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?