In the UK, Delia Smith is a cultural icon. Famous enough to be known by just her first name, Delia was a mainstay of British television and bookshelves from the early 1970s to the 2000s.
Through her friendly yet no-nonsense personality, she taught millions to cook at a time when even pasta was alien to many and helped redefine British cuisine before Jamie Oliver was old enough to work a toaster.
In that time, Delia has sold over 21 million books. So beloved were her recipes that supermarkets would frequently sell out of the ingredients overnight — something that came to be known as 'the Delia effect'. Her influence became so ubiquitous and far-reaching that the 2001 edition of the Collins English Dictionary had an entry for the word Delia: "The recipes or style of cooking of British cookery writer Delia Smith. A Delia dish."
In addition to her work as a food writer and broadcaster, she created the cake on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ album Let It Bleed and featured on artist Peter Blake’s 2012 update of his cover for The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Since 1996, Delia has co-owned Norwich City F.C. with her husband, Michael Wynn-Jones.
Not bad for someone who left school at 16.
Delia Smith’s career
“I found in my whole career the best thing that can happen to you is that you hear what people want.” — Delia Smith
Having left school without a single O-level, Delia Smith worked brief stints as a hairdresser, a shop assistant, and a travel agent, before landing a job at a small restaurant in London aged 21. The Singing Chef initially hired her to wash dishes, but she worked her way up to waiting tables and, eventually, cooking. Legend has it that a bit of romantic rivalry served to jumpstart her career: her boyfriend kept talking about his ex-girlfriend’s flair for cooking, and that’s when Delia started getting serious in the kitchen.
She’d found her calling and began obsessively researching recipes in the Reading Room at the British Museum. This would lead to a job preparing food for studio photography and, in 1969, a position as cookery writer for the Daily Mirror. Just two years later she published her first book, How to Cheat at Cooking.
Delia’s first brush with television success came when she was working as an assistant on a food advertisement shoot. Someone dropped a pie right before the shoot, and she offered to make the new one. Her TV career began shortly afterwards, and she became the resident cook on BBC East’s Look East. In 1973 she landed her own show, Family Fare, accompanied by a book of the same name. She would go on to publish one or two cookery books a year until 1980.
By that point Delia was well on her way to becoming a household name thanks to shows like Delia Smith’s Cookery Course. In the early 80s her output was more focused on her Christian faith, writing 4 books about her relationship with God and conversion to Catholicism.
Nevertheless, she still had time to release the best-selling One is Fun!, a collection of recipes for one person, and closed the decade with Delia Smith’s Illustrated Cookery Course. But it was the following year, 1990, when she began the transition fromDelia Smith the household name to Delia the culinary superstar.
Delia Smith’s Christmas was a seminal moment in British television — and is still shown every yuletide season. The accompanying book flew off the shelves. For several Christmases in a row you’d have struggled to find a British dinner table not graced by one of Delia Smith’s recipes.
That was followed by Delia Smith’s Summer Collection before Delia Smith’s Winter Collection smashed records in 1995. It became the fastest selling book ever, won the British Book of the Year award, and earned her fans across the Atlantic. That year she was also awarded an OBE. (She was appointed CBE 14 years later.)
A keen football fan, Delia Smith became co-director of Norwich City F.C. in 1996. That was followed by a hit book and TV series, Delia’s How to Cook, but she officially retired from television in 2003, unwilling to compromise her educational style in an era when viewers demanded cooking shows focus on entertainment.
Nevertheless, she continued to write recipe books and, in 2008, returned to television in the six-part mini-series, How to Cheat at Cooking. She continues to publish recipes on her website.
Delia Smith’s most famous recipes:
Delia Smith’s pancake recipe is emblematic of a no-nonsense appeal perhaps unfamiliar to a generation of Instagram foodies. Originally featured in Delia’s Winter Collection, the pancakes are as delicious as they are simple to make.
The instructions are clear, detailed and easy to follow. In classic Delia fashion, she writes for an audience that hasn’t the first clue on how to make batter. (Note that the recipe is for the classic crêpe-like pancakes more common in Europe and the UK, not the thick, fluffy American-style pancakes.)
You can’t become an icon of British cuisine without tackling the classic scone. Unsurprisingly, there are many Delia Smith scone recipes.
Kitchen novices may want to start with Delia Smith’s plain scone recipe from Delia’s Cakes. Perfectly fluffy inside with a delectable outer crust, they can be made in under half an hour.
If you really want to impress at afternoon tea, try Delia’s buttermilk scones with West Country clotted cream and raspberry butter. Or go for the savoury option with Delia’s buttermilk scones with Cheshire cheese and chives. Both recipes originally appeared in Delia’s Complete How to Cook.
Toad in the hole
The name may raise a few eyebrows outside of the UK, but there’s a reason Delia Smith’s toad in the hole recipe is so beloved. The classic sausage in batter is perfected in Delia Smith’s Complete How to Cook with the addition of roasted onion gravy.
Hearty if not healthy, this staple of British cuisine continues to convert skeptics.
Meringue can be a daunting prospect for new cooks, which makes a skilled teacher like Delia Smith invaluable. Delia’s Complete Cookery Course features the famous Delia Smith pavlova recipe. Fresh strawberries and mascarpone balance the sweetness of the meringue, and will impress dinner guests even if you’ve never made a dessert in your life.
Delia’s Smith’s hallmark is no-nonsense classics that make good food accessible to all. What better example of this than her recipe for the centuries-old staple, Yorkshire pudding? This dish made with beef drippings provides a crispy, golden-brown accompaniment for almighty roast beef.
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