In the U.S., fruitcake is the Christmas punchline. It’s probably the most re-gifted holiday item on the planet, which then becomes a doorstop, paperweight or overall novelty item to whip out and threaten holiday guests with who overstay their welcome (and if necessary, it can also be used in deadly combat).
And so it is always a surprise to me at how much Brits love it. It’s better known as Christmas cake or Christmas pudding – always chockful of nuts, dried fruits and alcohol. It’s actually a welcome sight in the UK – a confection to be greeted with open arms rather than the sign of the cross.
It was, after all, the Brits who penned the famed, “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding and bring some right here!”
Béchamel sauce and I have a love-hate relationship. I mean, I love it. I love the marriage of melted butter, flour and milk, whisked quickly over heat. I love it in macaroni and cheese and in an authentic lasagne (that is, one without ricotta. Sorry, I don’t like ricotta in my lasagne, which is sadly how most Americans make it). And I love the jaunty accent in béchamel. It might as well have a beret and smoke gauloises.
But I’d say 95% of my attempts at making béchamel sauce have failed, giving me an end result of a frustratingly thin sauce, when the goal is a thick, unctuous, creamy goo.
Last night, on the spur of the moment and with a head of cauliflower in the fridge that needed to be eaten pronto, I whipped up a cauliflower cheese. For the uninitiated, cauliflower cheese is a fantastic British recipe, particular for vegetarians in your life. It’s great when paired with a roast rib of beef, but also delicious on its own. The gist is not unlike a proper homemade macaroni cheese, except we replace the macaroni for cauliflower.
And it does involve making béchamel sauce. I tried a Nigella Lawson recipe from her Feast cookbook and voila!
It was a resounding success! Not only did the sauce turn out exactly the way I wanted, but the cauliflower was cooked just enough to be bitesome, not mushy. Bravo, Nigella! You’ve made a believer out of me.
1 large head of cauliflower
2 bay leaves
1 stick of butter
2 teaspoons English mustard
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
3 cups strong cheddar, grated, plus 1/2 cup for sprinkling on the top
Cut the cauliflower into small florets and and put in a saucepan with cold water and bay leaves. Sprinkle with salt. Bring to a boil, then drain and then refresh with cold water. Let the water drain in a colander. Then put the cauliflower in an even layer in an ovenproof dish.
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. To make the cheese sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan and then whisk in flour and mustard, and cook over a gentle heat for 5 minutes. Whisk in the milk off of the heat, and then put it back on the heat and keep stirring until it becomes thick and begins to bubble.
Sprinkle in the 3 cups grated cheese and stir over heat until it has melted into the sauce. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower in the dish, and scatter remaining cheese over the top. Cook for 20 minutes or until the cauliflower is hot and bubbly and the cheese has browned slightly on the top.
Wanna feel like a million bucks (or pounds, depending on your currency)? Then get in the kitchen and bake this:
* Enter carol of angels *
Okay, so maybe the photo doesn’t show it for the general awesomeness that it is and it looks a lot like an ordinary peanut butter square, but make no mistake. This is Millionaire’s Shortbread, a rich confection that layers dark chocolate atop gooey caramel spread over buttery shortbread. A Twix Bar-like dessert done on a big scale. I’m not sure where this gorgeous creature got its name but it is a British classic and rightly so.
Matthew made a batch last night (I am NOT the baker in our house and would never attempt such a complex dessert), based on Roxanne’s Millionaire’s Shortbread recipe from Nigella Lawson’s How to Be a Domestic Goddess cookbook. It tastes like a million calories but in a good way.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 2/3 cups unsalted butter
1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
4 tablespoons light corn syrup
12 oz. bittersweet chocolate
1 9-inch square pan or similar, greased and the bottom lined with parchment or wax paper
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Put the flour and sugar into a bowl and rub in 12 tablespoons of the butter, clumping the dough together to form a ball. Press this sandy shortbread mixture into the tin and smooth it either with you hands or a spatula. Prick it with a fork and cook for 5 minutes, then lower the oven to 300 degrees F, and cook it for a further 30-40 minutes until it is pale golden and no longer doughy. Let it cool in the tin.
Melt the remaining butter in the microwave (in a large microwavable bowl) for 2-3 minutes, then add the condensed milk and golden syrup. Whisk the mixture well until the butter is thoroughly incorporated. Heat for 6-7 minutes until it is boiling, stirring thoroughly every minute. As a microwave novice, I found this bit difficult and had to watch that I didn’t burn the toffee mixture (I did once), which is why I caution you to check and stir every minute. It’s ready when it’s thickened and turned a light golden brown. Pour this molten toffee evenly over the cooled shortbread and leave it to set.
Break the chocolate into pieces and melt it in a bowl in a microwave. Pour and spread evenly over the fudge mixture (the less you touch it, the shinier it will be) and leave it to cool. Once set, cut the caramel shortbread into pieces. The squares can be stored in the fridge to keep them firm, though if it’s winter that shouldn’t be necessary.
Makes about 24.