The Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

The art of cauliflower cheese

The art of cauliflower cheese
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There are some dishes on which I am well aware I hold strong opinions: toast (well done but not burnt, real butter, generously spread; must be eaten hot), crumble (crunchy, not soggy, lots of it; simply must be served with custard, ideally cold), roast chicken (cooked hot and fast, with more butter than is sensible, until the skin crackles; the chicken oysters are always cook’s perks).

But some catch me unawares. I don’t realise that I feel strongly about a particular recipe of foodstuff until I’m staring down the barrel of a recipe, or contemplating something that doesn’t meet my surprisingly exacting standards. I’ll find myself holding forth on the correct way to make an egg mayonnaise sandwich, or the one true way of cooking porridge. Perhaps I’ll end up on a soapbox about the proper proportions of a pavlova, or the only acceptable type of chocolate bar, despite never previously having given the subject conscious thought. I’m a delight to live with, as you can imagine.

Cauliflower cheese belongs in the latter category. I truly didn’t think I was terribly fussy. Perhaps that’s because I am sufficiently greedy that if you serve me a cauliflower cheese, I will be genuinely happy, no matter how it’s made. But ask me how I believe a cauliflower cheese should be made, or what its platonic qualities are, and I will, I’m afraid to say, talk you ear off.

Like many, I expect, my first experience of cauliflower cheese was at school: huge vats of the stuff, boiled to within an inch of its life, before being drowned in an insipid white sauce, and then kept in hot-holding, under heat lamps, until however many hundreds of pupils had been served. This is, you will be shocked to hear, not the ideal set of conditions for a cauliflower cheese.

So this is cauliflower cheese as I think it should be made. First of all, there is absolutely no need to pre- or par-boil your cauliflower. Cauliflower should not be mushy or water-logged, and certainly shouldn’t slump into the sauce in which it lies. If you’re going to bake the whole thing in a hot oven for 40 minutes or so (and you should), that is ample time for the cauliflower to cook.

Secondly, don’t throw away the leaves – or at least not all of them. The outside leaves are likely thick and coarse, and probably a little damaged. But as you strip them away, you’ll reach the thinner, more delicate leaves, that are delicious, and will crisp as their tufts stick above the florets and the cheese sauce. Which leads us to the cheese sauce – let’s be honest, the real attraction of the dish.

There’s only one way to do this properly: the sauce must be a thick, velvety bechamel, cooked out so that there’s no trace of flour. It must be stuffed full of really, really mature cheddar – now is not the time for skimping. I add mustard and white wine vinegar, both of which bring out the flavours of the cheese, making the sauce sharper, more intense, somehow cheesier. And, of course, there must be plenty of it, enveloping the cauliflower like a delicious blanket. Cook it hot and for at least forty minutes, until the edges bubble, and the top becomes blistered and leopard-spotted. That’s how you make a cauliflower cheese.

Cauliflower cheese

Makes: A side for four

Takes: 15 minutes

Bakes: 40 minutes

1 large cauliflower (about 600g)

80g butter

80g plain flour

500ml whole milk

1 heaped teaspoon English mustard

1 dessert spoon white wine vinegar

100g very mature cheddar cheese

  1. Preheat the oven to 200°C. Remove the outer leaves of the cauliflower, and slice of the base of the stalk. Cut the cauliflower into quarters, and then use your hands to break it into evenly-sliced florets. The small, tender leaves can also be used in the dish, as can the stalk, thinly sliced. Place the cauliflower in a roasting tray just big enough to hold everything in an even layer.
  2. Next, make the white sauce: melt the butter in a medium-sized pan over a medium heat, then stir in the flour, and let it sizzle for a couple of minutes until it smells nutty. Add the milk bit by bit, whisking it into the flour and butter mix until smooth, before adding the next addition. Once you’ve added all the milk, cook the sauce for a few more minutes, stirring the bottom of the pan the whole time, to stop the sauce catching. Remove from the heat, and add the mustard, vinegar and cheese, stirring to combine. Season with salt, taste, and correct the seasoning if necessary.
  3. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower, place in the oven, and bake for 40 minutes until the sauce is bubbling and leopard-spotted. Serve hot.

Written byThe Vintage Chef Olivia Potts

Olivia Potts is a former criminal barrister who retrained as a pastry chef. She co-hosts The Spectator’s Table Talk podcast and writes Spectator Life's The Vintage Chef column. A chef and food writer, she was winner of the Fortnum and Mason's debut food book award in 2020 for her memoir A Half Baked Idea.

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