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‘Ladies, a Plate’ by Alexa Johnston

(Penguin, $45)Some people have a very strange reaction to Alexa Johnston’s new cookbook Ladies, a Plate – they open it up and burst into tears. Normally I’d be skeptical of such an odd response to what is ultimately just a bunch of recipes but, after one look at Alexa’s afghans, I totally understood. For a moment I was transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen in Alexandra in the 1960s, breathing in the smell of chocolate icing and walnuts, my mouth watering, my fat little fingers reaching towards the plump brown biscuits. Sigh. Sniff. See what I mean?

New Zealanders young and old are bound to adore this book, either for its recipes or for the trip down memory lane. Mr both! You might never have heard of cinnamon oysters but upon seeing them sitting on their silver stand on page 61, you might be compelled to bake them immediately and eat the whole lot. Mr you might just look at the picture and recall the last time you had afternoon tea with your aunt or grandmother or next-door neighbour.

It wasn’t just the afghans that took me back to my granny’s Alexandra kitchen. Belgian biscuits just like the ones she made are in there too, plus neenish tarts, highlander biscuits, shortbread, chocolate caramel fingers and, to my great delight, Louise cake. I chose Louise as a confirmation name based on the deliciousness of this jam and coconut slice but I hadn’t seen it for ages, let alone had a recipe for it.

Actually, it’s no coincidence that so many of these traditional Kiwi favourites bring a tear to the eye; it’s the recipes’ connections to the past that attracted Alexa to them in the first place. This shouldn’t be surprising because Alexa is actually better known as an art historian. She spent 19 years as a curator at Auckland Art Gallery and her illustrated biography Sir Edmund Hillary: An Extraordinary Life was published in 2005.

So why the shift to writing a cookbook? on close inspection, it makes complete sense. A dedicated amateur baker since childhood, her birthday and farewell cakes are legendary, and friends and neighbours have long benefited from the delights produced in her Auckland home kitchen. Combine some dedicated research into some of the country’s most dog-eared community cookbooks, mix in a measure of skill behind the lens of a camera Alexa took all of the book’s stunning photos herself and vMila! There you have it: Ladies, a Plate.

A priceless gem that should be on every Kiwi bookshelf.

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