Love her or loathe her, you’ve got to admire Nigella Lawson. From her flirtatious sideways glances at the camera to her sensuous spoon licking, she has single-handedly made home cooking sexy. I’ve long been a fan of the domestic goddess and her unapologetic pursuit of pleasure. “No one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating; the only thing to feel guilty about is the failure to feel grateful for that pleasure”, she writes in her latest culinary tome, Cook, Eat Repeat. “I see every mealtime, every mouthful, as a celebration of life.”
In our current climate of clean eating and mindful drinking, Nigella’s approach – in viewing food as a passport to pleasure rather than a necessary source of fuel – is reassuring, particularly now, when food is one of the few pleasures left available to us as the nation, once again, goes into a lockdown. January is a bleak month at the best of times. Throw in a pandemic spiralling out of control and it’s easy to feel desolate. To help me get through the month, I’m going to be focusing on comfort food, cooking carb-laden dishes that satiate and soothe.
Aiding me in my quest for comfort is Nigella’s new cookbook, which I gave to my stepmother for Christmas and received two copies in return. She touches on the pleasure of food in her introduction: “Food is a constant source of pleasure: I like to think greedily about it, reflect deeply on it, learn from it; it provides comfort, inspiration, meaning and beauty, as well as sustenance and structure.” Oscar Wilde believed that people were either charming or tedious. I tend to think that, when it comes to food, people fall into two camps: those that live to eat and those who eat to live. I’m firmly in the former and find those in the latter hard to relate to.
Like restaurants, all cookbooks have their signature dishes, and Nigella’s crab mac and cheese is likely to emerge as the must-make plate within Cook, Eat, Repeat. It first entered my consciousness when my friend Phoebe French, a fiercely talented young cook, sent me a photo of her version, which I spent minutes drooling over. Rather than macaroni, the dish is made with the more sophisticated, and beautiful, conchiglie rigati – their shell shape is perfectly suited to cradling pools of the rich, crab-laced sauce. It also features lashings of one of my favourite cheeses – Gruyère.
Lawson’s recipe riffs on a modern restaurant classic – lobster mac and cheese – one of the signature dishes at diner deluxe Bob Bob Ricard in Soho. In order for it to work, she insists on equal amounts of white and brown crab meat, the former offering subtle sweetness and the latter the intense briny taste of the sea. Rather than being drowned out by the tang of the cheese or the heat of the paprika, the flavour of the crab remains defiantly (albeit discreetly) in the foreground, giving the sauce an alluring depth and richness beyond its crowd-pleasing cheesiness.
The pairing of baked pasta and cheese dates back to the 14th century, when a pasta and Parmesan dish appeared in the Italian cookbook Liber de Coquina. At the same time a pasta and cheese casserole, crafted from hand-cut pasta sandwiched between a layer of melted butter and cheese, made a cameo in the English culinary tome Forme of Cury. The first modern recipe for macaroni cheese appeared in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1770 cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper, and featured a mornay sauce made by marrying béchamel with Cheddar.
With only white crabmeat to hand, I made the dish the day after Boxing Day and hoped the lack of briny brown crab wouldn’t detract from the enjoyment of it. I’ve always loved the lull between Christmas and New Year when the architecture of your days is shaped around your next meal. If only life could always be like that. I added more Gruyère than the recipe required – I always do with cheese – and was happy with how it turned out for a first attempt, the smokiness of the paprika working well with the nutty tang of the cheese and the salty sweetness of the crab.
Nigella suggests pouring any leftover sauce over a pile of nachos – an inspired idea I’m keen to try if I haven’t hoovered it all up first. The beauty of this dish is its ability to deliver on the comfort front while also being sophisticated enough to serve to a lover you’re trying to impress. It’s both opulent and elegant, and has already become a firm favourite of mine. You can find a link to the recipe here – I urge you to give it a go. Nigella recommends enjoying it with a flinty white or Provence rosé. Mine paired a treat with Gusbourne’s glorious 2018 Guinevere Chardonnay.