I started the week quite optimistic, and have finished it feeling adrift.
It’s been a weird few days. Returning to any kind of office has been a bit of a shock to the system, and I’d forgotten how exhausting the first week back at work can be; Monday evening was spent half-asleep in my armchair, and Tuesday was a similar affair but with with more head, neck, and shoulder pain included. The pain part—the kind that comes from re-pinching the same nerve you’ve accidentally pinched time and time again and keeps shooting down your arm and up your neck—has come from repeated stretching to reach things across my desk and pulling at the heavy internal fire doors in the building. After spending a day seeing how bad the pain would get without me taking painkillers to control it—at the end of which I actually ended up bursting into tears the second I was by myself because the pain got so bad—I saw a doctor who prescribed me a bunch of anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, and strong painkillers before referring me for an MRI for more investigation into the issue. So if nothing else went right this week, this was my silver lining.
The real kicker this week is that it turned out that the job position I had gone for hadn’t been advertised correctly. It’s obvious that working in financial services roles isn’t exactly a dream for me—if I had to pick anything, it would be writing, taking photos of things, and cooking—but even so, my role really wasn’t what I’d expected it would be. Instead of using my brain, I would actually be doing an immense amount of filing and scanning documents. Not fun, and definitely not the best idea to do for seven hours a day, five days a week when your shoulder has already given out. The company was extremely apologetic about it, and these things do happen, but after spending quite a lot of time attending interviews and selling the skills I have that would be useful to various companies, my morale is seriously flagging. This week has been a WEEK, and I feel completely drained.
It’s because of all of this that I’m turning to something comforting and heavy and warm this week—a massive dish of cheesy pasta.
This may be one of my favourite comfort food dishes ever. Ladles of thick, creamy cheese sauce mixed with lots of pasta, with sweet little bubbles or chunks of cherry tomato that break through the salty richness with a fresh pop. In spite of the included tomatoes, this is not a dish you should eat every day, but if I could get away with it without making myself sick, I definitely would! The fact that I have my first CoVID vaccination tomorrow and don’t really want to have to think about cooking dinner from scratch is also an exceedingly good reason to make a huge batch of something filling and comforting, and this definitely fits the bill.
To get started, you want cheese. Several varieties of cheese, and LOTS of it. My favourite cheeses to use are a very strong English cheddar, a blue cheese (like Blacksticks Blue or Barnstone Blue) along with a strong vegetarian hard cheese (like Waitrose Vegetarian Italian Hard Cheese) and a few tablespoons of mascarpone or cream cheese. I won’t be using it today, but if you want, you can also include a bit of mozzarella, and it will give the entire thing a delightful stringy quality.
You might have gathered that this is not a dish with which you should attempt to be calorie-conscious in the slightest. I find the best cheese sauces come from ignoring the calories and just going the whole hog with the cheese. Remember, fat is a vehicle for flavour! If you’re going to make this sauce the best it can be, measure the cheese with your heart and make up for it with a big plate of vegetables for your next meal. If you’re really determined serve something healthy with your comfort food though, some extra cooked broccoli always goes well, as will cauliflower and spinach. You can also choose to serve it with something acidic on the side to balance it out; extra tomatoes and red onion dressed in a little bit of balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses will contrast with and cut through some of the fat and umami of the cheese, and give sweet, refreshing little bites that act as mini palate-cleansers between each forkful.
The above sounds a heck of a lot fancier than it actually it. The floral language makes it sound chef-y though, doesn’t it? Not bad to say it’s cheesy pasta with veggies on the side.
The below recipe is for the sauce only. Why? Well…I did have the intention of including the pasta and the halved cherry tomatoes in the instructions, but my mum was making her own dinner and got there before me. So just the sauce today!
Cheesy Pasta Sauce
- A cheese grater
- A medium saucepan
- A whisk
- A nutmeg grater (if using whole nutmeg)
- Teaspoons (for tasting)
- 35g butter or oil
- 35g plain flour
- 600ml milk
- 200g English Cheddar
- 30g blue cheese (I’m using Barnstone Blue)
- 10-15g vegetarian hard cheese
- 2 tablespoons cream cheese or mascarpone
- Black pepper to taste
- Nutmeg to taste
1) Put your saucepan on the stove and turn the temperature up to medium. Drop the butter into the pan and let it melt.
2) When the butter is fully melted, tip the flour into the melted butter. Cook for around a minute to cook the flour, constantly moving it with the whisk. This will make a roux.*
3) Pour in around 50ml of your milk into the roux, and immediately start to whisk. The roux should take in the milk very quickly, and when it does, pour in around another 100ml. Continue whisking. Repeat this process until all of the milk has been added and the mixture in the pot is smooth and creamy.
4) Turn the heat down a little bit, and grate in or sprinkle in a little bit of nutmeg. Mix well, then carefully tip in the cheddar and use the whisk to stir it all in. Repeat the process with all of your cheeses until everything is smooth and silky. Then turn off the heat.
5) Get a couple of clean teaspoons, and taste your cheese sauce. The flavour of the nutmeg should be there, but if it’s not quite strong enough, grate in a little bit more and stir in well. Then do the same thing with the black pepper. When you are happy with the flavour, it’s ready to go!
Did you notice the little asterisk by the word ‘roux’? That’s because I found a lot of conflicting information on how to measure the ingredients, and wanted to mitigate the risk of someone screaming that I was doing it wrong. Some recipes and instructions called for using weight to measure out the roux ingredients. Others insisted it had to be volume, even though volume can vary greatly depending on how tightly you pack your measuring cup. In the end, I stuck with metric weight, and this did the job without creating any lumps that couldn’t be broken down with a whisk. I also did not include any additional salt, as the cheese should make this salty enough; many cheeses (particularly aged cheese) naturally contain sodium and MSG and therefore provide their own umami!
The above concoction is based off a Mornay sauce. I say based on, because it leaves out the onion and the bay leaf in the Bechamel, swaps the cayenne pepper for fresh black pepper, and trades the gruyere and Parmigiano Reggiano for the other cheeses to make it vegetarian-friendly. Parmigiano Reggiano (one of the key ingredients in Mornay sauce) isn’t suitable for vegetarians because it uses animal-based rennet, and this is apparently required to be defined as such. If you see something labelled as ‘Vegetarian Hard Cheese’ (or ‘Vegetarian Parmesan’ outside of the EU), you should be okay using this one.
My intention with this was always to serve it as a kind of ‘fancy’ baked macaroni cheese-type dish, with lots of elbow pasta, mixed with halved cherry tomatoes and baked in the oven to give a slightly crispy top. However, you can also simply mix it with some cooked pasta or potato, use it in cauliflower cheese, serve it as a dipping sauce for fresh bread and vegetables, or (as I haven’t committed enough acts of culinary blasphemy today) add it in as a rich layer of cheesiness between pasta sheets in a lasagne. If there are any Italian folk reading this, I’m sorry for that last one.
Unfortunately, this is a really hard dish to make vegan. However, at some point in the future, I may share a vegan (and possibly gluten-free) version using commercial vegan cheeses too.
If you decide to make this, let me know how it goes!