Introducing little Miss Perfect Felicity Cloake in the kitchen
Felicity Cloake has just made a batch of chocolate chip cookies. They are luxurious yet light, as big as hockey pucks, completely scrumptious and oh, yes, I’d love another, thank you. However, according to Felicity, they’re not perfect. Repeat, not perfect. ‘I chopped the chocolate far too much,’ she says. She pours a cup of excellent coffee and pushes it across her kitchen table. The coffee is not perfect, either. ‘It’s not Fairtrade,’ she sighs. ‘I feel slightly guilty about that. I fight a battle every time I go to the supermarket.’
Such standards! Yet perhaps we should expect nothing less from the woman known as the Perfect Cook. In her three cookbooks and her newspaper and magazine columns, Felicity’s mission is to rigorously test established recipes to find the best elements. She then uses these to produce the perfect dish, using the expertise from established cookery authors. She does this with a quiet authority one can only admire. ‘People get touchy about others offering advice on how to cook. You set yourself up with a high bar when you call something perfect.’
Felicity Cloake is 31, with a scrubbed face and uncomplicated hair. She oozes trustworthiness the way a figgy pudding oozes spicy fumes.
It is her meticulous approach that sets Felicity apart. Each week she selects a dish, then sources five or six recipes for it from her collection of over 200 cookbooks. Her library includes titles from Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson, Nigel Slater, Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Nigella. Then, in her ordinary kitchen with her four-burner hob and domestic fan oven, she rigorously tests these recipes. Finally, taking the best elements from each, she will create a master recipe. Recent triumphs include clam chowder (thicken with flour, not crackers), coffee and walnut cake ( Nigel’s is better than Nigella’s) and tiramisu (Jamie Oliver adds orange, Felicity does not approve).
To this end, her life is spent cooking and shopping, then doing more shopping before cooking. From the three-storey townhouse in north London, which she shares with barrister boyfriend Richard and her dog, a cairn terrier called Wilf, she sallies forth with empty bags and returns laden. When I visit, she’s made six batches of goulash, concluding that shin of beef is the best cut to use, as recommended by Hugh FearnleyWhittingstall. The house pulsates with the rich aroma of paprika and lard, while the fridge is crammed with goulash.
Felicity’s new cookbook, Perfect Too, has 92 recipes that have gone through her strict tests. It’s an entertaining read, even if you’ve never picked up a saucepan in your life. However, she likes to choose recipes that ‘most people who cook a bit will know something about’. Over the next three weeks, some of them will be serialised in TV Week, including tarte au citron and beef Wellington.
Straightforward grub that’s popular and delicious is Felicity’s speciality. Everything is subjective, she feels, but there are a few recipes she thinks she finessed until they were spot on.
‘A ragu Bolognese, which I think is pretty perfect. A moussaka I thought I really cracked.’ But she says authenticity can be overrated. ‘If it works, go for it.’ Neither is she a slavish respecter of culinary reputations. For her, it’s all about what works.
She’s not afraid to suggest Delia might have got it wrong, or Elizabeth David’s recipes are underpowered for the modern palate. She also dismisses Pippa Middleton’s efforts. ‘I haven’t used her recipes, although I’m sure they’re wonderful. I did see her book in the Oxfam shop window and I contemplated going in and buying it but I had the dog with me so I didn’t. Oh, that sounds catty! I just think Pippa and I are doing different things.’
Felicity’s books promote nourishing food. She was appalled by a recent survey that claimed the most popular evening meal is sandwiches. ‘People say they don’t have time to cook, yet the average person spends four hours a day watching TV. It’s a life skill. People should know how to do it.’ She cites Nigella’s spaghetti and Marmite as an easy supper.’ So what did everyone have to eat today at Felicity Towers? Felicity had avocado on toast and a biscuit, Wilf had squid, Richard made himself a plate of tuna with Felicity’s roasted garlic salsa and leftover lamb-rice. ‘He mixed it all together into a sludge, put Japanese mayonnaise on top and ate it. Revolting,’ she says. But at least it was home-made.
Felicity Cloake testing a new recipe at home