so there is something for everyone – lots of classics that are undoubtedly crowd-pleasers, with a few exciting new twists I know people will love. The book has everything from the perfect tender steak and golden roast chicken to a classic sponge and the best-ever chocolate brownies – each basic recipe has clever variations and simple flavour change-ups, so one recipe becomes many and you can build on your cooking repertoire.
I do love a meringue, so the no-fail meringue recipe is probably my favourite. Once mastered, the basic recipe can be tweaked to become the perfect pavlova, delicate salted caramel, rosewater and pistachio, or raspberry meringues for an elegant afternoon tea, or a silky smooth and tangy lemon meringue pie for a divine dessert for a dinner party.
The focus of this book is to demonstrate just how easy it is to improve your skills and cooking confidence by mastering the simple stuff, how one basic recipe can be expanded – what advice do you have for someone just starting out in the kitchen? Where should they begin?
Food and cooking plays such a pivotal role in our lives – it’s something we all do every day and get such enjoyment out of. Over the years, I’ve realised that there are a lot of people who do find the basics a little bit tricky – I’d like to help them with that and show them how easy it can be to make brilliant and impressive dishes you’ll love to cook again and again.
There’s definitely more than three I couldn’t live without! I’ll go with free-range eggs, good-quality dark chocolate and vanilla beans… all essentials for baking quite a few of my favourite recipes!
Over your career you’ve been a food stylist, a food editor at Marie Claire, and of course now a cookbook author. What have been some of the challenges and rewards in these different roles?
When I began styling, food photography was all about how many props you could add into the picture, and I just didn’t get that! I wanted it to be clean and light. I wanted it to be all about the food, the produce and the beautiful freshness. I didn’t want it to be about flowers, napkin rings, glasses and whatever else. It has been very exciting and rewarding to see how far we have come in creating beautiful premium food content, with the focus really being on the food. There’s definitely moments when you just can’t get a recipe right, or you’re really not feeling the look of a particular dish, but working out how to make it beautiful and turn it into something readers will love and genuinely want to cook is all part of the challenge, and is very rewarding.
Your books always have a very distinct design aesthetic, and the dark background in Basics to Brilliance makes the food really stand out. How large is your role in the design process? What inspired the particular look for Basics to Brilliance?
I work very closely with a talented team of people who all help bring the book to life. The dark palette was chosen as it’s a fresh new direction for the brand and offers a gorgeous new look – it’s very sumptuous and indulgent and really helps the food stand out.
You have two boys, do they love cooking with you? What recipes would you suggest to inspire kids into the kitchen?
They love to get involved in the kitchen, which is great, and we always cook together – their current speciality is sushi and they really like making pizza. My youngest is very specific about what he likes in his lunchbox, too, so he often helps me out with his special requests.
There are a lot of recipes on Basics to Brilliance that the kids can help out with – whether it’s helping measure out the ingredients or cracking the eggs (or licking the bowl!). I think a love and appreciation for great food and cooking always starts out from when you’re really young – I know that, for me, it was when I started to bake with my grandmother as a little girl at the age of six or seven.
Which are some of the books (cooking or otherwise) that you love?
I recently visited London and read the new London Precincts book by Fiona McCarthy from cover to cover. I really love Sibella Court’s style, and I have all her books, which are just stunning.
At the age of eight, Donna Hay skipped into a kitchen, picked up a mixing bowl and never looked back. She moved to the world of magazine test kitchens and publishing, where she established her trademark style of simple, smart and seasonal recipes all beautifully put together and photographed. It is food for every cook, every food lover, every day and every occasion. Her unique style turned her into an international food-publishing phenomenon as a bestselling author of over 20 cookbooks, publisher of donna hay magazine, newspaper columnist, and creator of a homewares and food range.