On a recent trip to France, I was reminded of the virtues of serving au gratin. In a characteristically Gallic manner, it is a phrase that injects a sense of grandeur and elegance to what is in fact a dish with melted cheese on top. Yet, as a greater simplicity of process in cooking often equates to a more extensive range of application, this technique – so ubiquitous in many of the classic books – is useful indeed. In fact, there are very few savoury dishes that cannot be improved in some way by the addition of grated cheese which is then grilled. It is an approach that particularly comes into its own, however, when there is left-over food that you wish to reprise as a warming supper without too much time or effort.
Elaborating upon the concept of a shepherd’s or cottage pie, any cold meat can be shredded and placed in the bottom of shallow dish. Ensure it is distributed evenly, add a knob of butter, a few teaspoons of stock or water (essential if the meat seems a little dry) and some seasoning. Top with mashed potato – though you need not restrict yourself to this tuber. Sweet potato mash is also good, but if you use another vegetable such as carrot or swede you will probably need some potato to stiffen the mixture – it mustn’t be too wet. Warm the whole thing through in a moderate oven, then add grated cheese and pop under a fairly quick grill until browned and bubbling. Watch attentively so it does not burn.
Vegetables, too, can be given similar treatment. Previously steamed or boiled cold broccoli, carrots and the like might often end up in the bin, as the cook is at a loss as to how to make such things appetising without destroying them. Arrange in a single layer in a shallow dish, cover with foil or parchment and warm through in the oven. Remove the covering, season and re-cover generously in grated cheese and treat as before.
The success or otherwise of a gratin depends to a great extent on the cheese employed. First it must not be too soft, or you will find grating it impossible. But a soft cheese could always be sliced thinly and placed over – though this will necessarily result in a richer dish. Not a bad thing, you might think, but not exactly a gratin where the cheese adds interest, colour and vim without overpowering the whole. Something hard enough to grate nicely is best.
A second, related concern, is the strength of the cheese. This is chiefly a matter of taste set against what you happen to have in the fridge. Some cheeses are more successful than others. If you are at a loss as to where to start experimenting, begin with a medium-hard medium-strength cheese such as household cheddar, and develop your taste from there. If on the other hand you are a keen student of cheese with an increasing knowledge of their relative properties, or are simply seized by a desire to engage in experimentation, you might wish to try mixing several cheeses on top of your gratin.
The dish in which mixed grated cheese is an essential, rather than an advanced development, is the classic cheese fondue. An indispensable wedding gift in times past, the fondue set has rather fallen out of fashion and use in most households. In the modern age, when the right regional cheeses and alcohols are available in almost every large supermarket for an authentic alpine preparation, it is time to revisit this bygone treat. For the canonical Swiss recipe, you need to obtain equal quantities of Emmental and Gruyère, a bottle of kirsch (though only a splash is needed for each fondue), and a bottle of dry white wine – something with plenty of acid will keep the melted cheese smooth. If you are happy to use something of a quality you would also drink, so much the better.
Pop the fondue pot on a low heat, and gently warm about half the bottle of wine. Add aromatics: a peeled and bruised clove of garlic, and a spring of rosemary, and a squeeze of lemon. When the wine is good and hot, begin sprinkling in the grated cheese, previously tossed and well coated in a few tablespoons of plain flour or cornflour. Stir continuously, adding the cheese gradually until the whole is melted. Finish with a slug of kirsch and serve on the burner in the middle of the table. For dipping, chunks of crusty bread are classic – but cold sausage, waxy potatoes, or even apple pieces (sprinkled with lemon juice to prevent browning) will make the returning fondue more balanced and varied.
Pulverbatch Soul Cakes
Mary Ward’s recipe for soul cakes is given on the parish website: www.pulverbatch.org.uk
– 3 pounds of flour
– ¼ pound of butter (or ½ pound if the cakes are to be extra rich)
– ½ pound of sugar
– 4 teaspoons of yeast
– 2 eggs
– Allspice to taste
– Sufficient new milk to make it into a light paste
Put the mixture (without the sugar or spice) to rise before the fire for half an hour, then add the sugar, and allspice enough to flavour it well; make into rather flat buns, and bake. Some recipes add currants.