Saturday, April 4, 2009
A culinary tradition, reclaimed
Cauliflower Cheese is a classic English staple. And when it’s done well, it’s a wonderful thing. Sadly the reputation for this dish has waned over the years and been relegated to the realm of ghastly pub food, made en masse for the lunch crowd because it keeps its heat, like shepherd’s pie with its layer of crisped mash. Even now, this maligned dish is usually found rubbing shoulders with a tray of baked beans and bangers, all held under the ubiquitous glass coffin atop near the beer pumps. And so after an hour or so, the cheese sauce turns into a rubberized cap, the kind a grandmother would swim in. This of course does nothing for the taste but it does act as a heat-sealant.
This is a culinary tragedy. Done right, Cauliflower Cheese is a truly wonderful dish, good enough to be savored alone. But when it accompanies a prime rib roast...you are in God’s own country.
Here’s how to turn a travesty into a culinary triumph.
Cauliflower Cheese, prodigal-style
Break up the cauliflower into florets, chop up bits of stalks if you are feeling virtuous, frugal, or both. Steam until crisp-tender, or cover and microwave for about 5 minutes. (If you use the microwave and value your fingers, leave the florets alone in the microwave for a few minutes to calm down. Anyway, you'll be kept busy making the sauce. )
Put 4 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour in a small saucepan; melt butter with the flour, whisk until no white bits remain. Take saucepan off the fire and let the flour cook off the heat. Add a little salt, a good pinch of nutmeg, and a 1/2 teaspoon of Coleman’s powder mustard (or a couple of shakes of powdered white pepper). Throw in a bay leaf if you must; I never do, I find bay leaves overrated. By now it should be safe to remove the cauliflower from the microwave, which you will use to warm up two cups of milk, either fat-free or whole if you are feeling naughty. Mind you, if you’re feeling particularly decadent (and I know there are one or two of you out there) add a little cream. Now put the saucepan back on the fire, whisk in the warmed milk, keep whisking for a minute or two until the concoction thickens. You have now made a Béchamel sauce. Congratulations. I don’t tell Frances but I now add a dollop of cream cheese, about a large tablespoonful, for extra enrichment and flavor. To your creamy cheese sauce add a large teaspoon of Dijon style mustard and a shot of Worcestershire sauce. (And by the way, this is pronounced Wooster Sauce. Wooster as in Bertie Wooster. No shire. No cester. Just Wooster.) Whisk your sauce again then set aside.
Butter a large glass dish and turf in the cauliflower florets and edible stalk bits. If you have a 1/4 cup of cauliflower water residing aimlessly in the bottom of your glass dish or steam pot, add it to your sauce. I now sprinkle a generous amount of grated Swiss cheese over the florets, but you could use any grated mousetrap you happen to have kicking around. Then enrobe the cauliflower with your lovely sauce. The experts pour, but I prefer to spoon it on gently, making sure the sauce covers the cauliflower evenly. Now put the dish in the fridge for 24 hours to rest. No, no, I’m only kidding!
But you do need to top the dish with parmesan cheese before going any further. For additional flavor and crunch I also add fresh breadcrumbs toasted in butter--it’s worth the extra step. Now you’re almost there. Mix a couple of tablespoons of the crumbs with an equal amount of Parmesan cheese and sprinkle this mixture over the sauced cauliflower. Pop the dish into a 350 F oven for 1/2 hour or so, uncovered. When the sauce bubbles and the top is a gold, mahogany brown ––et voila! Do let your cauliflower cheese repose for a few minutes before serving.
This wonderful dish can be prepared ahead, and kept covered in the fridge for hours even overnight. Just don’t sprinkle the crumb mixture until you’re ready to bake. And no, it really doesn’t need any additional salt, the cheese takes care of that. And you can adjust the pepper and dry mustard to your taste. But do use the Worcestershire Sauce, especially now you know how to pronounce it. Enjoy!