Autumn is upon us: cue wet, dark and cold evenings and horrific journeys home, possibly involving kamikaze bus drivers, stray carrier bags that won’t leave our shoes alone and a forlorn feeling that can only be cured by the following routine. Step one: unlock door. Step two: work clothes off, pyjamas on. Step three: plate of steaming food on lap while simultaneously snuggling under a lovely wool blanket.
The Danish have a word for the feeling this evokes: ‘hygge’. it defies a literal translation but it has good company, warmth and cosiness at its heart. And, of course, comfort food.
And while we all have different ideas about what these meals might be, we are all well-acquainted with the dishes that make us feel better in bleak circumstances.
So as the nights draw in, we decided to celebrate the hygge which comes in the form of a huge plate of comfort food.
Here, writing exclusively for Stylist, Nigel Slater celebrates the mood boosting power of food, while over the page we reveal the four recipes all comfort eaters must know.
“We all need good food to make us feel better”
Nigel Slater, revered TV cook and author of Eat: The Little Book Of Fast Food reveals that comfort food is at once both deeply personal and wholly unifying
We never just ‘want’ comfort food. We ‘need’ it. Comfort food is about eating something good to put our world to rights, making us feel better, and, crucially, restoring our faith in ourselves.
Yes, of course comfort food is about eating apple crumble, wearing a favourite old sweater, curled up on the sofa, but it’s also more complicated than that. The notion of comfort varies from one person to another. For some, it is about any food that warms or satisfies, whereas some of us, myself included, need things to be a little more specific. True comfort is only reached when everything, and I mean everything, is exactly right. So not just apple crumble, but apple crumble at the right temperature (just below scalding for me please) in the right bowl (a favourite, deep earthenware dish) and eaten in the right place (read home).
If food is going to put my world to rights, then it has to meet certain demands. That bacon sandwich, that avocado toast has to be spot on if it is to do the trick. For me that means the perfectly ripe avocado with no black bits. The toast must be very hot, very crisp and dripping with olive oil. If it’s a bacon sandwich, then the bread must be thick, white and soft, the bacon crisp and the fat must slightly soak through the bread. Food whose details are not quite there just doesn’t qualify.
To complicate matters further, what sorts us out one day may not work the following day. The rules change. I would rate ice cream near the top of my list of foods that sort all my ills, but not for every occasion. Some days, a dose of dairy produce is plain wrong. It can make me feel worse rather than better. At the right moment though, that first curl of soft, just-starting-to-melt vanilla ice cream from the tub, will tick every box for me.
The food our body (actually our brain) craves to make us feel better may depend on our exact state of mind. It can depend on the reason we need comforting. A hangover, that will be a sausage sandwich. A bout of flu, some homemade soup. A row with a friend – chips, hot and salty.
Sometimes our need for comfort takes a more serious turn. I recently lost my brother to cancer. When I received the dreaded phone call, all I could think of was English muffins, split, toasted and buttered. I went to the corner shop and bought a packet of four and devoured the lot, toasting one after the other, slathering them with Dairylea, the soft cheese spread that has not been part of my life since I was about 11. I haven’t even thought about either muffins or processed cheese since that phone call. But at that moment I needed it, and I needed it desperately.
Many of the foods we use to unruffle our feathers and calm our stormy seas have a personal significance for us. It may be something that reminds us of being particularly happy or safe. For me, even the smell of a tray of warm flapjacks coming from the oven will hit the spot. They are something my mum used to make when I came home from school. Many of our most popular food-cures involve food from our childhood. A friend of mine swears Murray Mints solve all her ills, for another its full-fat Coca Cola consumed through a stripy straw, whereas most of us look for something warming, and often something sweet. A deep mug of foaming hot chocolate anyone?
Most comfort foods involve carbs and dairy. Well, they do in my house. In particular sugar, dairy products and sweet stodge. Hot treacle sponge with very cold cream covers all those bases for me. Interestingly, the true comforters are often those we eat rarely or almost never. They invariably contain a ‘naughty’ element and in many cases are foods we have crossed out of our everyday lives for health reasons. Chocolate, trifle, cake or maybe something like a bowl of fiery curry or a deep bowl of shepherd’s pie on a rainy night. I’m not sure there is much comfort in a slice of sashimi or a kale smoothie.
The increasing need for this type of food is not even always personal. The need can be a collective thing. Right now, there are some pretty awful events happening in the world. No-one can be unaware that life is extraordinarily unstable for many people at the moment. In order to induce a general sense of wellbeing (don’t worry, everything will be OK) we collectively eat a little bit more than we should. There is surely a connection with the precarious state of the world, and the rise in home baking. Even if we lose our job tomorrow we can still bake a loaf of bread. Whatever horrid thing is waiting for us round the corner, we can and we will survive because we can bake a loaf of bread. And let’s face it, you are never going to be short of friends if you can bake a cake.
Frustratingly my own comfort foods are not things you can just buy from the shop. They all require cooking (a baked potato with butter and cheese, that syrup pudding with cream, a bowl of porridge with golden syrup) but maybe there is a good reason for that. Could it just be that the real comfort is not only in the food but also to be found in the actual cooking. Kneading, stirring, mixing, can all be decidedly therapeutic. Few things soothe more than the feel of warm dough in your hands.
One thing is for certain and that is that we all occasionally need something good to eat to make us feel better. A thick chocolate brownie, a slice of apple pie, a bowl of crumble or a Sunday roast made by mum. Food calms, comforts, hugs and heals. And now is just the time for it.
Nigel Slater’s aubergine ‘cassoulet’
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 4-6)
- 2 aubergines
- Olive oil
- 2 onions
- 3 cloves of garlic
- 250g tomatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- 4 sprigs of thyme
- 3 sprigs of rosemary
- A little tomato puree
- 2 400g tins of haricot beans, drained and rinsed
- 250ml of vegetable stock
For the crust:
- 120g white bread
- 1 tbsp thyme leaves
- Olive Oil
Step 1: Discard the stems of the aubergines, then slice each one in half lengthways, then in half again. Warm three or four tablespoons of olive oil in a deep, heavy-based casserole dish and fry the sliced aubergines till they are soft and nicely golden brown on their cut sides. Remove from the pan and set aside, keeping the oil too.
Step 2: Peel the onions, roughly chop them, then let them cook in the same pan, adding more oil if necessary, for about 10 to fifteen minutes, till soft and pale honey-coloured. Peel and thinly slice the garlic, and stir into the onion as it cooks. Set the oven at 200°C/Gas Mark 6.
Step 3: Roughly chop the tomatoes and add to the onions, together with the bay leaves, and the whole sprigs of thyme and rosemary. Stir in the tomato puree and continue cooking for a good five minutes, then tip the haricot beans, drained and rinsed, the browned aubergines, a generous seasoning of salt and black pepper and the vegetable stock. Partially cover with a lid and leave to simmer for 10 minutes.
Step 4: Reduce the bread to coarse crumbs in a food processor. Add the thyme leaves, process them briefly, then scatter the mixture over the surface of the beans and aubergines.
Step 5: Shake enough olive oil over the crumbs to lightly saturate them, then bake for 25 to 30 minutes, till the crumb crust is crisp and the cassoulet is bubbling around the edges.
From Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries III: A Year Of Good Eating (£9.99, 4th Estate, itunes.apple.com), out now
Gordon Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie with champ topping
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 6)
- Olive oil, for frying
- 1kg minced lamb
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 onion, peeled and diced
- 2 leeks, trimmed, halved lengthways and finely sliced
- 1–2 tbsps Worcestershire sauce
- 1 tbsp tomato purée
- 100ml red wine
- 250ml chicken stock
- 2 rosemary sprigs, leaves only, chopped
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the topping
- 750g potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
- 50g butter
- 3 spring onions, trimmed and finely chopped
- 100g Cheddar cheese, grated
- 50-100ml milk (optional)
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 180ºC/Gas Mark 4.
Step 2: Place a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add a dash of oil and fry the mince in batches, seasoning each lot, until well browned. Add the garlic for the last two minutes. Transfer to a plate.
Step 3: Put a little more oil in the same pan and cook the onion and leeks over a medium heat for 5-7 minutes, until completely softened. Add Worcestershire sauce to taste, then stir in the tomato purée.
Step 4: Return the mince to the pan and stir well. Pour in the wine, scraping up any bits from the bottom. Bubble for a couple of minutes to burn off the alcohol, then add the stock and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer, then add the rosemary and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Cook gently for 10-15 minutes, until the sauce has reduced slightly and the flavours are well combined. Set aside to cool.
Step 5: Meanwhile, prepare the topping. Boil the potatoes until tender, then drain and mash until smooth. Mix in the butter and season, then add the spring onions and three-quarters of the cheese and mix again. Taste and adjust the seasoning as necessary. If the mash is too dry add a splash of milk to loosen.
Step 6: Put the lamb mixture into a 28 x 22cm baking dish and top with the mashed potato. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and a little salt and pepper. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the potato is golden brown and the meat is bubbling underneath, and serve.
Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Home Cooking by Gordon Ramsay (£16.99, Hodder & Stoughton, itunes.apple.com), out now
Mark Hix’s monkfish cheek and fennel pie
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Ingredients (Serves 4)
- 1 litre fish stock
- Fennel bulb, trimmed
- 450–500g monkfish cheeks, trimmed and halved if large
- 70g butter
- 60g plain flour
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsps chopped parsley
- 2 tbsps double cream
- For the topping
- 1–1.2kg potatoes (for mashing), peeled and quartered
- 50–60g butter
- A little milk
- 2–3 tbsps white breadcrumbs
Step 1: Bring the fish stock to the boil in a saucepan. Meanwhile, quarter the fennel bulb, cut into chunks and separate the layers.
Step 2: Add the fennel to the stock and simmer for 6-7 minutes until tender, then remove with a slotted spoon and leave to cool on a plate.
Step 3: Add the monkfish cheeks to the stock and simmer for 2-3 minutes, then drain in a colander over a bowl to reserve the stock.
Step 4: Melt the butter in a heavy-based saucepan, stir in the flour and cook, stirring, over a low heat for about 30 seconds to make a roux.
Step 5: Gradually whisk in the hot stock, keeping the sauce smooth. Season, then simmer for 30-40 minutes. The sauce should be quite thick by now; if not, let it simmer for a little longer.
Step 6: Meanwhile, for the topping, cook the potatoes in a pan of salted water until tender. Drain well and return to the pan over a low heat to dry out for 30 seconds or so.
Step 7: Take off the heat and mash, incorporating the butter and milk. Season to taste.
Step 8: Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6. Stir the monkfish cheeks, fennel, chopped parsley and cream into the sauce.
Step 9: Re-season if necessary, then transfer to a large pie dish or individual ones.
Step 10: Spoon or pipe the mashed potato onto the pies and scatter over the breadcrumbs.
Step 11: Bake for 30 minutes (or 20 minutes for individual pies) until the topping is golden brown and the filling is hot.
From The Collection by Mark Hix (£25, Quadrille, waterstones.com), out now
Mary Berry’s apple pie
Preparation time: 1 hour
Cooking time: 50 minutes
Ingredients (serves 6)
- 175g hard block margarine, plus extra for greasing
- 350g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- about 6 tbsp cold water
- 1kg cooking apples
- Juice of 1 small lemon
- 85g sugar, plus 1 tbsp to glaze
- 1½ tbsps cornflour
- 1 tbsp milk, to glaze
- sugar, for dusting
Step 1: To make the pastry: cut the margarine into cubes and add to the flour in a bowl. Using your fingertips, rub them together until the mixture looks like fine breadcrumbs.
Step 2: Add about 6 tbsps cold water, a spoonful at a time. Mix with a knife until the mixture holds together.
Step 3: Wrap it in cling film, and chill for 30 minutes. Remove half the pastry from the cling film.
Step 4: Flatten the pastry on a floured surface. Roll out the pastry into a 35cm circle the thickness of a pound coin.
Step 5: With floured hands, fold the pastry in half, then in half again, to resemble a fan shape. Place it in the tin with the point in the centre and unfold. This ensures the pastry isn’t over stretched. Don’t grease the tin before or the pastry can stick.
Step 6: Place a baking sheet in the oven and preheat to 220°C (fan 200°C/Gas Mark 7). Peel, core, and slice the apples. Toss in lemon juice, then sugar and cornflour.
Step 7: Turn the apples into the lined tin, and spread the slices, heaping them towards the centre. Brush the pastry rim with milk.
Step 8: Unwrap the remaining pastry, and as before roll it out, fold it into a fan shape and cover the pie.
Step 9: Press down the edges and trim the excess.
Step 10: Crimp the edge. Brush the top with milk and cut a 1cm steam hole in the centre.
Step 11: Re-roll the trimmings, cut out decorative shapes to place on top of the pie, leaving the steam hole clear. Brush the shapes with milk and sift sugar over the pie.
Step 12: Bake for 15 minutes, before reducing the temperature to 180°C (fan 160°C/Gas 4) then bake for a further 30–35 minutes until golden brown.
Mary Berry Cookery Course by Mary Berry (£2.99, DK, itunes.apple.com), out now
Knitted artwork: Jessica Dance
Photography: David Sykes, Jason Lowe, Dorling Kindersley Limted