Dame Alison Holst shares her cooking secrets

Top cook: Dame Alison Holst gives Aimie Cronin tips from her vegetarian cookbook.
FAIRFAX NZ
Top cook: Dame Alison Holst gives Aimie Cronin tips from her vegetarian cookbook.

There's Alison Holst, smiling out from one of her cookbooks, so pretty and sure.

It's a smile that has won us over for more than 50 years. It lasts and lasts. She looks the perfect picture of the perfect wife, perfect mother and perfect friend, the Judy Bailey of the cooking world.

She sits in the study at her Orewa home on the beach, a few lines older and a few shades greyer than the photos from her last cookbooks, but equally charming.

What's most surprising is her height. She's tall.

That smile appears so much and so profusely. Her eyelids hood over her eyes and they almost crease shut.

There's stuff everywhere. Rows of family photo albums from when her kids were little till now. Easels holding her work - yes, she paints as well. Cookbooks and food-related books and recipe books she has authored over all these years. There's a box labelled recipes to try.

Surely Holst would have tried every recipe in the history of recipes? Apparently not.

Today she's making soup. The whole house smells exactly as you would imagine, like home cooking and, as the slow cooker hums along in the next room, she talks to me, a non-cook, about how to lose the non and become a cook.

She says "easy" so much in relation to food that I almost believe her. She draws the little word out on a singsong, high-pitched note, squeezing everything she can out of it.

Take preserving. She's doing a lot of it at the moment with all kinds of fruit she grabs from the garden out back.

Then she peels and boils and sugars the stuff and voila! "Eeeasy."

Nothing about kitchening comes easy to me, no matter how cute I make the word sound. and even though I'm an exception to her rule, I'm not allowed to give up, not just yet.

I explain my predicament to our nation's favourite home cook. A confession of sins to the most high.

I am useless in the kitchen, but thanks to a bit of pressure from colleagues and with the aid of her book, I'm going to suck it up and spend a bit of time there, trying a recipe a week.

Think of the blog made movie Julie and Julia, but the Kiwi version: Aimie and Alison.

Let the train wreck begin.

She doesn't frown that I am 30-plus and don't know my oven from Adam.

There's not a hint of judgment, only the high-pitched cheer: "Good girl!"

She may have even clapped.

So here we are, flicking through The Ultimate Vegetarian Collection, which Holst wrote with her son, Simon. I'm about to get to know it well.

She's not a vegetarian, of course, but pretty much became one while writing the book. There are some nice, easy recipes in here, she says. But her eyes look up from its pages when she reaches a section about bread.

"You wouldn't want to make bread," she warns.

Although it's easy, it can be a little complicated and, from what she's heard so far, she doesn't think I'm quite there.

"But it's such fun. You just sort of pull it with one hand and push it back. It's a lovely feeling doing it. It's warm and soft and it rises." So Mary Poppins.

"It was one of the early things we did at Home Science School and I thought it was magic that you just sort of . . . you made something, and there it was."

She likes making simple stuff - sounds good to me - and balks at the idea of fussy cooking that is fashionable these days.

"Oh, look, I don't like it. If I look at a recipe and it's got more than five ingredients, I say forget it."

A normal day's diet in the Holst household is breakfast about 5am (her husband, Peter, is an early riser and she gets up with him), with maybe an egg on toast.

For lunch, Peter will make a sandwich of some kind. At the moment, they like ciabatta with a piece of ham, gherkins and mayonnaise. (She mostly buys mayonnaise these days, but used to make her own.)

Peter often makes dinner too. He's retired and enjoys cooking.

I tell her I can't think of anything worse than cooking for our country's favourite cook.

"Oh no! Not when you know me, not at all, it's not like that."

And it's a testament to her smile and true warmth that I actually believe her. But still . . .

I'm dying for a peek at the Holst kitchen. She hesitates, but is too polite to deny me access.

I expect marble islands, stainless-steel everything, double ovens and splashbacks, but not in this kitchen. It's a medium-sized space in the corner of a large living area, very humble.

She gives the soup a stir and shows me her preserves. She puts the quince jelly under a lamp so I can appreciate the colour.

Then she leads me back to the study to continue the sit-down, so I can ask some hard questions.

I want her to give me magic powers, some heavyweight tips, because there's nothing worse than slaving your guts out in the kitchen and spending money on ingredients and wasting all that time - that devastating first bite when tasting a failure on a plate and looking up to see your dinner date has tasted it too.

"Oh, yes, that's right," she commiserates.

Her advice is as follows: Keep it simple, follow instructions, buy proper measuring equipment, read the recipe first and make sure you have all the ingredients on the bench.

Buy jars for well-used items like flour and sugar and keep them on the bench.

It's best not to start with cakes, but to start with little things, such as Anzac biscuits, scones or preserves.

Later, she says people often stop her in the street for cooking advice on "such-and-such and such-and-such".

They say, "I hope you don't mind me asking", and she smiles that smile and says, "No, of course I don't".

I wish I lived down the street, so I could stop her for advice on every food fail. She's probably glad I live many, many streets away.

I leave with my vegetarian cookbook in hand and a signed message from my new favourite celebrity cook. "Good cooking!" it says.

I'm going to need a bit more than that, Alison. But I take it as a good omen at the start of my soon-to-be food-splattered bible on the start of this godforsaken food journey. Good cooking, indeed.

Aimie Cronin will be trying a recipe from Alison and Simon Holst's cookbook The Ultimate Vegetarian Collection every fortnight.

Waikato