How cooking helped blogger Ella Risbridger's through anxiety, depression and heartbreaking bereavement
Blogger-turned cookbook author Ella Risbridger found more than mere pleasure in preparing food. Struggling with anxiety, depression and heartbreaking bereavement, cooking turned out to be her salvation, writes Katy McGuinness
Most 'cookbooks' written by 26-year-olds are not like Ella Risbridger's Midnight Chicken. But then most 26-year-olds are not like Ella Risbridger, who says that she was "born very old". Ella has also had considerably more life experience than most of her contemporaries. The title recipe, for instance (which is absolutely delicious and I recommend highly), came about after Ella spent hours lying on her kitchen floor crippled with anxiety, wondering if she would ever be able to get up, before being coaxed upright by her boyfriend.
"I still love the recipe for Midnight Chicken," she says. "My best friend Caroline [O'Donoghue, Irish author and journalist] once asked me if I was worried that I had peaked too early. 'You will never do a chicken recipe as good as this,' she said. 'It's the best chicken I've ever had.' I can't believe it was me that came up with it."
Most of us came to know Ella through her beautifully written blog, Eating with My Fingers, or on Twitter, where she chronicled her life through food in the Tiny Flat in London with John Underwood, aka the Tall Man, whom she met on Twitter soon after she arrived in London to study comparative literature at university at the age of 18.
John, a few years older than Ella, was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2015, and during the course of his illness the couple raised more than €130,000 for the Anthony Nolan Foundation, which maintains a register of potential transplant donors to match with those diagnosed with blood cancers. John died last year, just as she was finalising the book.
Ella is far too smart to go along with trite aphorisms, but she'd probably agree that learning to cook - and writing about learning to cook - saved her life. She's a survivor of mental health problems and a suicide attempt, all of which she writes about in Midnight Chicken. The clue is in the book's subtitle: (& Other Recipes Worth Living For).
A condition of this interview is that, even though there is quite a lot about John in the book, we are not allowed to talk about him. Fair enough. Having shared so much online in the past, it now feels prudent to be more circumspect. "I've been on the internet for years," she says. "My first website was when I was nine, and my friend's dad helped us to code it. There was a chick that jumped across the top of the page because it was during the Easter holidays. We wrote little articles about what was going on at school. There was one called How to Build a Den; I was very proud of it.
"These days, though, I put a blog post up only very occasionally. I just don't have the time. I've got to make a living, for one thing, and I'm more careful than I used to be about what I put up."
She is still a prolific tweeter, though. Sharp, funny, kind and exuberant. "Twitter is only little blogs," she says. "And I'm incapable of writing one tweet when 30 will do. But these days I just have so many more people watching what I do. When I had a hundred followers, I wanted to be friends with all of them. I made 'in real life' friends on Twitter; I met John on Twitter. Every friend I have in London has been from a connection that started off on Twitter, or their friends or friends' friends."
While many cookbooks from authors in their 20s focus on plant-based diets and 'clean' eating, Ella's recipes are robust and democratic, with no hint of dietary issues. "I don't think they are joyless per se," she says diplomatically. "It's not for me, but if others get a kind of joy from cooking from Deliciously Ella, then good for them: I am glad they are having a good time. I feel very strongly that the minute you put any kind of ethical judgement on any way of eating - demonising bread or saying vegans are smug - you're just taking the fun out of it.
"I naturally gravitate towards people who are writing in a more inclusive way, such as Nigella and Diana and Ruby Tandoh. One of the things that I love about Ruby is that sense that food is so much more than itself, that there is actually as much joy to be had from a tin of Heinz tomato soup as from much more elaborate and expensive food. It's such an egalitarian approach, that willingness to find the joy in all types of food in all types of places.
"It's that feeling that I wanted to capture in this book, which is why there are so many mentions of places and the people that I was with. I wanted to make it clear that there is joy to be found in eating on your own or with your partner, with your best friend, or a whole table of friends, in eating with your family, eating indoors or outdoors, in coming home from a really awful day and eating Heinz tomato soup…"
Ella is open to talking about her mental health and struggles with anxiety and depression. "I'm not an expert, but I speak as someone to whom these things have happened. I don't think there was a specific trigger, more a combination of factors. My mum thinks it's because I had glandular fever when I was a teenager and she read somewhere that you can get depression as a result of that, a form of viral fatigue.
"My theory is that my parents had moved to Dubai, where I spent the last two years of school, and suddenly I was back in London, in the dark and cold, 4,000 miles away from my family, and it was hard, and I was scared. Perhaps I have a genetic predisposition towards anxiety and depression too. I've always had some of the traits of ASD [autism spectrum disorder], preferring to be in a cupboard with a book - literally! - than at a party, and I definitely remember things from when I was very little that I think now look like panic attacks."
Ella tried antidepressants for four years before getting fed up with a litany of side-effects. "Therapy worked for me when antidepressants did not. I'm a big believer in talk therapy: it's been incredibly helpful for me. I actually just stopped going to therapy on the advice of my therapist. We had a really nice conversation in which I said, 'I don't think I'm getting anything out of sitting here talking about grief and pain,' and that I was thinking about spending the money on garment-making classes instead. The therapist said, 'That sounds like a great idea.' The therapy and the needlework classes turned out to be exactly the same price, and I took that as a sign."
As well as learning to sew, Ella is editing a modern poetry anthology. "This is a fabulous golden age of poetry, and I want to be able to put it in the hands of people who think poetry is all Wordsworth. I happen to like Wordsworth, but a person can get tired of lonely clouds and daffodils."
As for a second cookbook, Ella isn't saying anything just yet, but a newly discovered enthusiasm for baking evidenced on her Instagram hints that another one may be on the way. "I always had apple pie on my birthday because I don't really like cake. The most massive surprise of last year was that I do actually quite like cake and I really like baking; that's been thrilling for me. There's something very decadent in deciding that it's okay to eat sweet things, as there's absolutely no necessity to make cakes. With cooking, I could trick myself into having a good time because you have to eat something, so you might as well do it properly, whereas with baking there's no point to it at all: it's unnecessary, pure frivolity. It's been a real comfort to me, that idea that maybe I can just have something because it's sweet and nice.
"I started baking this year because Caroline and her boyfriend, Gavin Day, helped me with a nightmare of a house move. I had been living in my old flat for six years, so it was very emotional. There was stuff everywhere and millions of boxes, all of which had to go to different places. I was very upset, and they did everything. They hired a van, drove the van, put stuff in boxes, drove to the tip and to charity shops, brought stuff to my new house, drove across London multiple times, and I said, 'What can I do to thank you?' and they said, 'Cake.'
"Actually, they said, 'Cake and a roast lamb dinner.' I've done lots of cake delivery but not the dinner yet."
Uplifting chilli and lemon spaghetti
This is so simple and so beautiful, and is equally viable as a dinner-party dish (with a handful of prawns) or a late-night low-mood kitchen supper. I make this when I am very sad, and need something to do with my hands: you mince the garlic and shred the chilli — a continuous rocking movement with the knife that is deeply meditative, and thoroughly soothing; then you zest the lemon. At the end of it, you have a little white heap, and a little ruby heap, and a little yellow heap, and you shake them together into sizzling olive oil, and the scent that rises up is about the most uplifting thing I know. It’s bright and zingy and vivid, and everything about it is honestly good. I used to call this recipe Flatly Suicidal Spaghetti, because that was when I most often made it, but the name was too sad: it was me that was flatly suicidal, not the spaghetti. And so I thought again and called it Uplifting Spaghetti, because that was how it made me feel. To make this, and to eat it, is an entirely satisfying, soul-restoring experience.
4 garlic cloves
1 big fat red chilli or 1 tsp chilli flakes
About 2 tbsp olive oil
About 50ml white wine (a very small glass)
200g cooked and peeled prawns (optional)
Thumb-sized nub of Parmesan (optional)
Salt and black pepper
1. Take a big, deep pan, fill it with cold water and add a handful of salt. Taste the water: it should be as salty as the ocean. Set the pan over a high heat.
2. Find a chopping board and a big knife or cleaver, and take your garlic. You want to keep the part of the blade nearest the handle still against the board, and use it as a pivot, rocking the knife through the garlic over and over again, until you have a fine garlicky confetti. (You will need to concentrate on this, which is why it is good.) Take your fresh chilli, if using, and chop that, too, stripping out the seeds and fine white membranes, then dicing the flesh into a pinky heap. Next, your lemon. Take that, and finely grate the zest from about half of it, trying to get as little of the pith as possible.
3. Pour the olive oil into a frying pan, and set it over the lowest possible heat. Add your garlic, chilli and lemon zest, and stir constantly, watching it like a hawk so it doesn’t burn.
4. Your water should be coming to a good rolling boil now: fat bubbles coming up from the bottom to the top, and bursting, and slinking down again. Add a little splash of olive oil and your spaghetti and cook until al dente.
5. Meanwhile, keep stirring your garlic just until it’s the palest golden colour, then quickly pour in your white wine. Stir it, and keep stirring, letting the wine reduce until it’s thicker and a bit syrupy. (Add the chilli flakes here too, if you didn’t use fresh chilli.) If using prawns, add these now as well, and gently warm through. Grate the Parmesan, if you’re using it.
6. Using a big slotted spoon or tongs, take your spaghetti from the water, dripping wet, and fling it straight into the frying pan. Stir it through the winey sauce. (If you prefer, you can drain your pasta in the normal way, reserving about 2 tbsp of the pasta cooking water, and then add the pasta and water to the frying pan, but I am lazy and recommend the slotted-spoon approach.) Scatter over the Parmesan, if using, and a good grind of black pepper, and stir well.
7. Decant into bowls, pour the wine, sit at a table and eat with a fork and a spoon, because you deserve to sit at a table, and you deserve to have a nice supper and be looked after.
There are lots of ways to start a story, but this one begins with a chicken. It was the first story I ever wrote about food, and it begins with a chicken in a cloth bag hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. It was dark outside, and I was lying on the hall floor, looking at the chicken through the door, and looking at the rust in the door hinges, and wondering if I was ever going to get up.
Perhaps, I thought, lying on the hall floor, I will just stay on the hall floor forever, and sink through the laminate, and into the concrete, and down into the earth.
But this is a hopeful story. It's the story of how I got up off the floor.
It's also the story of how to roast a chicken, and how to eat it. This is a story of eating things, which is, if you think about it, the story of being alive. More importantly, this is a story about wanting to be alive.
Eventually the Tall Man came home, and helped me up. "Come on," he said, and we went into the kitchen together, and I made this, late at night, and we ate it at midnight, with wine, and bread, and our fingers, sopping up the garlicky juices from the baking tray, sucking the bones.
So this story begins with a chicken. This is the best roast chicken you'll ever have, and I think it might just be perfect.
For 2, with leftovers (for soup and salad and stock and sandwiches)
Chicken (mine was 1.6kg)
Garlic, about 8 cloves, or as many as you can muster
2 fresh chillies (or 3 if you don't have chilli salt)
Mustard, the grainy sort
Chilli salt (or sea salt)
Olive oil (perhaps)
Ginger, a nub about the size of your thumb
Honey, about a spoonful
1. Take your chicken out of its packaging. Sit it in a baking tray; let it breathe. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F, Gas Mark 4).
2. Take half of your garlic and chop it finely, then put it in a cup. Using the kitchen scissors, chop the chillies and a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme. Put those in your cup, too. Add a hefty teaspoon of mustard, some pepper and chilli salt (just ordinary sea salt will do, if you haven't got chilli salt). You can add a little splash of olive oil too, if you like. I don't always, but sometimes I do, and then it is gold.
3. Peel and grate the ginger, if you have a little grater, or you can just chop it if not. It'll be okay. Add most of it to your cup with the garlic and herbs. Put the last pinch into a mug with the honey. Boil a kettle.
4. Take the lemon and cut it in half. Juice one half very briskly, and the other half a little less briskly. Pour most of the lemon juice into your cup of stuff. Stir.
5. Pour the rest of the lemon juice into the mug with the ginger and honey. Add hot water from the kettle. Stir. Drink. Steady yourself.
6. Go back to the chicken. Unloop the elastic string holding its little legs together, and shove 4 of the garlic cloves and the less-squeezed lemon half up its little bottom. Loop it up again, if you can, then rub the garlic-chilli-herbs-ginger-lemon mixture into the chicken skin; into the legs, the thighs, the wings.
7. Slide the chicken into the oven. Set the chicken timer (your timer might be different, but mine is shaped like a little red hen) for about 1 hour and 20 minutes, if your chicken weighs the same as mine, and your oven is temperamental in the same ways as mine. If your chicken is bigger or smaller than mine, give it about 30 minutes per 500g (there are very accurate roasting-time calculators online: I use the BBC Good Food one).
8. Have a glass of wine.
9. When the timer rings, check the chicken. I am very bad at testing when a chicken is done, but I know in theory - something about sticking a skewer into the meatiest bit of the leg and the juices running clear. If it's still pink, send it back to the oven. If not, turn the oven off and let the chicken sit for 5 minutes. Dip some bread in the juices.
10. Carve the chicken. Tear the meat from the bones. Drink. Eat. Feel glad.
Whiskey & Rye Blondies
We climbed the hill together: the Tall Man and me, Harry Harris and his girlfriend, and Fiona, our token American, in pristine wellies. It was dark. It was Bonfire Night, and we were going to watch London burn.
We had a picnic: a midnight picnic, for eating in the cold and the dark, our mittens tinged with smoke. We had acquired some mulled wine from a pub on the way up, and decanted it. We had samosas, ineptly folded, but spicy and strong. Tiny hand pies. Blondies, studded with sea salt, and crisp, half-melted sugar, still warm. We had sparklers, matches and good boots. Scarves and gloves. The Tall Man had a bottle of ginger wine in his pocket. I think it was Fiona's first Bonfire Night, although I am not sure. People were singing American Pie as we climbed the hill, and I had been thinking of the same song earlier when I was baking these blondies: dense rye crust, and the sharp-sour tang of whiskey in among the sweet white chocolate.
"So… it's to burn the Catholics?" Fiona asked, and we sort of shrugged, silhouetted against the city lights. Kind of? Maybe? Not at all, once you get right down to it: it's about fire, really, like every other festival that comes to hold back the dark.
We lit our sparklers, and wrote our names in fire, as we always have, and always will. I wrote our initials entwined in a heart. The afterimage stayed on my retinas for a long time, and I felt like a teenager. Flippant, silly, dangerous, with everything mine for the taking: the whole world bright at my feet, bright with fire.
Then there was an enormous bang, close by: the real teenagers had sent an illegal Roman candle into the hedgerow. The police came swiftly, and in the shadows cast by their blue lights, so clean and so ordinary, we slinked away, down the hill, through the long grass, and surreptitiously ate our blondies in the pub. They were (and are) so good: toffee-ish, a little blackened at the edges, dense and fudgy inside, with a crackled sugary crust. Sea salt. Whiskey and rye. The gold sugar stars caught on my teeth. I leaned against the Tall Man, breathed in the smoke from his coat, closed my eyes and wished it would last forever.
Makes 24 blondies
200g unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
200g golden caster sugar
200g molasses sugar
2 tbsp whiskey (if you don't like whiskey, just leave it out and add an extra teaspoon of vanilla extract)
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs
250g rye flour
150g white chocolate
2 tsp flaky sea salt
2 tsp 'golden stars' sugar decorations (optional, but you can get them from most major supermarkets, in the baking aisle)
1. Preheat your oven to 180°C (350°F, Gas Mark 4) and butter a brownie tin (about 30cm x 20cm) or other similar-sized tin.
2. Weigh the butter into a large saucepan, and set it over the lowest-possible heat. You're going to melt it, then brown it, and this will take about 7 minutes: keep an eye on it. It will go through solid to liquid to foaming to rising to sinking back on itself, and you will be able to see the colour change.
3. Meanwhile, weigh out your sugars separately. (You can tinker with these a bit, as long as you keep some dark sugar in there. Molasses sugar is splendid, but can be hard to find; using demerara instead will give you a lovely, paler blondie, while substituting the golden caster sugar with granulated can make the crust even crunchier, with that classic crackled finish.)
4. When the butter is a nut-brown colour, add your sugars to the pan: golden caster first, and then molasses. Whisk with all your strength to dissolve the sugar, and simmer over a low heat for about a minute. Add the whiskey and/or vanilla, and whisk until you have a smooth, glossy, dark mixture. Remove from the heat and leave to cool for 5 minutes.
5. Crack both eggs into the cooled butter and sugar mixture, and take up your whisk again. Whisk, whisk, whisk. Keep whisking until the eggs are thoroughly incorporated, then gently fold in the rye flour; you can do this with the whisk too, just go gently.
6. Break up your white chocolate into little pieces or shred it with a big knife or cleaver. Quickly stir the chocolate through the blondie batter, not minding too much if it melts, then decant into the buttered tin, squidging it down into the corners. Scatter with the sea salt - and the gold sugar stars, if using.
7. Bake for 25 minutes, then leave to cool completely in the tin. Score into 24 small squares: these are very sweet and very rich, which is why they are so good on a cold night. If you can, store in their tin, as they stay fudgier that way - just cover with foil, and lever out as needed. Or lever out half a dozen and wrap in foil, then take them up the hill to see the fireworks and the stars.
Midnight Chicken (& Other Recipes Worth Living For) by Ella Risbridger, published by Bloomsbury at £22, is out now