Having never watched MasterChef in my life (shocking, I know), I must be one of the few Britons for whom Gregg Wallace is an unknown quantity. My entire knowledge of the man comes from various internetisms.
It is with Anna that Gregg has written his latest cookbook (though he alone gets the headline title), and Gregg’s Italian Family Cookbook (Mitchell Beazley, £20) aims to document their relationship through food, sharing some of their favourite recipes from Anna’s native Italy.
It’s an excellent premise – a love letter to the food that brought them together – and Anna’s mamma and papa, and her grandmother (nonna), pop up with recipes throughout the book. But does the book live up to expectations?
Novice cooks will get the most out of the book, which stars foundation recipes for pizza dough and fresh pasta, risotto, focaccia and osso bucco. Nothing feels unfamiliar and some recipes are short to the point of being bullet-points (I rubbed my eyes in disbelief while reading a recipe for anchovies on toast – 1. Toast white bread. 2. Spread with butter and place two to three anchovies on top. Scoff immediately – and grilled vegetables: just veg and oil).
There’s personal warmth in the dish introductions (Gregg dancing in the kitchen to Abba while waiting for risotto to cook; Anna’s childhood in her nonna’s kitchen), but many recipes feel generic. Where are the twists and tricks?
I made five recipes, aiming to cover the book's major sections and to compare the Wallaces' take on classic Italian dishes with other versions I’d made before.
If carbonara is on the menu, I’m having it. Following the instructions for Gregg’s version to the letter, I allowed the pasta to cool for five minutes before stirring in the egg and cheese mixture (to prevent the egg scrambling). By the time I came to eat it, the whole thing was barely lukewarm. Disappointing.
Gregg’s recipe for this classic Italian dish of veal wrapped in prosciutto explains that turkey will do fine as a replacement for the veal; my local supermarket only had the latter so I went with that and it was probably a mistake.
Both the turkey and the strips of parma ham he calls for ended up dry as a bone by the time they finally made it to the plate. I would definitely stick with the veal if I made it again. Even so, preparation was simple, and I would definitely prepare it again on as a tasty work-night meal.
Plenty of wine and cheese, with colourful saffron to turn the whole thing a cheerful shade of yellow. What could go wrong?
Sadly, the bright colour wasn’t accompanied by huge amounts of flavour. Saffron is a subtle spice, so I might add more of it if I made this risotto again, as I found the finished dish a little underpowered for my taste. Still, with lots of parmesan it was creamy and satisfying.
“Pizza is a simple dish that’s all too easy to mess up if the basic elements aren’t right,” Gregg explains in his introduction to making pizza dough. If there was any recipe which I could use to set a benchmark, it was this.
And actually, Gregg’s recipe easy to follow and the results were delightful. The dough ended up springy and soft, and Gregg’s take on the tomato base was also great; use garlic to flavour oil then mix with tomato passata and season with salt and pepper; definitely a lot tastier than just using plain passata.
Torta Di Ricotta
This baked ricotta cheesecake took me only about an hour to make (minus the time it took to set) and it was fantastic. The ricotta and cream cheese mix is lighter than a traditional cheesecake and orange and lemon zest gives it a really punchy taste.
I burnt it slightly, but that didn’t diminish the result too much. The buttery biscuit base was a bit of disappointment though: to borrow a phrase from another cooking programme, I was left with a soggy bottom. Nevertheless, I would make this zesty cake again.
This is Gregg Wallace’s seventh cookbook and I hoped he would challenge my taste buds with something a bit fresher – clever ideas for improvements, some family specialities to elevate the classics, perhaps.
Instead, it’s a roll-call of Italian essentials, which of course has its own appeal. Learn to make a basic pizza (a good blueprint in the book) so you can add your own twists next time.
Gregg and Anna set out to share dishes that are “rustic and simple – no fancy foams, towers or squiggles” – and in this regard, they have succeeded.