"After all it does contain cheese, so it can't be all bad."
This picture is of the traditional kind of cauliflower cheese, which is what I usually make, but today I thought I would have a look to see if this old school dish has been updated.
I don't think we ever had cauliflower cheese at home, because I really didn't like cooked cheese, especially when combined with milk. Cooked cheese made me gag. Which is weird because I love it these days. Of course I could be misremembering because I certainly knew how to cook it without looking it up. So where did I learn to cook it if not at home? I never ate it in France. Maybe we did it in those domestic science classes. Or maybe we did have it at home and somehow I managed to eat it. It would certainly have been an economical dish for my mother to make.
It's a British/English dish and therefore most probably derided by one and all. Like the English themselves at the moment it seems to me. But I won't go there. English food has an undeservedly bad reputation, which, I think, mostly comes from post WW2 days when the food scene was pretty bleak. And yes cauliflower cheese can be a bit insipid - watery sauce or gluggy and with a noxious smell.
"in its most common state, both extraordinarily bland and extremely easy on the teeth." Felicity Cloake
But it doesn't have to be that way. And I chose to write about it because I think it is the kind of dish that demonstrates the gulf between then and now when it comes to food. Yes back then the British did have a tendency to overcook and some food was bland, but not all. Some of it was simple but excellent. Back then cooks had to make do with limited supplies and limited methods of preparing and cooking food. It's interesting to compare to now because in spite of talk about shortages and making do, really we don't have to make do much. In my local supermarket at least there has never been a shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables. Yes there have been shortages of flour and pasta and rice, and occasionally of meat, but only very briefly. And there is no shortage of tips on how to 'make do'. So really there is no comparison.
In my youth, as I have said many times there were not many cookbooks at all, just recipes in women's magazines. Then in the 60s came the greats - Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier, Jane Grigson, Julia Child et al. and they certainly changed the way we cooked. But really they weren't into new and innovative things to cook, they were more into introducing the inward looking British into learning about other cuisines - most notable those of the continent - particularly France and Italy. Package holidays and cheap cross-channel ferry fares made it possible for ordinary people to travel abroad, and whilst many clung to their own food - fish and chips on the Spanish coast - others, like myself, were blown away by the new tastes that they encountered.
Over time we all got used to pasta and quiche and hummus whilst at the same time the colonial immigrants were bringing their own foods into British kitchens - most notably Indian of course. Interestingly not much in the way of Caribbean food. Here in Australia it was the South-Eastern Asian influence that was most notable. And then came the new breed of cooks who started messing with the classics, giving them innovative twists, whilst, at the same time making them simpler, as well as fusing Asian with Anglo food. Robert Carrier noted this in his introduction to his New Great Dishes of the World:
"Modern cooking is about taste, about flavour - whether robust or delicate, sweet or earthy, pungent or aromatic. There is a new simplicity which we might almost call minimalist, a postmodern cooking style that does away with disguises, complex sauces and elaborate combinations of ingredients, and lets the essential quality of the food shine through. And, as a result, our cooking is lighter, fresher, more immediate, and healthier too." Robert Carrier
Cauliflower cheese, however, has been taking its sweet time to be updated, so much so that as late as 2001 Beverley Sutherland Smith was able to write in her book The Seasonal Kitchen:
"You never find dishes such as this in the books of the smart young chefs of London or Los Angeles, or in most restaurants, but everyone loves a soft creamy cauliflower gratin. One day, like bread and butter pudding, mashed potato or rice, it will probably become famous as some of the new breed discover how great it can be alongside some roasted chicken, with a thick piece of beef or just on it its own in a little gratin dish." Beverley Sutherland Smith
And indeed cauliflower, at least has at last become fashionable. Admittedly not generally in the form of cauliflower cheese but there are a few renegades out there fiddling with the classic dish.
Felicity Cloake will take you through the fundamentals of the classic of course - do you cook the cauliflower whole or in bits for example? She thinks that when cooked whole:
"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."
Nigel Slater agrees when he presents his 'classic' version as well, saying,
"Traditionalists insist on serving the head whole. Ignore them and break it into pieces, otherwise you will end up with solid, undercooked stalks and overdone florets."
And I have to say I'm with them on that one. I have never cooked a cauliflower whole, either in a pot or in the oven, no matter how tempting the finished product, like this one from Beverley Sutherland Smith might look. It sounds altogether fraught with disaster to me because, the stalk part in the middle is so much denser than the florets.
Then there's what cheese do you use, do you bake or grill, do you use cream or milk ...
But you can go beyond Felicity Cloake, indeed you can even go back to Robert Carrier who had a version which various other cooks seem to have extemporised on. Although it is in his original Great Dishes of the World book, and therefore old, it absolutely meets his own criteria for modern cooking. He calls it:
CHEESED CAULIFLOWER: Melt 4 tablespoons butter; add 4 tablespoons toasted breadcrumbs, 1/2 teaspoon grated onion, 4 tablespoons finely grated Gruyère, and salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Cook over low heat, stirring continuously, until cheese is melted, and pour over cooked hot cauliflower. A recipe that would fit easily into something like Nigel Slater's Real Fast Food.
Variations of this that I have seen have scattered the cooked cauliflower with a similar mix of cheese, breadcrumbs and butter and sometimes herbs, mustard, chilli, nuts - all that sort of thing - let your imagination run wild - and then finished it off under the grill. Quick, easy, tasty - modern. Do you see why Robert Carrier is my cooking hero?
So what else is there out there? Here are a few left to right, top to bottom: Tim Maddams of River Cottage makes a Cauliflower clafoutis (which is a batter) with ham and parsley - the first two pictures - a before and after view. I have to say I am very tempted by this one and think I may well try it tonight. The second is from Yotam Ottolenghi, which interestingly is fairly traditional in that he does indeed cook the cauliflowers whole, but not before covering with the sauce. The sauce is fairly traditional but with tarragon and chopped walnuts. Then Jane Baxter has an almost traditional version - well not really - the cauliflower is prefried in olive oil and maple syrup and instead of a béchamel kind of sauce, the 'sauce' is crème fraïche, cheese, mustard and chives. Lighter and more modern than a heavy béchamel kind of sauce. The last of this group is Confit garlic cauliflower cheese from Anna Jones. It's very garlicky - and she does tell you how to confit the garlic. Otherwise it's fairly classic though.
Then there's Jamie who has five different offerings, some more radical than others. The first he does just call Cauliflower Cheese and it is indeed basically cauliflower baked with a cheese sauce, but the sauce has puréed broccoli and garlic in it and there ar almonds in addition to breadcrumbs. The second is Cheesy pasta bake - basically a modern tray bake that includes pasta and other vegetables. Or similarly you can try Cauliflower mac 'n' cheese. His most radical offerings though are Cauliflower cheese pasta in which the cauliflower and cheese are cooked in milk, puréed, poured over pasta and topped with garlicky breadcrumbs. A method you could use with lots of other vegetables I think. And last of all of course there is pizza! - Cauliflower cheese pizza pies in which a pizza base is topped with a kind of cauliflower cheese. Go Jamie.
This time I did look at my cookbooks too and found a couple of versions whereby the cauliflower was puréed with potatoes and butter and then baked in the oven with cheese on top. Endlessly variable this one. A version I sometimes make, and indeed was going to make before I saw the clafoutis, has the sauce made with tomatoes and milk and cheese, rather than just milk - thickened with flour of course. Instead of tomato several people made the sauce green by puréeing some kind of green vegetable into it - peas, spinach, other leafy greens ... Or you can layer the cauliflower with other vegetables and/or ham, flavour the sauce with whatever you fancy, cook the cauliflower first, or just bake it with the sauce.
I think the moderns have caught up with cauliflower cheese.