"To soothe the inner beast or quell the pain of a broken heart, make macaroni and cheese"
-Marlena Spieler Macaroni and Cheese (2006)
Whenever someone mentions mac n' cheese, or what you preposition-averse Brits call macaroni cheese, I do a little dance. There are few things more delicious in life than the union of starch and cheese, and done properly, this is comfort food of the highest order. So when Fiona Beckett, author of Fiona Beckett's Cheese Course announced on her blog The Cheeselover she was running The Ultimate Macaroni Cheese Challenge after Christmas I thought hot diggity dog, I am entering this competition or else.
Except I was beset by swine flu. And then when I returned to London the elements conspired once again and I was bedridden for the first two weeks of the new year. My body did not appreciate returning from a balmy 25 degrees in the Canaries and the warm embrace of my parents to arctic winds and snow back here in the Big Smoke. Paradoxically for someone who lived 15 years in Norway I don't really love the cold except when temperatures drop to -5 degrees celsius and the air is dry and crisp. Idiosyncratic, I know.
At any rate, I didn't recover in time to enter by Fiona's stated deadline of January 18th and promptly forgot all about the mac n' cheese challenge, but discovered the literary joys of Raymond Chandler and Stieg Larsson so all was not lost while I was ill.
I was happily ploughing my way through brilliant books the last two weeks whilst recovering from flu when I realised Fiona's deadline had been extended til 11:59pm January 24th. Today.
Gulp! So off I traipsed to Neal's Yard Dairy in Covent Garden yesterday morning contemplating the world, well contemplating cheese after deciding on entering the 'Best Use of Artisanal Cheese' category in Fiona's competition. It was a no-brainer; I'm obsessed by cheese and was even quoted in the Telegraph as being a cheese anthropologist, something for which I have to confess is not actually a discipline of anthropology. Though it damn well should be, the world of cheese is a fascinating one! You learn more from a person talking about cheese than you ever will discussing Foucault or Bourdieu in seminars.
But that's another story.
So I wanted to enter this competition with the express intention of celebrating the best of British artisanal cheese. I may only be 1/4 British but it's enough to stir my patriotic loins when it comes to British cheese. These Isles have some of the finest cheeses in the world and compared to the moribund French artisan cheese industry, British cheesemakers are storming ahead of their continental peers. Artisan cheese here is in robust health and that is excellent news.
In I went to Neal's Yard and stated my intentions, much to the bemusement to Charlie, one of the fellas working there who was extremely patient with my request. I said I was hoping to marry some of my favourite unpasteurised artisanal cheeses: Gorwydd Caerphilly, Montgomery's Cheddar and Stichelton in this mac n' cheese experiment. And out I came with Gorwydd Caerphilly, Montgomery's Cheddar, Stichelton and a Wensleydale which Charlie thought would work well in the cheese sauce. I also snaffled 12 oz. Neal's Yard creme fraiche at an eyewatering £4.40 for the cheese sauce and a new cheese called Danegold to try for lunch one day next week. A jar of pepper jelly sauce concluded my puchases for the day and I skipped back to Bloomsbury, warning my Man that he'd better be in the mood for mac n' cheese.
Thankfully my better half is a cheese man so he didn't need persuading, though much like young Charlie of Neal's Yard, he was somewhat bemused by my fixation on creating an artisanal mac n' cheese dish. What happened to using good old cheddar they probably wondered.
Anyway, without further ado here's the recipe I created and let me warn you - it's exceptionally cheesy. The combination of Caerphilly and Wensleydale with the creme fraiche sauce is the perfect base for the more robust Stichelton crumbled haphazardly on top with the final flourish of Montgomery cheddar generously scattered to cover the dish before allowing the mac n' cheese to bubble and ooze and crisp up in the oven. We both hoovered up indecent portions of the stuff, along with salad as a digestif. You'll need greens of some description to digest the mac n' cheese whether you're using hefty artisanal cheeses or not.
Recipe for the Ultimate Artisanal Cheese Mac n' Cheese/Macaroni Cheese January 2010:
Neal's Yard creme fraiche
(This technically serves 4, but be prepared to fight over it)
This recipe is basically a hybrid of Heston Blumenthal's and queen of mac n' cheese Marlena Spieler's recipes, the former a Gratin of Macaroni from Heston's Family Food whereas Marlena's is the quintessential yankee doodle dandee Mac n' Cheese from her book titled - appropriately enough - Macaroni & Cheese. I wanted to make this with creme fraiche for extra tanginess and opted to forego a roux-based sauce in favour of this dairy bombshell of a dish. Do not scrimp on the creme fraiche or the cheese. What the heck is the point of eating this dish if it's not oozing with cheesy goodness?!
Preheat the oven to 190 C/Gas Mark 5/375 F
Bring salted water in a saucepan to a boil, add macaroni and boil til al dente (5 minutes should do the trick). Run cold water over the macaroni - soba noodle style - when you've drained the cooking water to stop the pasta from getting too claggy and continuing to cook.
Coarsely grate the cheddar on a plate and crumble the stichelton next to it. Set aside. Finely grate the wensleydale and caerphilly and in a small saucepan heat the creme fraiche and single cream. Take off the heat when the cream starts to bubble, and add the wensleydale and caerphilly, stirring to distribute both cheeses and allow the sauce to thicken. Season to taste.
Rub the inside of the roasting dish with the half clove of garlic. Mix the cheesy sauce with the pasta, pour into the dish and sprinkle with stichelton. Finally top with montgomerys and place in the oven for 20-25 minutes. Drizzle with worcestershire sauce for that welsh rarebit (rabbit?) effect, not strictly necessary but the slight sweetness and umami effect of the worcester sauce doesn't harm the dish.
What do you reckon - have I done British artisanal cheese justice?
Hagar the Horrible and his merry band of Vikings (photo courtesy of King Features Syndicate)
Having seen Henning Mankell - author of the popular detective series Wallander - speak last night about his novels and his Swedish detective hero Kurt Wallander I was intrigued by the question someone in the audience posed about the 'gloomy' nature of Scandinavians. Musing on this question over my morning porridge today I asked myself how gloomy are we Scandis really? Yes, the suicide rate is famously high in Nordic countries (no doubt higher in Iceland since those banking cowboys bankrupted the country) but when I think of the fifteen years I lived in Norway my lasting impression of Norwegians and other Scandis is not one of gloom.
The weather can be gloomy, yes. And Scandinavians can seem reserved, austere and frankly a bit odd. My aunts in Norway certainly evince some demented behaviour but that's because they're vain ageing models and can't accept they are now wrinkly. I don't think it's a coincidence that said aunts have been on numerous diets for the past thirty years, and certainly the exclusion of butter from their lives is a likely cause of their lunacy. But I shall save that for my next blog post on the virtues of butter ;)
There's no doubt Scandinavians and our Nordic brethren the Finns and Icelanders are peculiar. Eccentric even. I suspect, as many do, it has something to do with the lack of daylight in winter and then an overdose of it in the summer. Leads to some imbalances in the system.
Seriously though, we Northern Europeans - along with the Japanese - have the longest lifespans on the planet, the highest standard of living and are top of the countries donating aid to help developing countries. And yet other than a vague image of gloom and doom and the idea that Scandinavians are quite virtuous citizens, most Brits I know haven't got the foggiest what goes on in Scandinavia, or for that matter, what the food is like.
So it was with some excitement this time last year when I discovered Danish chef and food writer Trina Hahnemann had published The Scandinavian Cookbook (Quadrille). Finally, a book that transported me back to Scandinavia through beautiful, evocative photography and unfussy recipes using seasonal produce, game and a LOT of fish, my favourite food. Trina's cinnamon bun recipe has been tried and tested a dozen times in the past year and she is a very very good recipe writer, an accolade true cooks will appreciate.
But perhaps before I go on I should confess my aversion to diet books. Between the crazy dieting aunts and the fact that I can still wear the same clothes as I did back in the '90's (yes snort away, I accept this is unfair!) I've never been too bothered with my weight. I walk a lot, go skiing when I can, swim in the summer and generally keep quite active throughout the year. In fact there have been phases when I've been less active and it shows - my mood becomes unpredictable, I become listless and grumpy and no amount of prozac will lift me from my oxygen-deprived slump. The cure is always fresh air and gentle exercise. Scandinavians are famous for our love of the outdoors and I reckon that has an effect on our health. Who needs the gym? So I choose to ignore fad diets, taking the long view that it's more important to enjoy your food and avoid excess as much as possible whilst getting outdoors as much as possible. Yes, that makes me quite dull. And yes I own a thermos. Hardly the spirit of the vikings I grant you! For that you'll have to meet Papa Johansen.
Anyway. Having enjoyed Trina Hahnemann's The Scandinavian Cookbook so much over the past year I was curious to see if her follow-up The Nordic Diet would match its predecessor for tasty dishes and evocative photos. And of course, dispel my snottiness about the word 'diet'.
Thankfully Trina isn't the hectoring kind. There is no counting of calories in the Nordic Diet and as a concept it's more about adopting the habits of healthy eating, eating as much fresh fish, game, fruit and veg as possible, avoiding processed and refined food and balancing meals so you have a variety of health-boosting ingredients throughout the day. Cut down your sugar intake. That is a major health imperative, one which I sometimes forget. Refined sugar is the source of more chronic health problems such as diabetes, obesity and even cancer than we realise.
Recipes in the Nordic Diet are pared-back and easy to follow, in keeping with a distinctly modern Scandinavian ethos that regards too much fuss or embellishment as a vice.
I like this book, despite my initial scepticism about the 'diet' word in the title ;)
Arguably the most important point Trina makes in her introduction to the Nordic diet - aside from the key point that our food choices have ecological consequences - is that eating meals together, whether with family, friends or strangers is essential to a good quality of life. My Mother insisted on this when I was growing up and it was one of the reasons she never sent her errant daughter to a boarding school. Sitting down to eat a meal together every night was non-negotiable, and my parents included me from a young age in their dinner parties. This probably explains my middle-aged sensibilities!
Commensality is essential to social bonding, you don't need a food anthropologist telling you that, and I hope Trina's message that sitting down regularly with family and/or friends to eat together, discussing what's going on in each other's lives and the state of the world, laughing, crying, commiserating, arguing and telling stories together. If a reader of the Nordic Diet who thinks she or he doesn't have the time to cook and sit down for a proper meal anymore is convinced of the merits of cooking a meal from scratch and enjoying good Nordic food then that's a Very Good Thing.
So the fundamentals of the Nordic Diet include:
* Balanced meals with an emphasis on whole grains and seasonal vegetables * Home-cooking with fresh ingredients, including home-baked bread * Eating less * Eating fish twice a week at least * Eating game, chicken or meat only 3 times a week at most * Taking time to eat with friends and family on a daily basis
If you still need persuading that Nordic food is the way to go then let me assure you Trina's recipes are packed with punchy, robust flavours. There is nothing bland about this book, the flavours work and you won't get bored eating food such as:
* rye and beer porridge * spelt pancakes with blueberries * mussel soup with potatoes and leek * smørrebrød with salmon tartare * beetroot burgers with barley salad * monkfish cheeks, fennel and mash with dill and spring onion * mackerel with baked rhubarb and cabbage * goose breast with apples and celeriac salad * venison meatballs with baked root veg * elderberry soup with rye bread croutons * spelt bread with rhubarb and strawberry jam
You get my point - Trina's recipes rock, they are nutritious and delicious and won't leave you feeling deprived or reaching for a cheap chocolate and yo-yo-ing in your weight. I've long been convinced of the virtues of spelt and rye, two grains Trina bakes a lot with. If you can, start switching from plain wheat flour to spelt, rye, oats and barley - you'll be doing your digestive system and overall health a huge favour.
I'd say the only thing I would have liked to have seen more of in this book is recipes for cured and smoked meats and fish, a staple in the traditional Nordic diet. Perhaps these would have been too intimidating for most British home cooks? If you're interested in making your own gravadlax though, Trina provides a reliable recipe in the Scandinavian Cookbook. As a final caveat to my otherwise two thumbs up for the Nordic Diet is Trina's assertion that one should use low-fat yoghurt or skimmed milk in her recipes but I'll get to that in my next blog post, they don't call me the full-fat dairy queen for nothing...
Overall, at £12.00 (and currently a bargainous £6.49 on Amazon) The Nordic Diet is a great investment. Nothing gloomy about this diet I'd say ;)
On that note, I'm looking forward to seeing Trina again tonight at a dinner she is co-hosting with the good people of Madsen. As we say in the Northerm climes, velbekomme!
With thanks to Quadrille for sending a review copy of the Nordic Diet
Being a contrarian sort I tend to steer clear of predictions, resolutions and diets of any description in the new year. January is a month to hunker down indoors, savour these cold winter nights hiding under the duvet with a hot water bottle and a good book whilst nursing a whisky or three. And of course with this cold snap we're experiencing - the perfect excuse to eat carbs, glorious carbs...
Having been beset by a dastardly bout of swine flu over the Christmas holiday and only just surfacing for air last week after a slow recovery, I finally mustered the energy to bake these raspberry and cinnamon crunch muffins over the weekend. Being a baker at heart, it pained me not having the inclination to bake during the festive season, and while I was preparing a batch of raspberry muffin batter on Saturday morning inspiration struck: out of the corner of my eye a box of Jordans raspberry crunch cereal beckoned me to open it. After chomping on some of the crispy crunchy goodness and feeling ever so slightly guilty foregoing my daily porridge, I whisked and folded the raspberry muffin batter, adapting the recipe by sprinkling cereal on top of the muffin batter thus making 'streusel' raspberry muffins.
OK, so it was hardly a Eureka! moment, more like thank the gods - with apologies to the inimitable Johnny Nash - I can see clearly now this flu has gone.
And then it occurred to me this wasn't the first time I'd baked with crunchy cereal. One Saturday morning just before Christmas I pootled along to Leiths School of Food and Wine in deepest darkest West London for a morning of Jordans crunchy crisp appreciation, along with Ginger Gourmand, Kavey Eats, Food Urchin, Mathilde's Cuisine, Apple & Spice, the Mueslilover, amongst others. It was one of the more enjoyable food blogging events I'd been to, Jordans enticing us along with the promise we could create our own cereal and take it away in a bespoke Jordans cereal box with our names imprinted on the box for posterity, photos of which you can see on Jordans' Facebook page When we arrived at Leiths Bill Jordan, who runs Jordans with his brother David, talked us through the story of Jordans and explained the importance of using conservation oats in the cereal and the extensive testing of recipes that takes place at the company:
But we weren't just there to make our own cereal, we were there to bake cake:
The cake was a delicious pear and chocolate crunch sponge, full of the good things in life - mainly butter and sugar - and a real hit with all those who attended.
As for the cereal - we tasted different varieties of Jordans, of which the strawberry is a firm favourite. It was my sweet treat from studying when I first arrived at university here in 1999, tasting sweet and crunchy and with a hint of acidity from those freeze-dried strawberries. I loved it then - and still do - with ice cold whole milk.
So when we were given the run of the Jordans crunchy crisp flavours table I ran erm, a little amok with the freeze-dried berries. And the coconut. And chocolate. I may have been a little over-zealous:
As a yuletide twist I tossed hazelnuts in a cinnamon and mixed spice mixture and roasted them at 180 C for 10 minutes to add to this decadent confection, I mean cereal, I had created...
But back to the raspberry and cinnamon crunch muffins. If you're curious, here's the recipe I drummed up on Saturday:
250g sharpham park refined spelt flour 50g porridge oats (small, not jumbo) 85g light muscovado sugar (I used billingtons) 85g golden caster sugar (waitrose) 150ml whole milk 50ml plain wholemilk yoghurt 100g melted butter 2 medium eggs 1 tsp baking powder 1/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda 1/4 tsp salt 170g frozen raspberries 100g Jordans raspberry crunchy crisp cereal for topping
The key to light, fluffy muffins is not to overmix the ingredients. An American friend once told me never to stir more than 12 times when combining dry and liquid ingredients and that trick has never failed.
Preheat oven to 180 C. Line a 12x muffin tin with paper cups or parchement paper.
In a large bowl sieve all the dry ingredients together:
Make a well in the middle and add all the liquid ingredients:
Add the frozen raspberries and stir:
Finally, using an ice cream scoop or teaspoon, fill each muffin case 3/4 full and top with raspberry crunchy crisp (a tip though, leave out the freeze-dried raspberries as they incinerate when baked!) if you wish, dust a little extra cinnamon on top of the crunchy crisp
Bake on the upper middle shelf of the oven for 20 minutes, insert a skewer and if it comes out dry the muffins are done.
Many thanks to Jordans and Wild Card for organising an executing a thoroughly enjoyable morning for us all. It won't be the last time I bake with crunchy crisp cereal.
Have you been baking during this cold spell? If so, what have you been making?
When Camilla Barnard of cereal company Rude Health and I trekked up one frosty November's day to the opening of the School of Artisan Food we were both struck by
a) how good the SAF sausages were
b) how perfect a big block of stichelton was in lieu of canapes
c) how much tweed was in attendance (and what magnificent tweed it was)
d) how conspicuous the absence of London food writers, bloggers and journalists was
While I love nothing more than a good artisanal sausage and we both thoroughly enjoyed our day trip to SAF, I couldn't help think metropolitan foodies had missed a trick in not attending the opening.
My adopted homeland has a food heritage we should all be proud of, and I hope 2010 will prove to be the year British artisan food gets the credit it deserves. Central to the burgeoning renaissance of British artisan food will be the School of Artisan Food, a new project which Harry West my SOAS anthropology tutor is principal academic advisor of. Harry asked me to teach at the school when the diploma programme starts this September - a daunting task! - and I'll be doing my PhD fieldwork on the state of artisan bread in this country so I am embedded and therefore totally biased. Objectivity is certainly not part of my DNA when it comes to artisan food!
Why does a school of artisan food matter? I've had more than a few snide remarks from those who claim to love food that SAF sounds as if it will merely cater to posh twits with a seemingly unhealthy interest in posh twit (ie. artisan) food. Or give bored, rich housewives something to do in between painting their nails and bleeding their banker husbands' accounts dry. In a country still lamentably obsessed with class, an interest in food is curiously frowned upon - even by those who ostensibly love good food.
Suffice to say the mind boggled when I first arrived in 1999 to study in a country so class-fixated and snotty about food. I grew up spending summers foraging and fishing whilst helping my grandparents on their farm in western Norway. My parents firmly believe good food and commensality is essential to health and happiness, not to mention a good quality of life. It was inculcated in me from an early age that proper food is a right, not a privilege.
That's why the School of Artisan Food is so exciting: the first not-for-profit school of its kind in Europe which will teach the practical skills of baking, brewing, cheesemaking and butchery alongside business and management courses essential to creating a viable artisan food business. The academic component of SAF's diploma will give meaning and context to the artisan food world by teaching the history of industrialisation of food, terroir in the 21st century and food anthropology, amongst other subjects; luminaries from the food world such as Randolph Hodgson of Neal's Yard Dairy are involved in SAF, along with master baker Emmanuel Hadjandreou and butchery supremo Ray Smith from the River Cottage. This is not a school for romantics, but for those with fierce ambition and - excuse the pun - a real hunger for success in the artisan food business.
Whilst the diploma is a rigorous vocational degree that will train the artisans of the future in both the practical and academic skills they need, SAF also offers short courses such as the fundamentals of cheesemaking, basic brewing, game in a day, butchery and baking techniques, etc. The short courses are perfect for those of you keen beans who want to delve a little deeper into your favourite food subject but can't necessarily take the time off to do a full diploma. Go on, forget the expensive gym membership - spend your money on a mould and maturation course!
You don't have to be a nerdy fermentophile like me to be excited about this, though if you still have doubts check out Rose Prince's article on SAF in the Telegraph from last summer here, the Guardian dispatched Emma Sturgess to join a breadmaking class at SAF in the autumn, which you can read about here and finally if you remain unconvinced the New York Times features SAF in this piece "British Artisanal Food Gains New Champions"
As I've always maintained, what the world needs is more bakers, not bankers. Get thee up to SAF and find out for yourself why!
The School of Artisan Food Lower Motor Yard Welbeck Nottinghamshire S80 3LR
Phone: 01909 532171
Nearest train station: Retford (on the London King's Cross-Leeds line) train journey takes ca. 1 hr 40 minutes