We chatted to best-selling author Rukmini Iyer about the 1980s cookbooks she loved as a child, how she got the inspiration for her Roasting Tin series, and why you should never bake in a hurry.
Rukmini Iyer seems to have found the perfect formula for no-fuss cooking: just throw it all in one tin and into the oven. Okay, there’s a little more to it than that. But with her exciting flavour combinations, easy-to-follow recipes and gorgeously aesthetic dishes, it’s no wonder almost everyone has one of her Roasting Tin cookbooks in their kitchen.
Yet the deceptively simple concept behind the series, which has sold more than one million copies, didn’t come about overnight. From training as a lawyer to switching careers in her mid-twenties, Iyer had to work hard and take plenty of risks before she found the blueprint for success.
What is your favourite food memory from childhood?
It’s probably cooking with my mum, and then eating the results. I remember we had a Panasonic microwave cookery book which we did a lot of baking from. It's such a 1980s book. It's got this great bronzed chicken on the front, photographed in that classic 1980s style – really quite dire! The cakes were really good though.
We used to make the flapjacks from it, and they were always amazing. You’d make them in an upside-down buttered Pyrex lid. And if you ate them straight out of the microwave, they were delicious – really soft and fudgy. But if you let them sit for any longer than 20 minutes they were like rocks! Not great for your teeth.
Which came first: your love of cooking, or your love of baking?
Baking was a gateway into ‘proper’ cooking because it’s something that you can take ownership of. I felt like: I'm doing this myself, I'm decorating it with minimal input. I definitely helped my mum cook dinner as well. But when you're a kid, that’s just stirring something on the stove, that's not yours. Whereas if you make a cake, you can say: “that’s my cake!”
When did you realise you wanted to pursue a career in food?
I had the idea once and then didn't follow it through. I’d just finished law school and I thought, I'd rather go into food. At that point I went on a tour of a catering school in London. But I was 24 – I'd done a four-year degree and then I’d done a two-year law conversion course. And everyone was a 16-year-old there with their mum! So I thought, I'm too old to go to catering school.
I did end up doing my legal training contract. But after that I thought, there's got to be another way, so I went to the Edinburgh New Town Cookery School, where there seemed to be a lot of other people making career changes.
I couldn't have done it without a support network. My mum knew how unhappy I was doing law, and she said: just get your qualifications. So the day I qualified I said, Mum, I’m going to go into cookery. And I knew I could count on her for moral support.
Having worked as a food stylist, do you often think about how your dishes will look?
We definitely eat with our eyes. Especially when it comes to traybakes, everything's often brown, which is delicious to eat. But it's not necessarily going to make someone go: I have to make that for dinner tonight. It's a really nice synergy, because if you make something look good by putting chopped nuts, chopped herbs or something on top, it’ll look great, but you're also adding layers of flavour and texture. All the things that are going to make it taste amazing are also what make it look amazing.
What was the initial inspiration behind your Roasting Tin series?
I started making a lot of one-tin dishes when I was working as a food stylist. I would get really hungry at the end of the day, but I didn't want to stand and cook because I'd been on my feet all day. Instead of cooking on the stove, I started adapting recipes like fajitas and curries, putting them all in one layer and cooking them under the grill or roasting them. All just so I could sit down!
I was working on styling for other books at the same time. I kept thinking: if only I could do my own idea... I wonder if I could do all one-tin recipes? I'm quite visual, so I got loads of big pieces of paper and I started drawing out recipes that could work in roasting tins. I kept drawing and thought, there are loads of things that could work!
The Roasting Tin series recently surpassed one million sales. How did that feel?
I was so surprised! It's a testament to how amazing people are who’ve liked the book. When I hear back from readers, it's never just, “I really liked your recipe”. It's: “I really liked the recipe, so I bought your book for my mum, and then she bought it for her dad…” and so on. People are amazingly generous, sharing recipes with their friends and family, and that's really contributed to the success.
What inspired you to do a book of sweet recipes?
One of my favourite books when I was a kid was the patisserie book from the Time Life series. We had the entire collection. I used to read it every day at breakfast as a kid. The patisserie one was pale pink with beautiful fondant cakes on the front. It’s such a pretty book!
In a couple of the Roasting Tin books I have done a dessert chapter. And then my Dutch publishers said: our market would really like a Roasting Tin book about baking, have you thought of doing that? I said, I haven't, but I do love baking books. I loved the idea of doing this really pretty, pink book.
The way I bake – and the way a lot of bakers in my mums’ generation bake – is using formulas. Working with a formula means you just know that if you use these certain proportions your cake will turn out perfectly.
I thought, I don't need to write a book which has 20 different formulas for cakes. I just need one. Then I can show people that once you know one classic template, you can tweak it – you can do that with cookies, with pudding, with custard.
Many of the recipes in the book can be adapted for vegan, gluten-free and diabetic diets. Why was this important to you?
My dad's diabetic. And as you can tell we’re quite a baking household. When he got diagnosed, my mum felt bad, because she's always loved having cake on the table when we come home to visit. So we started looking at how we could adapt when we baked for Dad.
It came down to two things, which we checked out as much as we could – my parents are doctors so my mum was very keen on talking to a nutritionist, getting it right. But essentially you can either use Xylitol as a sugar replacement, where you use half the weight of what you would sugar. It’s a really good substitute for white sugar.
And then for brown sugar you can use date syrup, which is a natural sugar and doesn't metabolise in you in the same way that regular sugar does. If you use it judiciously, it's a really good replacement.
With the format, it was easy to make a template for a diabetic version, a gluten-free version, and a vegan version. I wanted to make them really customisable – baking for friends and family, there's always someone who has a different diet. It's nice to be able to accommodate people.
Do you have any advice for baking beginners?
You should have a good pair of digital scales because that helps a lot with accuracy. If you’re not very familiar with your oven and you don’t know if it runs hot or cold, just try baking one really simple thing, and if it cooks in the time that it says in the recipe that's great, it cooks in less time than you know your oven’s running hot. It's about getting to know your equipment.
Try to bake when you're not in a hurry. When you can have a bit of fun in the kitchen, a bit of a potter, that's the best time to do baking. It's not when you’ve got friends coming in five minutes and you need to put a cake in the oven!
What’s your favourite recipe from the new book?
There's a really good Black Forest cupcake recipe which I’m really fond of. There's a chocolate, cherry and pistachio tiffin I'm really pleased with, and there’s a coconut and mango yoghurt cake which is really nice.
Rukmini Iyer's book The Sweet Roasting Tin is published by Square Peg and is available now.
Main image: David Loftus
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