It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last blog (my apologies & I hope my social media pics have kept you well fed in it’s absence). After a very busy October, filled with sugar art, baking & creating spooky treats for my friend’s little boy who was having a Halloween party, we have zoomed through a newly frosted November at warp speed & driven straight into December! If you’ve been following me on social media, you’ll know that our Son has graduated from University in November (cue lots of photos & two extremely proud parents!). Seeing him there in his cap & gown, clutching his well-deserved Degree, was one of those moments I won’t forget! He’s probably reading this, so I’ll just say it’s wonderful to see all his hard work (both studying & supporting himself working) come to fruition, so congratulations once again & we’re really proud of you!
Things have been busy here in the Hungry household, what with all the celebrating & such. Now the seasons have cooled drastically, the garden is looking a little tired & in need of some love. The pots of pretty pink & delicate white miniature Chrysanthemums were recently in full bloom, brightening up the patio with their petite blossoms, while some squirrels had a great time munching on the buffet of bulbs we planted & flinging their furry little selves around the garden with airborne abandon (that can’t be good for their digestion).
The chilly days of late November sunshine & sogginess have given way to a Wintry December, which could be why we are craving richer, rib-sticking dinners & delicious desserts. Anytime of year, we all have those days when we need something substantial to sustain our busy lives & keep us nourished, both physically & spiritually (because food should do both). Not necessarily a full-on girdle-busting roast dinner with all the trimmings (although very welcome at certain times of the year!), but sometimes we just need a hearty helping of heavenly comfort food to give us a boost. Some of the simplest foods can bring us such comfort, just by their fragrant aroma or even the thought of them, evoking happy memories of meals gone by.
One of my favourite indulgences is a large spoonful of creamy, crunchy-topped cauliflower cheese, enveloped in a silky smooth cheese sauce. Although I know you can get cauliflower all year round, it seems to taste better when it’s in season during these later months. Cauliflower is one of the most versatile veg we can eat & I’ve grilled, baked, steamed, boiled & pureed it, cooked it in curries & eaten it raw, dipped in lots of luscious pots of sauces, pesto & salsa (this came from when I was a little girl & loved to eat the stalk).
Usually, I like to serve a rich cauliflower cheese as a side dish with a roast dinner (especially with my spicy roast & baked gammon – recipe soon), but if I’m honest, it’s simply beautiful on it’s own as a luscious veggie dish. Pure pale cloud-like florets, steamed until al dente & draped in the most luxurious silky smooth sauce, created with a collection of cheeses & crowned with a deeply golden crispy crust – it’s spectacular as the main event, rather than just a mere side dish & this humble vegetable should be given a bit more kudos!
There are various ways to prepare cauliflower cheese & I have shared this recipe before, but I feel it deserves an article all of it’s own. It freezes really well & you know how much I like to have food prepared in advance (especially if it’s been languishing in your fridge & needs using up). If you have various bits of cheese that are loitering in your fridge, now is the time to gather them all together for this delicious dish! Half a bowl of bocconcini balls, odds & ends of Red Leicester & Double Gloucester? Grate, slice & shred them to go in this dish. If you are using smoked cheese, you might want to omit the Gorgonzola or any blue cheese (I find they are both strong flavours & probably best using one or the other). Ready? Aprons on, hands washed & here we go!
What you need:
1 large head of Cauliflower (2 if they’re small or you’re making extra to freeze)
1 teaspoon Sea Salt (for the cooking water)
For the cheese sauce:
1 pint of Semi-Skimmed Milk
3oz Salted Butter
3oz Plain Flour
6oz Cheese, grated (half for topping & half for the sauce)
Other bits of Cheese, about half an ounce each – I’ve used Gorgonzola Dolce, Grana Padana, Mozzarella, Bocconcini, Red Leicester, Cheshire, Ricotta & Cream Cheese – if it’s cheese, chuck it in!
Half an ounce of grated Parmesan (for the topping)
1 crust of bread (preferably a day or two old, but if you have to use fresh, leave it out on the side unwrapped)
Oregano (dried is fine)
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper for seasoning
What to do:
Pre-heat the oven to 200*C, then fill the kettle & put it on to boil.
Prepare the cauliflower heads – trim off the leaves & remove the stalk, then separate into florets, keeping them as chunky as you can & wash them in cold water. Place all the florets into a steamer & sprinkle with a good pinch of sea salt.
Pour the boiling water all over the florets, dissolving the salt & washing everything (salt is a purifier). Put the lid on the pan & steam for about 8 minutes until al dente (poke it with a sharp knife & it should be still be firm, but easy to cut).
While your cauliflower is steaming, prepare your cheeses. Grate any of the hard cheeses, such as the Grana Padana, mild cheese, etc (if you’ve got a food processor attachment, use it & make your life easier – your knuckles will thank you!). Mix them well & set aside. Any cheese with a rind will need it removing, such as the Gorgonzola. Cut into rough pieces & set aside.
For cream cheese or ricotta, scoop a spoonful into a cup or bowl (leave the spoon in it) & place with your other cheeses. Once you start making the sauce, you’ll need everything to hand so it’s best to get this organised now.
Once ready, transfer the florets carefully into a large lasagne or pie dish. Make sure they are all floret-side up & pack them well into the dish. I find this easier to do with a couple of forks or spoons, so you don’t burn your fingers. Set to one side while you make the sauce.
Gently melt the butter in a large saucepan – this should be a plain or stainless steel pan, not a non-stick one as you’re going to use a metal whisk in it & you don’t want to wreck your saucepan (or get bits of non-stick coating in your sauce either!).
Remove from the heat & add the flour, put back on the heat & working quickly, whisk thoroughly to combine into a thick, shiny roux. Traditionally, you would use a wooden spoon, but if you want to make sure you don’t get any lumps I suggest using a good metal balloon whisk (nothing fancy, just a plain wire one will do).
Add about a quarter of the milk to the mixture & whisk in, until it loosens up & then add the rest of the milk carefully. Keep stirring with the whisk, getting to the bottom & around the edges of the pan to ensure nothing sticks.
As the sauce thickens up, you should start to feel some resistance with the whisk. Keep whisking slowly (swap hands if your wrist aches) & when you are satisfied with the thickness, add a couple of ounces of the grated mild cheddar & whisk until melted.
Add the other cheeses & whisk in again until melted. Turn off the heat.
Take a spoon & dip it into the sauce – it should coat the back of the spoon well & leave a trail in the pan. The consistency of the sauce should be like natural yoghurt.
Now taste it – depending on which types of cheese you have used, it might not need much seasoning as some cheeses, such as Parmesan, can be a little saltier than others.
Add a pinch of black pepper (half a dozen twists with a pepper grinder should be fine) & if you think it needs it, add a pinch of sea salt but go steady because once it’s in, you can’t take it out.
Whisk & taste again (with a clean spoon please!). If you’re happy with your cheese sauce, carefully pour all over the cauliflower florets, drizzling slowly into all the corners & working your way towards the centre. Make sure every floret is covered with the sauce & use a spatula to scrape out any remaining in the pan – you’ve worked hard to make this & shouldn’t waste any (or you could just dip a piece of crusty bread in & eat it – call it Chef’s perks).
Sprinkle the remaining grated cheese & the little bit of Parmesan all over the top generously, grating more if you think it needs it (I usually end up doing this). Every little creamy cloud of cauliflower should be covered in a good sprinkling of cheese!
Do the same with the breadcrumbs, ensuring an even coating all over.
Finally, add a good dusting of the dried Oregano across the whole thing.
Bake in the centre of the oven for about 20-25 minutes, until bubbling furiously & the top has turned the most gorgeous golden brown.
Remove carefully & place on a cooling rack for 5 minutes (trust me, it won’t go cold!). This will allow everything to relax, settle & generally calm for a few moments (because it will be hotter than the sun & you don’t want to burn your mouth).
Serve either as a side dish with a Sunday dinner or simply scoop some onto a plate, grab a spoon & indulge in a little luscious cheesy delight on these cold evenings. If you want to pimp it up a bit, scatter some chopped crispy smoked bacon pieces into the cheese sauce just before you pour onto the florets, or add broccoli to bring some colour to the dish. Try adding different cheeses (Goat’s Cheese is a lovely alternative to cream cheese or maybe try crumbling a little Cheshire cheese into the sauce), perhaps swap fresh Thyme for the Oregano & even add a few delicate dots of red chilli to give it some extra heat!
So that’s my very cheesy, creamy Super Cauli-Flower Cheese-ness, in all it’s lusciously gooey gorgeousness! Make it your own centrepiece for a vegetarian dinner, or even as an accompanying dish to go with your favourite Sunday roast. Next time you want a side with substance, reach for the cauliflower & create a little cheesy indulgence! Stay hungry! A 😉 x