You can’t miss the child’s red shoes that adorn the cover of Tessa Kiros’ cookbook Apples for Jam. Her book stands out amongst the hundreds of other cookbooks appearing on the shelves in bookshops because those slightly scuffed, well-worn shoes suggest that behind this cover lies something more than lists of ingredients and cooking methods.
I recently showed a friend of mine who is an amazing cook this book... just as she was leaving after a cup of tea. She opened it up and within seconds closed it again.
‘Oh no, don’t do this to me’, she said as she stroked the cover – those shoes – ‘If I start now I’ll need to read the whole thing in one go!’
And she’s right. Another friend had loaned it to me and I lost a few hours of the afternoon inside its covers. And I keep dipping back. It’s not just for the food but the story Tessa weaves in and around the recipes. Here are those stories of life; universal memories of childhood, moments of motherhood, of creating a sense of family and the security of home through the meals you cook for those you love.
And to top it off, she lives in Tuscany.
Having worked as a chef in London, Sydney, Athens and Mexico and travelled the world, Tessa’s food is a rich blend of many different cultures. She is also the author of five other cookbooks, the most recent being Food From Many Greek Kitchens. While Apples For Jam is about the recipes she remembers from childhood and those she cooks for her own children, her latest book sees her visit the Greek kitchens of her friends and family.
But today we are visiting her kitchen; the one she shares with her husband and two daughters in the hills of Tuscany. And while we’re in the kitchen, why not start with what it’s like to cook there.
‘Italy, or at least where I live – in the countryside in Tuscany has wonderful ingredients. It is difficult not to notice what the earth is giving us all the way through the year. The slow and steady cycle of things here. The repetition each year. In that way for me it is different from living in an international city where almost everything is available.’
So what does Tessa enjoy cooking the most? ‘There are many meals depending on the time of year. In Summer we love barbecues; huge salads outside and ice cream and picnics in the garden. In Winter we’re inside around the fire; roasts, roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, pies... I love pies for the family in winter, and warm crumbly kind of desserts with a splash of colour... yes that would cheer things up.’
The kitchen has always been the heart of the home for Tessa. And not just for cooking, ‘Whether it be to sit at a table with tea and biscuits and friends, or spend time in alone... The kitchen for me should flow into the rest of the home.’
After becoming a mother, she found that her thoughts about food and cooking changed, ‘Nourishing young ones is a grand responsibility and a wonderful opportunity. I shop mainly for organic produce these days and since being a mum I am far more aware and more careful about what I will serve. I see food now also as the building blocks and the fuel that we need to proceed. Not just the sheer enjoyment side of it. I try and twirl them together now.’
In Apples for Jam, Tessa likens feeding a family to ‘stitching all the bits together on a steady thread'. As she explains, ‘It’s about holding it altogether. If that is our job for now then let us do it well. Once our place is to prepare the meals we should splash them with love and any extras that we can and still do it elegantly. Nobody wants to know the other details. Just if you did it and if you did it well. A family has many needs. Varying dynamics. Sometimes we need to rise above and take in what we need to do instead of getting stuck in the stickiness of it all.’
What food memories does she hope to leave with her daughters? ‘I would like them to know about food, where it comes from and that what we put into it – our efforts, our beliefs are what will show up in our pots and on our plates. I would like them to remember tasting different ingredients, food from different cultures and above all to have their own lovely warm and aromatic memories of what they loved as children all the way through their adulthood – not that it was a drag and they had to eat zucchini.’
Not surprisingly, Tessa’s feelings about home have always been and will always be closely intertwined with food; ‘For me home is a cosy open place, where people join at meals especially or over tea. The family materialise out of their various corners for lunch or dinner and then often disappear again. Bringing them all together in this way has an almost magical quality to it.’
Her most favourite time of year in the kitchen? ‘Christmas at home I love.’
Luckily Christmas isn’t too far away so what better excuse than to include a festive recipe from Tessa’s latest cookbook, Food From Many Greek Kitchens.
KOURABIEDES BUTTERY ALMOND CAKES
These are icing sugary/buttery, and melt-in-your-mouth honest bundles enjoyed at Christmas.
Makes about 22
50 g (1¾ oz/1/3 cup)
almonds, skin on
250 g (9 oz) unsalted
butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons icing (confectioners’) sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 tablespoon brandy
300 g (10½ oz/2 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
about 250 g (9 oz/2 cups) icing (confectioners’) sugar, for dusting
Coarsely chop the almonds into small pieces. Toast in a dry frying pan over a low-ish heat until just coloured. Cool.
Whisk the butter in a bowl using electric beaters until it is very pale and thick, about 8 minutes.
Add the icing sugar and whisk it in well. Add the egg yolk, vanilla and brandy and whisk them in well too.
Sift in the flour and baking powder and beat them in until you have a smooth dough which is hard to keep mixing with the beaters. Add the almonds and mix them through with your hands.
Press the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to180°c ( 350°f / gas 4 ) and line a baking tray with baking paper.
Break off pieces of dough, about 30 g ( 1¼ oz ) each, and roll them into balls, slightly flattening the tops.
Put them on the tray allowing a little space between each one. Bake until lightly golden, 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool on the tray for about 15 minutes.
Dust about half of the icing sugar onto a tray or large plate or your tin where you will store them.
Gently move the kourabiedes to sit in a single layer in this, then sprinkle the remaining icing sugar over their tops so that they look like they are snowed in. Will keep in a tin for many days.
Recipe and images from Tessa Kiros: Food From Many Greek Kitchens, published by Murdoch Books RRP $69.95
All other images courtesy of Murdoch Books
For more information about any of Tessa’s cookbooks, click here.