‘My target is people who think they’re not good cooks’: Alice Zaslavsky on her new cookbook
With The Joy of Better Cooking, the Australian chef is aiming to give more people the confidence to get into the kitchen
This isn’t the first time I’ve spoken to Alice Zaslavsky for a piece for Food&Wine. We chatted via Zoom when lockdowns were still in force in Ireland and in Zaslavsky’s native Australia, but now I’m getting to meet her in person.
We are breakfasting in Haddington House, the stylish hotel in Dun Laoghaire in Co Dublin, where we’ve arranged to meet to talk about The Joy of Better Cooking, her second cookbook.
Lockdown kept Zaslavsky busy. As well as writing the book, she launched her own condiment range while writing for The Weekend Australian Magazine, hosting ABC Radio Melbourne’s Saturday Breakfast and being the resident foodie on ABC TV’s News Breakfast programme.
“During the pandemic, I was like ‘I’m bored. I’m gonna start a product range! I wanted to dip my toe into the world of condiments’. I’ve been recommending other people’s products for so long because I’m all about small batch and locally made, so I thought I would cut out the middle man and make something that’s all of those things too,” Zaslavsky says.
“I think when people see something in a jar they think they shouldn’t be eating it, but there’s a big dIfference with products like this. People need to know that there are shortcuts to flavour-town that they can use to remove barriers from entry to cooking, and that’s fine – you don’t have to start from scratch every time.”
This easy-going philosophy is typical of Zaslavsky, who was a teacher before jumping into food with her appearance on Masterchef Australia a decade ago. Once she finished the competition, she found a way to tie her two loves, food and education, together by founding Phenomenom, a free digital programme that helps teachers introduce these subjects to kids.
In Praise of Veg, her first book, contained an exceptional number of tips, tricks, substitutes and more, each designed to help the home cook eat better on their own terms. The Joy of Better Cooking is similarly veg-focused, hoping to lead readers towards intuitive cooking that not only suits their needs but tastes great too.
“I really wanted The Joy of Better Cooking to be just as useful to readers as In Praise of Veg, but differently useful. My target demographic is people who think they’re not good cooks, because firstly, if you try to live up to the pressure of being a good cook, then you’ll only cook out of fear and that’s not something you want to be putting in your food,” she says.
“Secondly, if you’ve got other people who are good cooks in your life, this can give you freedom to explore and play with food. You flick through the book and there’s a real ‘down-the-rabbit-hole' feeling, which is exciting.”
Phenomenom is now used in classrooms around Australia, but between her books, columns and condiments, there’s no sign of Zaslavsky slowing down. When we meet, The Joy of Better Cooking has just been named Nigella Lawson’s cookbook of the week, something that has thrilled her no end.
“Her write-up just made me feel so seen. I’ve come full circle. When I left Masterchef, I wrote this note for myself that said ‘teacher but bigger’, so for everything I’ve done since then, I’ve asked myself is that what this is? It’s all about thinking about what you are really good at, what brings you the most pleasure, what does the world need and what can actually sustain you financially,” she says.
“You have to find the Venn diagram centre of that and then you’ll be laughing. It’s ongoing for me but I’m happy. The more you cook, the better you’lll feel and that’s notable for me.”
The Joy of Better Cooking: Life-changing skills & thrills for enthusiastic eaters by Alice Zaslavsky is available now, published by Murdoch Books, €35
Chocolate cloud French toast
Challah, the plaited brioche that graces Jewish dinner tables every Friday night, makes for the most opulent French toast base, because of its eggy, buttery fluffiness. You can also use brioche, which is eggy bread that isn’t as fancy, but just as buttery. To track down your town’s best challah, head to your local bagel belt on a Friday morning and follow the queues.
Ingredients, serves 4–6
1 challah loaf
50ml single cream
Half tsp salt flakes
1 tsp vanilla extract or vanilla bean paste
100g couverture dark chocolate, chopped
3 tbsp butter
3 tbsp neutral-flavoured oil (I like grapeseed oil)
Icing sugar, for dusting
Maple syrup, for drizzling
Salt flakes, for sprinkling
Zest of 1 orange (optional)
Crushed toasted hazelnuts (optional, but excellent)
1. Cut your challah loaf into slices about 2 cm (3/4 inch) thick.
2. In a bowl big enough for soaking your slices in, whisk the eggs, milk, cream, salt and vanilla together.
3. Using a sharp paring knife, slice a pocket horizontally into the middle of each piece of challah, deep enough to bury some chocolate, but not all the way to the bottom, like a chicken kiev. Carefully pop bits of chocolate inside each pocket. Lay your choc-laden challah pockets in the eggy mixture for at least 10 minutes, carefully flipping them over halfway through.
4. Heat a tablespoon of butter in a frying pan over medium–low heat, then splash in a tablespoon of oil. Working in batches, fry your challah slices for three to four minutes, until the underbelly turns a glorious shade of golden brown, then carefully flip them over with a spatula to cook the other side. Your French toasts are ready to remove from the pan when the chocolate has just started to ooze out of the pockets, indicating that the eggy bits inside have cooked through as well.
5. Fry the remaining challah pockets in the same way, adding more butter and oil to the pan each time. Serve warm, dusted with icing sugar, drizzled with maple syrup, sprinkled with salt flakes and maybe some orange zest and toasted hazelnuts.
Honey and ginger pears with nutmeg custard
This dessert plays an enchanting trick of kitchen alchemy. As the pears cook, they soften to fork-tender, and yet as the custard heats and cools, it gets thicker. Magic! The pears can be prepared a day ahead to the end of the poaching stage. To serve, gently reheat in the oven, covered with foil.
If you’re not using the custard right away, you can stop a skin forming on top by placing some plastic wrap directly onto the mixture. You can absolutely make it ahead and reheat on low temperature with the odd stir when ready to serve.
Ingredients, serves 8
8 firm pears
200g soft brown sugar
110g chopped glacé ginger
1 cinnamon stick
100g butter, cubed
For the nutmeg custard
2 tsp vanilla extract or one vanilla pod, split, seeds scraped
2 tbsp cornflour
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 scrapes of nutmeg
1. Preheat the oven to 200C.
2. Peel the pears, cut in half and scoop out the cores using a teaspoon or melon baller (retro!), then arrange in a large shallow, lidded cast-iron pan.
3. In a saucepan, combine the sugar, honey, glacé ginger and cinnamon stick. Pour in 650ml water and stir until everything combines. Bring to the boil over medium heat, then quickly pour over the pears in the cast-iron pan and place the lid on.
4. Transfer to the oven and poach for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, then carefully pour off the liquid into a saucepan. Drop the butter cubes around the pears and roast for another 30 minutes, until golden and burnished, basting the pears with the melted butter if some are looking glossier than others.
5. Meanwhile, boil the reserved poaching liquid vigorously until reduced by half into a syrup.
6. To make the custard, warm the milk and vanilla (including the pod if using a vanilla bean) in a saucepan until just before boiling. As the milk gets close to a simmer, whisk the eggs, cornflour and sugar together in a large heatproof bowl.
7. Pour the hot milk mixture over the eggs and whisk together until incorporated, then pour the whole lot back into the pan and place back over low heat. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon for 7–10 minutes; the key here is to get the mixture hot, but not to let it boil, or the eggs will curdle.
8. To check when the custard is ready, run your finger through the custard on the wooden spoon - if the line you’ve drawn in the custard stays straight, and the custard doesn’t immediately drip back into the pan, it’s ready to go. The custard should be the consistency of silky pouring cream, and will thicken up more as it cools.
9. When the custard is ready, pour it through a fine-meshed sieve into a bowl, to get rid of any pesky lumps, and to catch the vanilla pod, if using. Taste for sweetness and stir in the nutmeg.
10. Serve the poached pears generously drizzled with custard and finish with the syrup. For extra value, add some crunch by crowning with a spoonful of golden granola if you like.