Tag Archives: history

Cornish Splits (& More on Cream Teas)

Cornish splits are soft and pillowy enriched bread rolls and were the original cakey element of the Cornish cream tea. Bread rolls such as these were – and indeed are– eaten all around the country. There were Devonshire chudleighs, Yorkshire cakes and Guernsey biscuits, for example. But it was the people of Devon and Cornwall who combined them with clotted cream and jam.

These light, fluffy rolls are enriched with butter and are made extra soft by being made with milk rather than water and are covered with a tea towel as soon as they come out of the oven – the captured steam softening the exterior crust. Once cooled – or better, just warm – the rolls are not cut open, but split open with the fingers, hence their name.

Of course, the cream tea as we know today it is made up a scone, clotted cream and jam. Some places sell them made with whipped cream, but that will not do. The phrase ‘cream tea’ meaning a scone/split with jam and cream (as opposed to tea with cream in) seems to be relatively modern – the earliest printed reference of one coming from a 1932 article in The Cornishman newspaper (see foodsofengland.com). The earliest mention of a combination of jam, cream and bread eaten together pops up in the Devon town Tavistock’s accounts dating from the tenth century!

Cutting from The Cornishman, Thursday 3rd September 1931 (foodsofengland.com)

Some establishments in Cornwall still serve a split instead of a scone in their cream teas, but they are few and far between. Many folk reckon that the split is superior to the scone in a cream tea, the scone winning out by virtue of it being much quicker and easier to make. The Devonians apparently turned to scones before the Cornish, presumably because Cornwall is more cut-off. So, we have a situation where the rivalry between the two lands can be stoked. The Cornish can claim they invented the cream tea because they invented the split, but the Devonians can claim they invented it because they came up with the cream tea we think of today.

The bakery where I grew up in Pudsey, West Yorkshire sold Cornish splits filled with whipped cream, thin seedless raspberry jam and lots of icing sugar. I used to love them, so I was keen to make them myself and have a proper Cornish cream tea.

This enriched dough is a little trickier to work with than regular white bread dough, but you can make it by hand without things becoming too much of a horrible sticky mess. I prefer to use the dough hook these days I must admit. I use strong bread flour to gain a nice rise, but older recipes use regular plain flour; feel free to use it too, but whilst your splits will be more historically authentic, they will be less light for it: your choice!

Makes 12 splits:

500 g white strong bread flour

8 g instant yeast

10 g salt

60g caster sugar

75 g softened butter

280 g warm milk

I’ve written before about making and forming bun dough in more detail before, so if there’s too much brevity here, click this link.

Mix the flour, yeast, salt, sugar in a bowl. Make a well and add the butter and then the milk. If you have a food mixer with a dough hook, mix slowly to combine, then turn up to speed 4 and knead for around 6 minutes or until the dough has become tight and smooth and no longer sticky.

You can of course do all of this by hand, using a little flour for kneading at first until the dough loses its stickiness.

Using your hand, form the dough into a tight ball, pop in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film or a damp tea towel. Leave somewhere warm until it doubles in size, which could take 90 minutes depending upon the ambient temperature.

When ready, divide into 12 equal sized pieces, form them into balls and arrange on a baking sheet. Cover with a large plastic bag or tub and wait for them to prove. Once doubled in size again – it should take much less time than the first rising – place in a cold oven and turn it to 200°C. Bake for 25 minutes, but if at any point, the splits look like they getting too brown, turn the temperature down to 175°C.

When ready, remove from the oven to cooling tray and quickly place clean tea towels over the buns to prevent them crisping up.

When cold, you can sprinkle with sugar if you like, then slice or split and fill with jam and cream.

References:

The Cornish split, original cream tea accompaniment, Cornwall Live website, www.cornwalllive.com/whats-on/food-drink/cornish-split-original-cream-tea-1336003

Good Things in England, Florence White, 1932

English Bread & Yeast Cookery, Elizabeth David, 1977

Classic Meals: Cream Tea, Foods of England website, http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/creamtea.htm

The Taste of Britain, Catherine Brown & Laura Mason, 1999

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Clotted Cream

There’s nothing more Cornish than a good blob of clotted cream on a lovely cream tea. Unless you are from Devon of course, then there’s nothing more Devonian than a good blob of clotted cream on a lovely cream tea.

For those not in the know, clotted cream is a very thick cream with a much higher butterfat content than double (heavy) cream; weighing in at 64% and 48% respectively (for comparison, single cream is 18% fat, and full-fat milk is around 4%).

Clotted cream has a long history in Devon and Cornwall, and it is reckoned that it was first introduced to England by Phoenician settlers around 2000 years ago. Phoenicia was on the eastern Mediterranean coast in, what is now Syria, Lebanon and northern Isreal. The clotting of cream was a way of preserving buffalo milk. By removing the watery liquid, leaving mainly butterfat, the growth of spoilage organisms is retarded. The folk of Devonshire knew of its efficacy in this area; it was said that not even a witch’s breath could turn it sour.

If you have ever tried it, you will know that clotted cream – aka clouted cream or scalded cream in older books – is absolutely delicious and is well worth buying. It is possible to make your own and there is a recipe at the end of the post of you would to try your hand at it.

The best thing about it is the buttery, nutty crust that forms on the top as part of the manufacturing process. It is made by gently heating rich milk or cream in large shallow pans to a temperature of 80 to 90°C, the heat traditionally coming from cinders or charcoal. Once the buttery crust had formed, it was carefully but quickly moved to a cool place and sat upon some slate so make the cooling process as rapid as possible; the cold shocking the thin skimmed milk into sinking quickly and making a layer underneath the thick cream. These days, it’s all done with centrifuges, which is rather less romantic.

Once completely cooled, the clotted cream was lifted away with cold, wet hands and mixed in cold, wet wooden bowls to remove the last of the watery milk. It was then layered up in pots. I found a 1755 home recipe from an Elizabeth Cleland who recommended sprinkling rose water and sugar between the layers – the result must have been delicious!

The left-over skimmed milk, by the way, was taken away and either drank or used to make scones or Devonshire splits.

From the point of view of butterfat extraction, clotted cream is a much more efficient method than basic skimming techniques. The reason it is not the standard technique, I assume, is that double skimming requires no heating or centrifuges, tipping the balance of economy in double cream’s favour. Couple this with the fact that modern refrigeration and pasteurisation is doing the lion’s share of the preserving today means that the process of clotting cream is no longer required for that purpose. We eat it for the sheer love of it (ditto smoked fish and meat).

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management says that there are two types of clotted cream: Devonshire and Dutch. She goes on to explain the difference – Dutch clotted cream is thick enough to stand a spoon up in. Now, in my (humble) opinion, it ain’t clotted cream unless you can stand a spoon up in it, so I can only conclude that English clotted cream – at least from a Victorian Londoner’s point of view – was relatively runny compared to that of today’s

Clotted cream is used to make ice cream, some biscuits and as a topping to the old-fashioned pudding Devonshire junket, a sweetened milk dessert set with rennet, producing curds and whey. It can be used to enrich sauces and soups too but use with caution – things can end up too rich.

Rodda’s is the largest producer of clotted cream and is based in Cornwall. There is much debate between the folk of Devon and Cornwall as to whether the cream should be added before or after the jam. Nick Rodda reckons his grandfather knew why:

We always put our cream on top because we are proud of it, Devonians are slightly ashamed of theirs, so they cover it up with their jam.

I must confess to siding with the Devonians on this one. It’s all down to what you think the buttery cream’s role is. The argument goes something like this:

The Cornish: it is the cream, and you wouldn’t put cream under your fruit salad/trifle/fruit tart etc, now would you?

The Devonians: it is the butter, and you wouldn’t spread butter over the jam on your toast/crumpet/muffin etc, now would you?

Your choice.

Home-Made Clotted Cream

All you need to make your own is some double cream, an oven and patience.

Before…

Preheat your oven to 80°C. Pour around 1 litre of double cream into a wide, shallow ovenproof dish, place it in the oven and leave in there for 12 hours. If you are really patient, leave for 18 hours to achieve a darker, more delicious caramel-flavoured crust.

…after

Carefully remove from the oven, cover with kitchen foil and pop straight into the fridge to cool quickly and undisturbed.

Once fully chilled, lift the clotted cream from the dish and layer up in pots. I filled three good-sized ramekins with mine. The amount of skimmed milk at the bottom will vary depending upon how long you left the cream in the oven for.

The cream keeps for 7 days in the fridge.

References:

Clotted Cream, RS Chavan, A Kumar & S Bhatt, 2016, In Encyclopedia of Food and Health

The Complete Housewife, Elizabeth Cleland, 1755

How do you take your cream tea?, BBC Cornwall website, 2010 http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/cornwall/low/people_and_places/newsid_8694000/8694384.stm

Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton, 1861

My Devonshire Book, Henry Harris, 1907

William’s Practical Butter Book, Xerxes Addison Willard, 1875

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Cornish Food

Last month I managed to grab a little getaway to one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom – Cornwall. I’ve always loved going there, having wonderful memories of holidaying in places like Newquay and Torquay as a child. It was only when I arrived that I realised that the last time I visited was August 1999, the year of the total eclipse of the Sun – twenty blinking years ago! I felt so old.

Tintangel (pic: Hugues Roberts)

This time I visited with my partner, and avoided the obvious holiday places, our headquarters being a picturesque seventeenth century cottage in the lovely little town of Camelford. The nearest place to visit from there is Tintagel with its ancient castle and apparent birthplace of the mythical King Arthur. We also had a nosey round the Boscastle, which is worth visiting for the eerie Museum of Witchcraft and Magic if nothing else. We climbed Exmoor and hiked around the lovely harbour town Fowey (pronounced to rhyme with joy). Padstow was on the itinerary too, where I had the best fish and chips I’ve ever had.

Wandering over the Tintagel moorland (pic: Hugues Roberts)

For those of you not familiar with the geography of the UK, Cornwall is a county that takes up the tip of the long peninsula that makes up the very south-west of England. Because it is out on a limb, Cornwall feels different to the rest of England. The is due to the fact that the indigenous people – the Britons – were never conquered by the Anglo-Saxons in the fourth century BCE. As a result they retained their own language, Cornish, just as the other unconquered Britons did such as the Welsh. It really does feel ancient and magical – and this coming from a devout atheist! It has wild and untouched landscapes, beautiful dramatic skies and a real connection with the past. It’s also great for foraging – I spotted wild cabbage, fennel, rock samphire, sea kale and rocket all lurking about the sandy and rocky beaches.

A map of Cornwall (pic: Google Maps)

To the east of Cornwall is the county of Devon. The two have a friendly rivalry (I’m sure this wasn’t always the case!) especially when it comes to food, as you will see.

I tried to eat as many Cornish things as possible during our three-night stay, so I thought I would write a quick guide to Cornish food and follow it up with a few regional recipes.

A beautiful Cornish sunset (pic: Hugues Roberts)

Pasties

The Cornish pastry is probably Cornwall’s most famous food. It’s a simple affair, containing beef, potato, turnip and onion, all generously seasoned with ground black pepper. On no account must you add carrot to your Cornish pasty, and the meat must be chopped, not minced. They are crimped down one edge; never have your crimp go across the top of the pasty, because what you have there is a Devonshire pastry, and that will never do. There are other pasties – or “oggies” as the are called colloquially, made with apples or jam. There’s also a squab pie which is made from lamb and apples.

A cream tea (I must admit, I prefer the Devonshire method!)

Cream teas

One of my most favourite things in the world is a cream tea. It is made of a nice pot of tea, a scone (plain or fruit), jam and clotted cream. Now – this is very important – for a Cornish cream tea you apply the jam first and then the clotted cream, in Devon however, it’s cream first and then jam. Both counties believe that the other’s way is the work of heathens. Clotted cream is a very thick cream made by evaporating double cream over a very low heat, resulting in a cream that is butter-like in consistency and topped with an appetising pale crust. It is also used to make heavenly Cornish ice cream.

Fish

I’ve always found it odd that as an Island nation, we British don’t really like fish. Cornwall lands some of the best quality fish and seafood in the world, and yet its most identifies with a meat pasty. Cornwall has particularly fine – and plentiful – crabs, and one of the best things anyone could eat is dressed crab, brown bread, salted butter and fresh lemon. You’ve to look for it to find it, but it is available.

An infamous dish in these parts is stargazy pie a simple dish of sardines baked under a pastry crust. The fishes are boned, but their little heads are left on so that they can peek out the pie’s edge looking up to the heavens.

A stargazy pie (pic: Jusrol)

In Padstow, we visited Rick Stein’s fish and chip shop. Mr Stein (a food hero of mine) gets a hard time from the locals because he has so many businesses there; so much so, they have nicknamed it rather glibly ‘Padstein’. We didn’t get the chance to visit his restaurant, but we were not disappointed with the chip shop – I had the best cod and chips I have ever eaten. Beautifully crisp batter, creamy soft fish and proper made-from-scratch tartare sauce. Delish!

Cornish Splits

Another sweet treat made up of simply a bun made from a bread dough enriched with sugar, egg and butter, filled with jam and whipped cream. The grandfather to the doughnut, I would imagine.

Saffron Buns

Very popular – and very regional to the south-west are these delicious little buns. They are very similar to a hot cross bun, except it is a beautiful golden-yellow colour due to the healthy pinch of saffron which is added to the mix.

A brace of lovely saffron buns

There are other regional dishes too, such as hog’s pudding – often found on a Cornish fried breakfast instead of black pudding. There is Cornish heavy cake (aka hevva cake), which is similar to a the Chorley cakes one finds in North West England, and the delicious cheese known as Yarg which is similar to the Welsh cheese Caerphilly but is wrapped in nettle leaves.

Apologies if I have missed anything off – if you spot anything, please add to the comments section below. I’ll be back soon with some Cornwall-inspired recipes.

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Blancmange

Last post I wrote all about the mediaeval dish Blanc Mange, an almond and rice stew served with chicken or fish. Obviously, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass to give you a recipe for the dessert blancmange we know and love (or hate).

Blancmange went from a savoury to a sweet dish somewhere around 1600 – 1604 is the earliest recipe for it I can find that sounds like the pudding we eat today.

When one thinks of blancmange, a shuddering over-sweet pale pink mass doused with cloying raspberry flavouring is imagined. This is not a proper blancmange. When I make one, I go back to basics.

photo: unknown

Blancmange should be a simple affair: cream, milk, sugar and almond extract set with gelatine. In the recipes from earlier than the 20th Century, the gelatine would have been prepared in house from calves’ feet or pigs’ trotters. There was an alternative setting agent called isinglass which is made from the dried swim bladders of fish.

By the way, the pronounced almond flavour of almond extract is not supposed to emulate that of regular almonds, but of bitter almonds which were high in cyanide and therefore used in small, highly aromatic doses. Other things were sometimes added to this basic mixture: lemon zest, cinnamon, brandy and rose water all crop up in recipes through the centuries.

The blancmange went rather downhill once you could buy it in packet form. The almond extract or bitter almonds replaced with almond flavouring and instead of gelatine, cornflour was used. This is the dessert that many people hate. I must confess to quite liking the preparatory blancmange, but then, I’ll eat anything. It shouldn’t be called blancmange though, as it is quite a different beast; fake flavour and thick cornflour base making the final pud less jiggly and delicate. I suppose that after the realisation you could set custard with cornflour instead of egg yolks, the ‘magic’ formula was applied to blancmange.

I like to serve blancmange with a compote of cherries flavoured with a dash of kirsch and some delicate shortbread biscuits, but it is pretty good served all on its own. Who needs panna cotta!? If you want to turn the blancmange out of its mould, it is worth brushing the inside with a thin layer of sunflower oil so that it is easier to turn it out.

Makes 600 ml:

250 ml whole milk

gelatine leaves (see method)

100 g caster sugar

300ml double cream

1 tsp almond extract

Heat up the milk in a saucepan and as you wait, soak the gelatine leaves in cold water – check the instructions in the packet and use the correct number to set 600 ml except use one leaf fewer than instructed – you want a good wobble.

A good wobble…

When the milk is very hot, squeeze out the excess water from the gelatine and whisk it into the milk along with the sugar. Once dissolved, add the double cream and almond extract. Pour into your mould or moulds, cover with cling film or a plate and refrigerate overnight. If you like, you can whip the cream until floppy and stir it through the milk when it is just warm. This way you get a mousse-like consistency – good if you want to serve it at a dinner party.

To turn out the blancmange, dip the moulds in hot water for around 10 seconds. To make it release you may have to carefully coax the blancmange from the inside edge of the mould with your finger; if you can move it away easily, it should come out. Place a serving plate on top and quickly flip it over – the blancmange should release, if not, simply dip it in the water for a further 10 seconds.

Once turned out, you may find that some of the blancmange has melted, so tidy up the plate with a piece of kitchen paper before serving.

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Medieval Rose Pudding (Rosee)

Last post I wrote about my little experiment making almond milk. With my batch I decided to make a mediaeval recipe from the first cook book in English, Forme of Cury. It was written around 1390 by the cooks of King Richard II; I’ve written about it and cooked up a few recipes from it before.

The one I chose is called Rosee, and it is like a pudding – in the American sense of the word – i.e. a thick custardy dessert. This one is thickened with rice flour instead of eggs like a regular custard and is flavoured with rose petals (“with flours of white rosis”) as well as some ginger and cinnamon. It’s not the right time of year for roses, so in lieu of the blooms, I used some rose water instead. It’s also flavoured with pine nuts and dates, which also adds a little texture. Sugar is the sweetener – which wasn’t refined to pure white in the 1400s, so I used soft light brown sugar to replicate this.

You don’t have to use mediaeval almond milk, you can buy it, or just use regular cows’ milk.

Here’s how it is written in Forme of Cury. It’s hard to decipher, but once you know the now defunct letter thorn (þ) is makes a th sound (so seþe is pronounced seethe), it makes it a lot easier.

Rose Pudding 1390:

Take thyk mylke; seþe it. Cast þerto sugur, a gode porcioun; pynes [pine nuts], dates ymynced, canel [cinnamon], & powdour ginger; and seeþ I, and alye [mix] it with flours of white rosis, and flour of rys. Cole it; salt it and mess it forth. If þou wilt in stede of almaunde mylke, take swete crem of kyne [cows].

Hopefully you get the gist – it takes a while to tune in!

I didn’t follow the method exactly – I used my own cook’s logic to the dish – but I made quite a delicious pudding, and it didn’t feel as though it was a vegan dessert. A knob of butter or a glug of cream, goes a long way with making food satisfying, but I genuinely didn’t miss them. It really goes to show that the King and his court did not go without during Lent!

Rose Pudding 2019:

Makes 4 to 6 puddings

25g rice flour or cornflour

¼ tsp each ground ginger and cinnamon

250 ml mediaeval almond milk, bought almond milk or full fat milk (or a mixture)

60 g soft light brown sugar

Pinch salt

50 g chopped dates, plus extra for decoration

25 g pine nuts or chopped mixed nuts, plus extra for decoration

2 to 3 tbs rose water

Put the flour and spices in a small saucepan and whisk in the milk, starting by adding just a third of it at first to prevent lumps. When all of the milk has been added, put the pan on the heat and bring to a simmer, stirring well with a wooden spoon or small whisk as it begins to thicken. Add the sugar, salt, dates and nuts. Keep it simmering very gently for around 10 minutes to cook out the flour. If it looks like it will be too thick, add more liquid (it sets quite firm, so when it is hot, you’re looking for the consistency of thick double cream).

Remove from the heat and add the rose water – I like quite a lot, but it can be rather overpowering, so add enough that seems just right and then add a shake more. By doing this you are compensating for the fact it will be served cold, the flowery aroma less pungent.

Pour into serving cups – I went for small coffee cups – scatter with a few more dates and nuts and cover with cling film to prevent a skin forming. Pop them in the fridge until set.

Half an hour before you want to serve them, take them out of the fridge to take off the chill.

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Mediaeval Almond Milk

Over recent years, as we have become more aware of people’s food intolerances and allergies there has been a great rise in the amount of plant-based milks consumed in the western world. We’ve also realised that there are many benefits associated with the cutting down of animal products in our diets. One of these plant milks – almond milk – is actually having a Renaissance because it was a food that used to be consumed in abundance in mediaeval Europe. Indeed, if I was writing this 20 years ago, it would be appearing in my ‘Forgotten Foods’ series on the blog.

As you may know, mediaeval Christians fasted a lot. There were two great fasting episodes: Advent and Lent. Every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays was a fast day, meaning that around half of the days of the year were spent fasting. No meat or animal produce was allowed to be eaten, except for fish which was considered cool and calming and so appropriate for these days of solemnity.

The nutrition contained within almond milk. Notice the added ingredients.

Just like the people do today, mediaeval folk tried to make alternative products that could fill the same satisfying gastronomical niche as the real thing. Almond milk was one of those products.

Almonds were imported (as they are now) and very expensive. Households were expected to make almost all their own food and drinks and almond milk was no exception. The expense and effort required to make it made it a fasting ingredient reserved only for the rich, and they consumed a lot of it. King Edward I went through a startling 40 000 pounds of almonds in just two years!

I must admit I quite enjoy modern almond milk as a drink or in porridge but find it otherwise a little insipid, so I was interested in finding out how mediaeval people went about making it and what it was like. From my reading, it seems to be thicker and more substantial than todays, where it was refined into a thick almond cream or curdled to make a kind of almond curd cheese. I’m not sure if this would be possible using the almond milk of today!

On the other hand, modern almond milk may be more nutritious. When people moved from cow’s milk to plant-based milks, many didn’t realise there would be a massive drop in their consumption of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D. This led to concerns that people would become deficient, and so modern manufacturers fortify almond milk with extra nutrients to help people to achieve their recommended nutritional allowances for the day.

Making Mediaeval Almond Milk

The basic method was acquired from the Arabs who were supplying much of the almonds themselves via the vast network of trade routes that stretched out through Eastern Europe, the Middle East and beyond.

The begin almonds would be pounded very fine, sometimes with a little spring water or rose water to stop them oiling;  they didn’t want to make almond nut butter by accident! After this initial exhausting task, the almonds would be soaked in spring water (though I have found references to soaking them in barley water too). After soaking, it was passed through a strainer and seasoned with salt and some honey or sugar. Cream could be made by boiling the milk down until very thick or made into curds by adding vinegar before straining. I came across this recipe for an almond cheese so thick, you could slice it:

Take almond milk, and boil it, and when it is boiled take it from the fire, and sprinkle on a little vinegar. Then spread it on a cloth, and cast sugar on it, and when it is cold gather it together, and leche it [slice it] in dishes, and serve it forth.

So how does mediaeval almond milk compare to compare to todays, and how is it to use as an ingredient?

I updated the mediaeval approach to making almond milk, but the ingredients essentially remain the same.

100g ground almonds

2 tsp rose or orange-flower water (optional)

1 tsp sugar or honey

A good pinch of salt400 ml boiling water

60 ml white wine (optional)

The first task is to get those ground almonds super-fine. Put them in a blender (a Nutri-bullet style blender is perfect) with the rose water and about 50 ml of the hot water and blitz in pulses until very smooth. Add the rest of the boiling water and leave to stand and soak for around 20 minutes.

Give the milk a good swish around and pass it through a sieve to remove any large pieces of ground almond. Sweeten with the sugar or honey, add the wine if using and allow to cool.

The mediaeval almond milk is now ready to use.

The Verdict

Well I must say, I was quite impressed with the end result. It was more substantial than bought almond milk in both texture (it was creamy) and taste (the honey, salt and rose water). It wasn’t chalky or gritty either like I expected. I don’t recommend adding the wine however; it put the flavours out of kilter for me, but each to their own I suppose.

I heartily recommend making some. I made a rose-flavoured pudding (see next post) and I even tried making the cheese with the left-over almond milk.

I was rather odd in flavour, I added soft dark brown sugar and a couple of tablespoons of red wine vinegar, let it stand for a few hours and then passed it through a scalded tea towel sat in a sieve. It could make an interesting mediaeval version of a Yorkshire Curd Tart I think.

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Macaroni Cheese

At the end of last year, I finally had the opportunity to visit the United States to visit old friends – and haunts – in Houston, St Louis and Chicago, as well as discovering new cities such as Dallas, New York and New Orleans. It was a crazy whistle stop road trip and no mistake.

Having lived on both sides of the Pond, I can really appreciate the American influence on British cuisine. So much deliciousness has drifted over the Atlantic to wedge itself firmly in the psyche of British – nobody in the UK could possibly imagine a world without mouth-watering pulled pork, pillowy cinnamon buns or squidgy chocolate brownies (and blondies!).

One of the best foods of all is Mac and Cheese, and although considered very much an all-American (or perhaps the American) meal, macaroni cheese has its origins firmly planted in Britain.

Macaroni cheese emigrated to the US and Canada with the British settlers, but it wasn’t until the 1930s, during the Great Depression, that it really became part of American culture. Millions were starving, but one entrepreneurial salesman from St Louis, Missouri had the idea to combine nonperishable dried pasta with dried processed cheese. It could be mass produced and priced low. It was a huge hit, quickly establishing itself as the ‘American Housewife’s Best Friend’, feeding a family of four for just twenty cents. It literally saved a nation from starvation.

Elizabeth Raffauld

The first mention of it my side of the Pond can be found in the 1769 classic cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffauld. It says To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese:

Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill [a quarter of a pint] of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.

All the elements of a modern macaroni cheese: the appropriate pasta, a proto-béchamel sauce, plenty of cream and lots of cheese; perhaps surprisingly, parmesan cheese.

But we can go back even further; back to the 1390s in fact, with Britain’s earliest cookbook Forme of Cury. Pasta made from breadcrumbs (I must try it sometime) cooked in a velouté sauce (like a béchamel but made with stock instead of milk), and something called chese ruayn which was a hard cheese similar in taste to brie, resulting in something half-way between macaroni cheese and a lasagne. I wonder if there’s an extant French cheese that could fit the bill if I tried to cook this dish?

Take good broth and do in an earthen pot. Take flour of payndemayn [high quality white bread] and make thereof past[e] with water, and make therof thynne foyles as paper with a roller; drye it hard and seeth [simmer] it in broth. Take chese ruayn grated and lay it in dishes with powdour douce [a mix of warm spices such as cinnamon, cloves etc], and lay on the loseyns [the pasta sheets] isode as hole as thou myst, and above powdour and chese; and so twyce or thrice [i.e. layer it up], & serve it forth.

This dish must have remained popular because macaroni and other pasta dishes using cheese and velouté sauce appear crop up again in Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families. There is also the more familiar béchamel sauce version. What is interesting is that there is a variety of cheeses used in these recipes: Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere and blue Stilton all feature. I love blue cheese, so this one really stood out for me and I have adapted it below.

If blue cheese isn’t your thing, replace it with another. Cheddar, red Leicester or a mature Lancashire would all work. This recipe produces a rather saucy macaroni cheese, if you prefer a thicker consistency, add an extra 50 grams of pasta.

Blue Stilton Macaroni Cheese

Serves four:

30 g plain flour

30 g butter

400 ml hot full-fat milk

150 ml double cream

200 g macaroni

1 slice stale bread

½ tsp chopped fresh rosemary leaves, or ¼ tsp fried rosemary (optional)

225 g Stilton cheese, grated

200 g Gruyere or Cheddar cheese, grated

Pinch Cayenne pepper

Salt and freshly-milled black pepper

First of all make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan. As soon as it has finished foaming, tip in the flour and mix well with a small whisk or wooden spoon. Cook on a medium heat for a couple of minutes, stirring frequently. If the roux starts to brown, turn down the heat.

Beat in around a quarter of the milk with your whisk, adding another quarter once the first lot is fully incorporated. Repeat until all of the milk is used up. Add the cream and allow the béchamel sauce to simmer gently for around 10 minutes. Make sure you stir every minute or so, to stop the flour sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Meanwhile cook the macaroni in plenty of salted water – follow the instructions on the packet and cook for two minutes less than the instructions state.

Make the bread into breadcrumbs by pulsing in a food processor. If using, add the rosemary half way through the pulsing process.

Take the sauce off the heat and drain the pasta. Stir in the cheeses, mixing until fully incorporated. Tip in the pasta and mix. Now season well with salt, black pepper and Cayenne pepper.

Pour the whole lot into a baking dish of a capacity of 1.5 litres, or thereabouts and bake for around 20 minutes at 180°C until brown and bubbling and the breadcrumbs are well-toasted.

Serve straight away with crusty bread or a rocket salad.

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