Matt and I started this blog for a number of reasons. We needed something that would force us to write on a regular basis, we wanted to push ourselves to come up with new dishes and ideas and we wanted a space to vent the occasional frustration or celebrate a new discovery or nostalgic comfort. But the main reason for blogging was as a record of the food we cooked as a catalogue, a reference, a virtual cookbook for our children.
Many years ago we mooted the idea of writing cookbooks for our kids as a leaving present for them when they finally flew the nest- cookbooks packed with all the family classics that they’d grown up on which they could dip into to when they needed a taste of home. We talked about the idea and because both our families have spent an awful lot of time together a lot of Matt’s family favourites have become ours too and vice versa, so a combined record seemed like an even nicer idea. And a blog of course, so much less committing and final than actually putting something to print where the likely danger of thinking “oh no, I should have put the lasagne in there too!” just as it comes off the press is too strong, seemed like a better option.
Often the copy has strayed away from recipes, it’s served too as a bit of publicity for my performing work of course (fair enough though since my current solo-show ‘George Egg: Anarchist Cook’ is all about food anyway)*, it’s drifted into opinion pieces, but it’s tried to remain food-centric and in almost every entry there’s been a recipe. But like I said, the main reason it’s up here on the web is so that when our kids have left home and want a recreation of something familiar and tasty they’ll find the instructions here.
So with that in mind, here’s my recipe for cheese sauce, because a cheese sauce (or a Mornay Sauce) features in probably too many dishes I like and cook – macaroni cheese, croque monsieur, enchiladas, moussaka and most kinds of lasagne. It’s great on other things too. A slice of cheese on toast where a thin spreading of cold cheese sauce has been smeared on the toasted bread before the slices of cheese go on top gives it a milky unctuousness that’s so comforting. Equally a blob in a cheese toastie (especially one made with something from my collection – see here) is sublime. It’ll be dreamy on any lightly cooked veg which then in turn is topped with a bit more grated cheese and a sprinkling of breadcrumbs, baked in the oven until crispy and bubbling, and then the topping fought over (try sprouts, stir-fried cabbage, sliced new potatoes, jerusalem artichokes).
Last night I made a sort-of macaroni cheese, but the pasta was a different shape, and the addition of slow cooked onions rendered the dish more like Käsespätzle (recipe for that here, and well worth doing). I didn’t really get to eat any of it though. I’d put it together and baked it before we had to leave for a thing at my daughter’s school, had a small bowl to taste before we left and planned to have a proper portion when we got back, but on our return it had all gone. Siblings. This meant my appetite for such a dish wasn’t sated AND I’d skipped breakfast this morning, so at lunchtime it was just what I fancied. Fortunately there was some of the cheese sauce left and not having time to build something as elegant as the dinner from the night before I simply warmed the sauce, cooked some Orzo (the rice-shaped pasta), stirred the two together and put it in a bowl topped with a trickle of E.V rapeseed oil for nuttiness, a pinch of chilli powder, some parmesan and lots of black pepper. It was outstanding and the epitome of the somewhat tired expression ‘a hug on a plate’.
Well, with that, and all those other possibilities waiting to be realised I think I’d better give you my recipe for a cheese sauce. Oh and incidentally, a béchamel sauce is just a mornay sauce before the cheese is added, so you’ve learned that too :
Cheese Sauce (Mornay Sauce)
2 heaped tbsp plain flour
1 litre milk (full fat preferably but semi-skimmed is fine)
about ¼ whole nutmeg, grated
pinch of chilli powder or cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
100g any cheese (parmesan, cheddar of course, stilton, brie – but not feta or cottage, though who knows, it might work, I’ve just not tried it with those)
First melt the butter in a pan and add the flour. Whisk them together and keep them moving over a medium heat and keep cooking until it’s a light biscuity-brown. Add a splash of milk and beat in with the whisk (it’ll cool the butter and the whole thing with go like a big lump of playdough, but don’t worry, keep whisking), add a splash more, whisk again, and repeat this making sure there’s no lumps before the next milk addition until it’s started to thin out again to the consistency of thick cream. At this point you can add the bayleaf and slosh all but about a small teacup’s worth of the milk and bring the heat up a bit, whisking to stop it thickening and sticking to the bottom, until it’s all thickened. If it’s too thick you can always slacken it with some more milk.
Now let it cook for a few minutes, still staring and be careful because if it bubbles it’ll splash you. Turn off the heat and add a big pinch of salt, pepper, the chilli or cayenne and grate in the nutmeg. Taste it. It should taste nice a deep a smooth. If it tastes at all thin or watery add a bit more salt.
Grate of chop up your cheese quite small, bring the sauce up to the boil again, turn of the heat and THEN whisk in the cheese. If you add the cheese while it’s still bubbling there’s a danger it’ll split and you’ll have a grainy texture which really isn’t as nice as a smooth one.
Again, taste it and adjust – more cheese, more salt, more chilli etc.
Incidentally, these measurements are rough. Of course if it’s too thick, add more milk, if it’s too thin, well, there’s not a lot you can do apart from add more cheese at this stage, but take note and add less milk the next time you make it. But thinner is better if it’s coating pasta because it wants to be smooth and silky, not gloopy.
It’s a bit more manageable for adding to a dish when it’s not too hot as it’ll thicken up more. And cold in the fridge it’ll set like a loose jelly making spreading under the cheese on shoes on toast very easy. I’ve had mixed success freezing (seems fine when it’s incorporated into a dish like a lasagne, but when frozen solo seems to split when defrosted), but it’ll keep in the fridge for a week or so and can be dipped into for all those dishes listed above.
*see what I did there?
I started my performing career as a street entertainer, first in Greenwich next to the Cutty Sark and then a year or so later, when after a tragically short-sighted move by the local council street entertaining was banned, I moved over to Covent Garden. It was on the street, busking, performing a show to strangers, that I learnt the ropes. From passing the hat I graduated to paid work; and everything from horrible council-funded gigs in shopping centres to brilliant festivals like Glastonbury (still do that one). It also opened the door to work abroad. In the early nineties there was a thriving international street entertaining scene. I performed my show on the streets of mainland Europe and on stage too. Having lots of props, and (in the early days) not much talking meant that I was invited to perform at some incredible events in some amazing locations; Moers Comedy Arts Festival, the Blaue Biwel in Koblenz, Limburg Festival in Holland to name just a few.
After a time though I started to ‘move indoors’. I wanted to perform on the comedy circuit and it was hard playing both arenas. A street entertaining show is all about doing one trick and stretching your whole show out to lead up to that trick (so as to keep your audience there for the entirety of the piece – if they’re there for the whole thing they’ll feel part of the show and therefore much more likely to put their hands in their pockets at the end), but a comedy club gig requires the opposite approach. You need to be satisfying your audiences appetite right from the off. They’re already there, they’re already warmed up (usually) and they need ‘gags’ immediately. I was starting to get told that my street show was getting a bit too ‘adult’ and at the same time the stand-up venues that I was trying to get work at were telling me that I was just ‘too much of a street entertainer’. So I decided to focus on the indoor work and some time around the mid nineties I made a conscious decision to stop being a street performer. The comedy circuit work picked up and my show gradually developed into something that worked in the clubs, and after a decade or so the idea of performing either on the streets or in those international festival environments seemed a long-distant memory.
But then, out of the blue, four or so years ago I got an email from a man who long ago had booked my show for a street performing festival in Nordhorn, Germany. It was the fifteenth anniversary of the festival and they wanted to invite back some of their favourite acts. I was reticent, and I told him that I’d not done the street for years and that my show had developed into a much more vocal set with a lot of stuff that I didn’t think his German audience would get. But he was still keen and asked instead that I come and do the gala – a variety night in a circus big top. So I agreed. I put together a more international set, resurrected some old ideas and came up with some new ones (including a piece with a rocket-launcher that I made out of drain-pipes – and there was an anxious moment when the car was searched at Dover before boarding the boat, but they didn’t go through the prop bags thoroughly enough to find it).
Returning to Nordhorn (I brought my son Jem with me too) I was reminded of just how nice those days had been. I’d long since grown accustom to the rather shoddy treatment we comedians get on the UK circuit. Of course some gigs provide a meal and a few drinks, but nowhere in this country matches the hospitality afforded to performers on the continent. They’re genuinely honoured to have you perform and they show it with food, drink, accommodation and, well, respect! And the show is run as a whole piece, so rather than just a bunch of acts doing their own thing, at the end there’s a curtain call all together and sometimes even a song (though I dare say that really was stepping out of my comfort zone!). But best of all, at the end of the night when everyone has packed away their props and the audience have left, the crew erect long tables and benches in the performance space and in come caterers who set up an immense buffet along the edge of the stage with beer and wine. And then the performers and crew all sit together and eat. And it’s really good food too.
One dish in particular stuck in my memory, and Jem’s memory. It was a bit like macaroni cheese but seemed to be made with broken spaghetti shards and there were other tastes that I couldn’t place but which gave it a whole new dimension setting it apart from the English version we were used to. It wasn’t until some years later that I stumbled across a bag of spätzle in Lidl during one of their speciality weeks that I realised that’s what it was. I then searched for recipes online and discovered that the additional flavour I’d been trying to place was low and slow-cooked onions.
I’ve made it many times since, and enhanced it further, but every time I take it out of the oven and slop it onto the plate I’m taken back to the long trestle tables and benches in the big top in Nordhorn, and the communal friendly atmosphere of the European cabaret scene.
Käsespätzle with Onions, Leeks and Mushrooms
500g Dried Spätzle
110g plain flour
1.3 litres milk
200g cheese (experiment with different ones, I used about half cheddar and half St Agur)
1 teaspoon mustard powder
big pinch chilli powder
lots of black pepper
about half a grated nutmeg
3 large onions (finely sliced)
1 leek (thickly sliced)
200g mushrooms (any sort)
breadcrumbs (a big handful, the nicer the better, sourdough ones would be perfect)
thyme (if you have some)
First make a béchamel sauce by melting the butter, adding the flour and beating the two together into a roux and cooking that for 3-4 mins before gradually adding and beating in the milk, avoiding lumps and keeping it smooth. It wants to be really quite thin and runny, the consistency of single cream, so add more milk once it’s thickened to slacken it if you need to.
Add the mustard, nutmeg, lots of pepper, chilli powder and a generous amount of salt (about half a teaspoon – but don’t add it all at once, rather add a bit, mix and taste and so on until it tastes right). Then let it cook for a few more minutes, turn of the heat and beat in the cheese (reserving a handful of hard cheese for the top).
Next turn your attention to the vegetables. Gently fry the onions in oil until they start to turn golden. This will take a good 30 mins or so, but keep the heat low. In another pan, slowly and lowly sweat the leeks in a little oil or butter and a splash of water, until they’re soft and cooked through. You don’t want them to brown at all like the onions, but once the onions and leeks are done they can be mixed together. The mushrooms just want slicing and frying off to get rid of lots of their moisture and to enhance those deep umami flavours.
Finally, cook the pasta until it’s just done, then drain and add it to the sauce.
In a large lasagne dish or deep baking tray, generously buttered, pour half the pasta/sauce mixture, cover that with a layer of onions and leeks and then scatter over the mushrooms before covering with the rest of the pasta and sauce. Finally drench with breadcrumbs* and the rest of the cheese, and maybe a bit of extra parmesan, black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil before baking at 200 degrees for about 40 mins.
I served it with sauerkraut for extra Germanness and some very finely sliced raw cauliflower mixed with parsley, lemon juice and olive oil, and salt and pepper.
* to make breadcrumbs put a torn up slice of bread into a food processor with some black pepper, salt, and a bit of thyme if you have it. Turn it on and trickle in a bit of oil too so they’re nicely coated and will crisp up all golden rather than drying out and burning