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How to cook the perfect cauliflower cheese

Felicity Cloake, guardian.co.uk, Modified: April 19, 2013 15:52 IST

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How to cook the perfect cauliflower cheese Do you eat cauliflower cheese on its own or as a side dish, and what do you add to liven it up?

Cauliflower cheese is one of the few dishes described as "nursery food" that may deserve that twee title, being, in its most common state, both extraordinarily bland and extremely easy on the teeth. Indeed, this dish is the sole reason I avoided cauliflower for many years: the slightly sulphurous tang that always hung about the school dining room when it was on the menu combined with its disarmingly mushy texture put me off the vegetable itself. But having warmed to it in gobi masala and creamy-yellow silky sweet soups, I thought it might be time to give cauliflower cheese a second chance. After all, it does contain cheese so it can't be all bad.

The cauliflower - curds away

Every single recipe I read pre-cooks the cauliflower - although I don't find anyone advocating what Constance Spry describes in her Cookery Book as "the method usually adopted in England", where the head is plunged into cold water and vinegar and the stalk removed before the whole thing is cooked in boiling water until just tender. Times change, it seems, although Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham come closest in The Prawn Cocktail Years, steaming the entire vegetable in a close-fitting pan for 15-20 minutes, before dressing it, still magnificently whole, with cheese sauce. This (in theory at least) should look impressive, "white-on-white - with its creamy cheese sauce clinging like the icing on a sweet bun," but even had I found a more suitable serving plate, the outside of the vegetable is still unpleasantly soft by the time the centre is tender, and serving it whole means that most of the cauliflower remains untouched by sauce. It's not for me.

Everyone else has moved over to what Spry terms "the French method" ("more complicated, produces the best results") of boiling the individual florets, although not for the quarter of an hour that was apparently popular in the 1950s. The exact timing depends on the size of your florets, but I find Nigel Slater's three to four minutes in Tender more successful than Jamie Oliver's five in Ministry of Food: although cauliflower cheese al dente is an abomination waiting to happen, it's important they retain a bit of bite at this point if they're not to collapse into the sauce in the oven.

Both Jane Grigson, in her Vegetable Book, and Gary Rhodes in New British Classics advocate gently frying the drained cauliflower in butter before adding it to the dish, without colouring the florets. This, I assume, is to enrich the flavour, but I can't taste any difference in the finished dish. It does give me an idea though: I've found browning cauliflower, whether for soup, curry or just as a side dish, makes it infinitely tastier by bringing out the sweetness, so I'm going to sauté my florets over a rather higher heat before adding them to the sauce.

The all-important sauce

A good cheese sauce is unquestionably the most important element of any cauliflower cheese - although Arabella Boxer flouts convention in her Book of English Food, preferring to reserve the cheese for the top of the dish. She coats the cauliflower with velouté-type sauce made with chicken stock and single cream, rather than the classic milk-based bechamel. It's silky and elegant, but quite distinctively meaty in flavour, and I miss the cheese: one better suited to the refined dining room than the nursery, I think.

Grigson also avoids the bechamel, instead going for a mornay sauce - a velouté with cheese, basically, explaining that this is an excellent choice for cooking vegetables, "as it can be flavoured with some of the cooking liquor". I'm not sure cauliflower is the ideal candidate for this treatment, frankly - while the water I add to the sauce couldn't be said to have made it actively unpleasant, it doesn't exactly enhance the dish either. Grigson also adds mushroom trimmings, which give everything a funky, fungal flavour. But most of all, I miss the slightly bland milkiness of a good bechamel.

Thankfully, Slater, Rhodes and Hopkinson and Bareham all stick with the traditional option, making a roux-based sauce with milk infused with onion, cloves and bay. While the Prawn Cocktail Years duo keep it simple, Rhodes finishes his bechamel with single cream, which "will loosen the sauce slightly, giving it a richer finish", and not to be outdone, Slater ups the stakes with double cream. The first is a classic example of a thick, comforting white sauce, but it has the advantage of not being cooked with the cauliflower, as the others are - the two are combined just before serving. However well I drain my cooked florets for Rhodes and Slater's dishes, they still seem to thin the sauce during their time together in the oven, which pushes me towards Slater's double cream. It's not a lot - four tablespoons to a litre of milk, but it lends a subtle richness.

Oliver dispenses with the white sauce altogether, instead stirring together creme fraiche and cheese. It's very quick, and has at least one fan in the form of someone I get chatting to in the pub one evening, but I find it both too rich and too tangy: the flavour overpowers the poor cauliflower.

The cheese

Cheddar is the obvious choice, and used by Rhodes and Slater, the former describing it as the cheese "that gives a good result every time". Indeed it does: savoury and intensely, well, cheesy. It's hard to argue with, but of course, people do. Grigson, for one, who makes what Rhodes describes as the "Continental cauliflower cheese" using gruyere and parmesan. "Although cheddar can be used, and other hard cheeses," she says, "none of them have the rightness of parmesan and gruyere, with their sweet and piquant flavours". Keen as I am on gruyere, I don't like that much-lauded sweetness with that of the cauliflower itself - it's not enough of a contrast.

Hopkinson and Bareham, meanwhile, choose tasty Lancashire, a crumbly, tangy, deliciously lactic cheese that I think works really well with the creaminess of the sauce. I'm stumped, until I decide to emulate Rhodes and Slater and include a layer of grated cheddar on top of the dish. This means I can use Lancashire for the sauce, which I think is a better complement to the delicate flavour of the cauliflower, without losing the slightly farmyardy tang of a really good cheddar.

The flavourings

Cauliflower's blandness makes it an excellent foil for all sorts of intense flavours, although I'm not sure all of them deserve a place in cauliflower cheese. Oliver, for example, includes anchovies in his creme fraiche and cheese sauce. I love anchovies, but I'm not keen on them with cheddar, and simply chopped, rather than melted down into the sauce, they do lend things a distinctly fishy tang. Rhodes adds a spoonful of English mustard, which is nice, but again, too strong a flavour for me here - it's more like a cauliflower rarebit. The nutmeg Rhodes and Hopkinson and Bareham both add works better I think, for adding a subtle pepperiness.

Topping it off

Breadcrumbs are a popular choice: only Slater and Hopkinson and Bareham leave them off, and I miss the contrast in textures their crunchiness provides. Grigson and Rhodes both add butter, which gives them a wonderful richness, Rhodes grating in parmesan too. I don't think that's necessary, though: the sauce should be cheesy enough without it. Oliver, the renegade, whizzes up his breadcrumbs with rosemary, extra virgin olive oil and streaky bacon. The bacon finds a lot of fans in my household, who have been pushing me to include bacon in the dish itself, and I admit it's lovely, but I don't think it's an essential part of the classic dish. The rosemary, however, is all wrong here: far too Mediterranean for an essentially north European winter dish.

Cooking

Apart from Hopkinson and Bareham, who simply pour the cheese sauce over the cauliflower and serve, everyone else either bakes the dish or grills it. Baking it, I find, has a tendency to overcook the cauliflower before the top browns. Adding the cheese sauce hot means there's no need for any further baking - the top will bubble and brown in minutes, before the cauliflower has time to soften any further.

Perfect cauliflower cheese

Serves 4

1 litre milk
½ an onion
1 clove
1 bay leaf
75g butter
50g plain flour
Salt and pepper
1 medium cauliflower
4 slices white bread, in breadcrumbs
100g tasty Lancashire cheese, grated
75ml double cream
Nutmeg, grated
25g cheddar cheese, grated


1. Put the milk in a small pan and poke the clove into the onion. Add this, a pinch of salt and the bay leaf to the milk and heat gently to a simmer. Take off the heat and leave to infuse for 15 minutes, then remove the onion and bay leaf.

2. Melt 50g butter in a medium pan over a medium-low heat, and stir in the flour. Cook for a couple of minutes until it smells biscuity, then add the milk, one ladle at a time, stirring it in until you have a smooth sauce. Turn the heat right down and leave to simmer for 15-20 minutes until thick.

3. Meanwhile, heat a large pan of well-salted water to a boil. Cut the cauliflower into florets and boil them for 4 minutes, until just tender. Drain thoroughly and keep warm.

4. Melt most of the remaining butter in a frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the cauliflower until slightly browned and caramelised. Season and spoon into a baking dish, then put the rest of the butter into the pan, add the breadcrumbs and fry until crunchy and golden. Season. Preheat the grill to medium-high.

5. Stir the Lancashire into the sauce until it melts, and then add the cream, a grating of nutmeg and season to taste. Pour over the cauliflower. Top with the grated cheddar, followed by the breadcrumbs, and grill until golden and bubbling.

Cauliflower cheese: British food at its glorious blandest, or a great big comfort blanket of a dish? Do you eat it on its own or as a side dish, and what do you add to yours to liven it up - bacon, stilton ... pizza?

In Picture: Felicity's perfect cauliflower cheese. Photograph: Felicity Cloake 

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