A Rare Birra Bechamel

Are you a recipe person? Or do you prefer to wing it with what’s hanging about in your fridge, or whatever looked good on the shelves, or whatever finds it’s way into your kitchen by any other means?

I used to be the latter. Don’t get me wrong – I had cookbooks, but they tended to be by people like Nigel Slater who excels in anti-recipes with measurements like a handful of rice and a knob of butter and a glug of wine (some of the key ingredients in his risotto recipe which is etched in that part of my heart reserved for favourite comfort suppers featuring whatever’s hanging about in my fridge).

Then I started working for a food magazine and recipes became my bread and butter. And I started trying some of them out, and discovered that sometimes the unlikeliest combinations and instructions can work out surprisingly well (a cauliflower curry of Hugo Arnold’s stands out as the kind of thing I never would have intuited into being).

But I remained a lazy recipe follower, by which I mean I would scan the recipe looking for reasons not to follow it. Anything involving a food processor was usually enough, but also a potato ricer (don’t have one), a pasta machine (life’s too short) and a deep-fat fryer (that’s what chippers are for) would all send my fingers flicking pages. Also, techniques that used to be staples of my mother’s generation of cooking would cause my eyes to glaze over printed text and go in search of another pretty dinner picture. Roux and Bechamel sauce, or indeed most kinds of sauces with a name for that matter: Bearnaise and Hollandaise, Chausseur and Madeira, those kinds of names.

Now someone asked me the other day what was the best thing about the one-month full-time cookery course I did in Dublin Cookery School last January (which I’ve been thinking about lately, as another crew of lucky punters gear up to dedicate the month of May to cooking up daily three-course lunches in the gorgeous Blackrock premises).

Apart from details like learning to cook a Bearnaise or Chausseur sauce, the best thing about immersing yourself in a learning environment like that is being taken out for your comfort zone and being made make things you’d normally pass over. Of course it helps when you have all sorts of great kit on hand, like ice-cream or pasta machines and potato ricers and industrial-style Thermomix (actually the housewife’s choice all across Europe but more likely to be found in a professional kitchen here). But it turns out that really, a lot of those things I used to glaze over as Something I Can’t Do turn out to be quite straightforward after all. Like making a roux or a Bechamel sauce.

And so it was that today a rummaging round on the internet for a suitably moreish brunch recipe brought me to Who Ferny Whitalot’s clever ideas for posh cheese on toast. And instead of running scared from the mention of a Bechamel I decided that this was Something I Could Do, even with a Holy Thursday of a Hangover (thanks Elaine, Freddie & Sharon). His first recipe caught my eye: the bastard child of a Welsh Rarebit and a French Croque Madame, this Madame Rarebit attracted me because it let me off the hook upon which I found myself getting caught with all the other rarebit recipes on the interweb. Most of them involve food processors you see, which I have but am still too lazy to utilise (at least for a solo brunch). Plus they involved cooking an egg into the sauce and thickening with bread crumbs. Hugh’s b*st*rd of a sandwich is crumb free, and pops the egg on top instead.

Now, I wasn’t sure what caerphilly cheese is (it turns out it’s a hard and crumbly white Welsh cheese) but I was sure that I didn’t have any in my fridge. What I DID have in my fridge however was any number of British and Irish cheeses. This is because I am lucky enough to have the kind of friends who call up of a school night to bribe you to come to funny gigs (thanks Maeve Higgins) where they laden you down with a large package of free cheese (thanks Emma) because they were assisting their food photographer friends with a shoot of all of Supervalu‘s great range of farmhouse cheeses (thanks Harry).

So, this morning, my version of Who’s version of a Welsh version of a French Madame in honour of Emma was something of a departure from the recipe below. What I did follow was the bit about making bechamel, although I was too lazy to measure it out into a serving for one. Instead I just melted a knob of butter, stirred in one heaped teaspoon of flour and another bit too, cooked it til it started to brown while I had my head in the fridge trying to choose what cheese to use, added some milk which I whisked with a fork and then stirred continuously till it looked and tasted about right. Then I stirred in some grated Applewood (a smoked and slightly tangy British cheese), seasoned with salt and pepper, and chucked in a couple of pinches of smoked paprika in place of Who’s nutmeg. Meanwhile I had toasted one side of a lovely slice of wheaten bread picked up from Honest to Goodness market last weekend (and still going strong), fried myself an egg sunny side up, and brewed myself a cup of tea. To finish, I piled some prosciutto onto the untoasted side, topped with the cheesey smokey sauce, fired it under the grill, and then popped the egg on top, sprinked with torn flat leaf parsley, a twist of pepper, and a pinch each of smoked paprika and Maldon sea salt.

Was it worth it? Was it what. Worth following the recipe for the bit I needed help on, worth following my intuition as to what would be good from the fridge. Worth the eating. Nearly worth the Holy Hangover which brought me to make it. And certainly worth getting out of bed for on a rainy Good Friday.


P.S. If your answer to my original question was yes (ie you are a recipe person) here’s a proper recipe with grammes and millilitres and tablespoons to keep you happy.

Who’s Madame Rarebit? (a la Guardian)

Madame Rarebit, Mrs Rarebit, ­Jessica Rarebit, whatever you call it, this take on the classic croque ­madame is a winner. Serves four.

70g unsalted butter
3 tbsp flour
500ml whole milk
200g caerphilly cheese, grated or ­crumbled into small pieces
¼ tsp salt
A few grinds of black pepper
A few gratings of nutmeg
4 thick slices good white bread
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
4 thick slices cooked ham
4 eggs
1 tbsp finely chopped parsley

Melt 50g of the butter in a saucepan over a medium heat, then stir in the flour and cook for three minutes. Whisk in the milk and bring to a ­simmer, stirring constantly, for five minutes until you have a thick ­béchamel.

Stir in the cheese, then add salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cook ­until the cheese is melted. Heat the grill and toast the bread. Spread the toast with mustard and top with the ham. Spoon over the cheese sauce and grill until golden and bubbling.

While that’s cooking, heat the rest of the butter in a frying pan and fry the eggs, sprinkling them with a bit of salt and pepper, until the whites are just set and the yolks are runny. Top each slice of bread with an egg, sprinkle with salt, black pepper and parsley, and serve immediately.


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