Kim Knight talks to Canvas’ food editor about what makes a cookbook stick.

Annabel Langbein walked in the door and knew something was wrong. The smell. The tart!

"I suddenly realised this tart I had been making for a shoot tomorrow, I had left in the oven for an hour-and-a-half while I went to a meeting. It does not look like it's supposed to ..."

Langbein urges me not to write that down. "Accidents happen," she says. But I suspect that in her kitchen, they happen less often.

Maybe you already know that storing eggs pointy side down keeps them fresher for longer. That cheese can be frozen, that a dash of vinegar or pinch of sugar will help balance an over-salted dish.


But did you know you can cook thinly sliced squid simply by pouring boiling water over it? When it turns white, it's done. Really advanced cooks might like to turn to page 29 of Langbein's new book, where she advises soaking the cephalopods in milk first.

"You'll never make it another way," she writes. "It's so tender."

Two decades of Brand Langbein have been poured into this book. Tips and tricks, recipes and "road maps" to some very decent dinners. Essential Annabel Langbein: Best-ever meals for busy lives comes 20 years after her first "best of" best-seller, Great Food for Busy Lives.

"I feel like it's my opus!"

(If it is, standby for Opus, The Return - there's a baking and sweets version in the pipeline).

"I literally put my heart and soul into it. "What I'm really interested in with this book is to empower people to cook, rather than just follow a recipe. To learn to be a better and more resourceful cook, so you've got these skills and you think, 'Oh, I know the road map and I can make that my own, because in the fridge I've got some leeks and a bit of bacon, or some potatoes and onions' - you learn what it takes to make a recipe or a style of a dish, and then you make it your own."

What makes one cookbook better than another? Langbein has four roomfuls of the things to help her answer this question. Thousands of cookbooks. The Julia Child her mother gave her when she was 14; the early editions of The Joy of Cooking collected in the United States before Langbein was born, "all covered with that sticky stuff they used to put on kitchen shelves"; her great-aunt's collections from the 1920s.

"I think they're still relevant around things like preserving and baking," says Langbein. "But a lot of the meals, you look at and go bleeeurgh."

Her new book has more than 650 recipes in it (only two involve deep-frying), but Langbein estimates she's written at least 10,000 in her lifetime. How did she choose what made the cut?

"There were tantrums over the fact that I had to cull it. I love them all, they're like little babies. But Jane, my lovely editor, would be going, 'There's only this many pages in this section ...' In the soup chapter, I was like, 'Where is that Moroccan lentil soup?'"

There is a popular theory that even a really great cookbook will yield just three or four recipes you'll regularly add to your repertoire.

"I'm hoping there might be seven or eight in mine," counters Langbein. "For three years, I was a judge on the Julia Child Cookbook Awards ... I learnt, quite early in the piece, that there are lots of cookbooks that don't work.

"You go to make a recipe and suddenly halfway through you are lost and you are down some pothole and you have no idea how you're going to get to what that picture looks like, because there's nothing in the method that would enable you to take that road.

"And what happens then, is instead of thinking, 'Oh, that's a useless cookbook' and throwing it out the window, you lose confidence. And when you lose confidence, you don't approach cooking with the same sort of conviction."

Jay Rayner, the UK-based food writer, recently referenced this phenomena, critiquing "aspirational stuff contained in all those glossy big-name cookbooks on your shelf that you thumb through from time to time but never actually use for fear of failure". He followed that statement with a recipe for 1.5kg of granola. Langbein opens her book with a Honduran recipe for black bean and scrambled egg tortilla.

"I've spent most of my life making sure that when you cook with me, it's a really robust process," she says. But there have been some changes. Less fat and sugar, for example.

"I think I've always been interested in umami [savoury taste] but now it's become second nature in my cooking. You'll see things, whether it's tomato paste or miso or parmesan cheese, and you're able to get this layering of flavour without adding squillions of calories."

And, while she's always experimented with international flavours, she says today's cooks have a greater understanding of culinary "languages" and better access to ingredients.

"What have you got in your pantry now? I'm just opening a drawer and I've got pomegranate molasses and I've got mirin and I've got jars of sherry vinegar. You've got this fantastic global pantry at your fingertips."

So, say you feel like flash-roasted fish. Turn to chapter eight. "Well, here's how you tell if the fish is really fresh. And tonight, do you feel like a Moroccany meal or a Japanesey meal or a Thai meal? All you really need to know is the oven goes on really hot and you're going to put on pesto if you want Italian, or teriyaki sauce you can make really quickly, or the chilli thing that I'm making tonight. And it's going to take 10 minutes."

Twenty years ago, Langbein made great food for busy lives - in the intervening decades, we haven't slowed down.

"And what ends up happening, for so many people, is you end up sacrificing a lot of your diet and, potentially, your health, to an industrial food system. So if you can say what does it take in this crazy, mad world that we live in to be able to sit down at a table together and not feel as though you've run a marathon and then have to come home from work and think again when you've been thinking all day? If that can be my job to solve that problem, I'll put my hand up. Because my whole life has been like that. Jiggle, juggle, juggle, jiggle."

Win with Canvas

Canvas has five copies of Annabel's new cookbook, Essential, to giveaway.

To be in the draw to win, go to and enter the keyword ANNABEL.

Competition closes Wednesday, March 15, at 11.59pm.

Essential Annabel Langbein (Annabel Langbein Media, $65) is available at Paper Plus, Whitcoulls, The Warehouse and all good bookstores from March 17.