updating a classic

Alexa Johnston’s delightful renditions of New Zealand baking resulted in a best-selling series of cookbooks. Delaney Mes talks to her about updating another New Zealand classic – the Edmonds Cookery Book.

I received my first Edmonds cookbook when I went off to university in Wellington, a parting gift from my dad (he included the 1980s microwave version as a joke, and it’s never been used). The book is an institution that dates back more than 100 years, republished in numerous editions since 1908. It’s fair to say it has reached New Zealand cult status, but it’s never been overseen by or attributed to a particular person: this is a book by a company in the business of baking powder.

Until now. Alexa Johnston has been tasked with updating the Edmonds cookbook for 2016, and it’s been quite the historical exercise. Despite being an excellent cook and self-confessed enthusiast – and the author of a number of cookbooks – Johnston doesn’t call herself a food writer: she’s an art historian by trade. We chatted in her Grey Lynn kitchen over aniseed biscuits and stovetop coffee about her current project. Despite not calling herself a food writer, she does admit that this has made her realise just how much she learned in her own cookbook research, especially about baking and the history of community cookbooks.

Some of the Edmonds cookbook archive is truly terrible. Johnson can nearly pinpoint when Goodman Fielder, owner of Edmonds, bought Flemings in 2006: suddenly oats began to infiltrate a huge number of recipes, from Chinese chew slice to meatloaf. Likewise, there are recipes with five teaspoons of baking soda – you don’t have to be an expert to know a recipe like that will taste revolting. A health kick in the 1980s saw butter drop: she found one recipe with a mere quarter teaspoon of butter. Early editions didn’t have Afghans or melting moments or ginger gems, recipes we might associate with the book. Carrot cake has been a minefield too: in the 1950s it was made with butter before changing to include five cups of carrot (far too much). The fact it stayed so well regarded despite the dumbing down, she reckons, just goes to show the incredible power of the brand.

With changing behaviour (“People don’t go to Edmonds for a lasagne recipe, they Google Jamie Oliver!”) she has extensively tweaked the book to create a true best-of-the-best, and she’s “magpied” her own recipe collection in the process – from her perfect pizza dough adapted from a guy out of Adelaide to a chicken enchilada recipe from her friend, an expert in Mexican cooking.

Though there is a firm nod to the past – a dear friend wouldn’t let her remove the devilled sausages – Johnston was firm that the hundreds of old, untested recipes in the archives could simply go online, and weren’t going in the book. As an intuitive, knowledgeable cook, who “knows about as much as anyone about NZ baking”, she explains she couldn’t have worked on a cookbook with the pressure from a company to sell product, and she’s grateful she didn’t have that.

So devilled sausages stay, but sweet and sour pork with tinned pineapple is gone. Ginger crunch is crucial, florentines have the golden syrup removed, and there are a couple of modern additions too: because it wouldn’t be a cookbook in 2016 without bliss balls.