Saturday, 7 March 2009

Comfort Food

It's still chilly outside; we need our fat blankets. What better to make a thick, windproof layer of blubber than a nice pheasant casserole served with an unpretentious Beaujolais, or the simplest and best nursery supper of all: a poached egg on toast? (Only make sure that the toast comes from a new, crisp-crusted snowy white loaf and is cut half an inch thick; that the finest butter is allowed to melt in little glistening trails all over the warm golden surface, and that the egg is perfectly poached. Add a tablespoon of white vinegar to the water; when it comes to a rolling boil stir it vigorously so that there is a little whirlpool in the centre; pour the egg, which you have already broken into a glass, carefully into the whirlpool and cook until the white is just set. Remove with a slotted spoon, and allow to steam dry; watery toast is fatal to enjoyment. A good grinding of salt and pepper is essential.) 
My favourite comfort food has always been macaroni cheese. Not the awful, perma-baked stuff that they served up at school with brown crust so thick it could only be shattered with a mallet, made from cheese that bore as much relation to cheddar as a parlour does to an abattoir; but incredibly rich, golden, and above all flavoursome pasta designed to warm your heart.

All measurements are approximate.

2.5 oz extra mature cheddar - a Davidstow from Marks and Spencer will do the trick, grated finely, if you're in a hurry; otherwise, go to a deli;
1 oz fresh parmesan - grate five minutes before preparing your sauce;
1.5 oz reserve alpine gruyere finely grated;
1 oz good dolcelatte, cubed;
1 pint full fat milk - Borrowdale farms Jersey milk is best: it must be buttercup yellow and laced with cream;
1 small pot Jersey cream;
2.5 oz butter;
a grating of fresh nutmeg;
1 tablespoon flour;
1 small clove garlic;
1 teaspoon Grey Poupon;
a bag of Sainsbury's macaroni. 

The first question is: to bake or not to bake? If you are to bake, do not boil the macaroni; scatter it in the bottom of an earthernware dish to await your sauce. If you are not to bake, fill a Large pan - a stockpot will do - with water, oil and salt. Sainsbury's macaroni is the best out there, in my opinion, but it's high in gluten and will stick if it doesn't have room to move around. Cook the macaroni for a full 13 minutes. 
In a 6in  saucepan, melt the butter on a low heat: it must not brown or burn. (You're not cooking skate wings, after all.) When it begins to froth remove the pan from the heat, tip it at an angle and skim off the froth. Repeat this process until the butter is absolutely clear of impurities (you will remove over half an ounce of solids). Then grate in half a clove of garlic and shake the pan vigorously to prevent it from burning; immediately add all the flour and stir for around a minute and a half. You do not want to brown the flour/butter mix (roux). Add 2-3 tablespoons milk and stir into the roux, once that has been absorbed, add another 2-3 tablespoons, using around half the milk, until the sauce is smooth, thick and elastic; then pour in the rest of the milk and the cream and whisk until the surface is covered with small bubbles. Add the Grey Poupon, a good grinding of rock salt (I prefer the Fleur du Sel, the lovely Provencal salt that has a unique, piquant flavour), a small, fragrant cloud of nutmeg, and black pepper and whisk the sauce until it is steaming and thickening. Then add your Dolcelatte and allow to melt; your Gruyere; your Cheddar and your Parmesan and whisk slowly, on a low heat (do Not allow to boil) for around 5 minutes until your sauce is scented and thick and velvet-smooth and delectable.
If you are baking your macaroni, allow a good fifty minutes at gas mark 4; about an hour in the bottom of an Aga. If you're feeling peckish, make a large green salad with little gem lettuce, chopped red peppers, sliced vine tomatoes, cucumber, grated carrot and avocado, served with a homemade dressing of 2 parts extra virgin olive oil/1 part good wine vinegar, fine herbes and lemon juice.
I like to eat my macaroni cheese with a good glass of Pinot Grigio or a similarly light, grassy, undemanding wine that complements the rich cheeses without overpowering them and an episode of Frasier. Make sure to wear elasticated trousers.

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