Comfort cuisine: Seek solace in some stodgy childhood favourites

In uncertain times, we instinctively seek solace in those stodgy old childhood favourites. So it's little wonder shepherd's pies and hot puddings are flying off the shelves
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Hot sausage and mustard; cold jelly and custard: Oliver!'s vision of "Food, Glorious Food" seems horribly dated by today's standards – today, Lionel Bart might be expected to rhyme "fresh tuna sashimi" with "smoked salmon blini" – but as tightening purse strings force shoppers to think twice before splashing out on high-end nosh, nostalgia has set in. From cottage pie to apple crumble, our cupboards are filling up with the kind of comfort food that would have Oliver Twist drooling into his cap.

Despite the revelation that the total volume of the food we buy has gone down for the first time in more than 20 years, pies, puddings and other hearty, penny-saving fare are flying off shelves. In six months from May to October (not a traditional peak for comfort food), Tesco reported a 340 per cent increase in sales of shepherd's pie compared with last year. It's the same story with beef casserole and dumplings (up 279 per cent), rice pudding (62 per cent) and lamb hotpot (a remarkable 615 per cent increase). And it's not only ready meals we're turning to. Lakeland, the kitchenware company, has reported a boom in baking tins, preserving jars and slow cookers.

"There's nothing like a good old plate of pie and mash or a bowl of rice pudding to tuck into and help put a smile back on people's faces," says Tesco's Jonathan Church. "Customers are using old fashioned favourites to give themselves a little bit of a treat in these tough times."

The comfort food revival comes as no surprise to Phillip Hodson, of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. "It's a very natural human reaction to comfort eat at a time of anxiety," he says. "We get huddled around the hearth – it's probably a good time to be a coal merchant – and go back to basics. We want warmth and food and to be protected and ready for what our anxiety tells us may be worse to come."

For Becky Thorn, a primary-school teacher who grew up on a housing estate in Merton, south London, comfort food was the only thing on the menu. "Like the vast majority of children, we would eat meat and two veg," she says. "Casseroles, pies, stews followed by pudding and custard."

How does Thorn, who's just published a nostalgic volume about school dinners, define comfort food today? "It's the soft stuff you don't have to chew," she says. "It's effortless to eat, fills you up and keeps you warm. It takes time to cook so the smells fill the house and get the juices flowing before you lift a fork. And it's made in big batches so you have to sit and share – there's comfort in that, too."

In her kitchen in Worcester Park, not far from her childhood home, Thorn has a book that belonged to her mother. It's filled with handwritten recipes and clippings from colour supplements. Turning its pages one morning, Thorn uncovered a page from an old primary school newsletter. "It was a recipe for butterscotch tart," she says. "I made it for my children, who loved it. They couldn't believe this was what we had at school – for them it's all paninis or packed lunches." Thorn set about collecting more recipes for old canteen favourites and has just published School Dinners: the Good, the Bad and the Spotted Dick. Flicking through Thorn's book is like taking a tour of a museum of food. Her recipes range from the obscure (chocolate and toothpaste tart, anyone?) to the timeless (apple pie) and take in many of the foods now enjoying a renaissance: mince pie (savoury), rice pudding and toad in the hole.

Thorn says comfort food never went out of fashion in her kitchen – there are no pigs' heads on the table, but her daughters know a dumpling when they see one. So why have so many others changed their eating habits? "I think it's just that we've forgotten the things we used to enjoy," she says. "There's a guilt because it's often quite calorific and many of us are put off by memories of things cooked badly or too often. But now I think we've had our fill of ciabatta and focaccia – things are coming full circle."

Thorn also blames a decline in cookery skills. "My parents used to take me shopping so I learnt that if you wanted to make a casserole you needed a certain kind of meat. Now we are more likely to buy premium cuts at a farmer's market. We've got out of the habit of knowing how to cook the less expensive ingredients. If you're going to buy a less premium cut you need to know how to cook it or it will taste like shoe leather."

Thorn admits it's easy to view yesterday's dining through strawberry jam-tinted spectacles. "There's no doubt some of it was revolting," she says. "For me it was all the things without meat. The cheese flan was pretty awful and fish was never good. And while I'm all for slow cooking, I'm pretty sure the cabbage at school had been boiled for about three hours. But the puddings were always great."

Hodson says the new trend for comfort food is as much born of nostalgia for the days when times were tough and the food was wholesome as it is for fish pie and roly poly, but suggests we put the credit crunch into perspective. "I'm a World War Two baby and remember when sweets came off the ration. I would be sent to the butcher's to be told there was no meat. Not being able to get the right kind of sushi isn't quite the same."

Whether the comfort food boom is born of an economic crisis or sentimentality, Thorn is "delighted" by the rush on mince and treacle. "As well as being part of our food heritage, cooking these dishes is a real pleasure," she says. The fact that they're also simple and inexpensive is, you might say, the icing on the ginger cake (served with lemon sauce).

All recipes are from 'School Dinners' by Becky Thorn (Portico, £9.99). To order for £9.49 (with free p&p) go to independentbooksdirect.co.uk; or phone 0870 079 8897

Cottage pie

Serves 4

500g lean minced beef
2 tbsp oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 cup frozen peas
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
pint beef stock
1 kg mashing potatoes
Butter
Milk
Pepper and salt

Preheat the oven to 200C/Gas 6. Heat half the oil in a pan and add the onion. Stir to coat and cook gently until softened but not coloured. Remove to a bowl.

Heat the remaining oil in the pan if needed and add the minced beef. Cook the beef until browned. Keep the mince moving and break up any large lumps of meat with your wooden spoon.

Return the onion to the meat and stir again. Add the tomatoes and peas to the meat in the pan. Slosh in the stock to cover the meat and vegetables. Stir to loosen the stickiness on the bottom of the pan.

Bring up to a simmer and then reduce the heat until the surface of the meat just shivers. Cover and leave for at least an hour and a half, stirring occasionally.

With about 20 minutes to go put the potatoes on to boil. Cutting the potatoes up small will help speed up the cooking process. When cooked through drain well and leave in the colander.

If you have a potato ricer please use as it virtually guarantees lump-free mash. If you don't have one, put it on your birthday list and get a child or a guest to mash the potato for you. Doing this prevents them from complaining that the mash is lumpy as they made it! Stir in butter and milk to taste.

After about an hour and a half the stock should have reduced to thickish gravy and the mince should be very tender. If the gravy isn't as thick as you want it raise the temperature and reduce the sauce down further. Check seasoning. Pour the meat into a baking dish and top with the potatoes. Bake for 25 minutes or until the topping is golden and bubbly.

Lancashire hotpot

Serves 4

750g leg of lamb
2 onions
500ml water or stock
2 tbsp flour
Pepper and salt
Herbs (thyme if you have it)
Potatoes, thinly sliced (on a mandolin if you are cavalier about keeping your fingers)
Lidded casserole dish
Oil
Butter

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Cut the lamb into cubes.

Place the flour into a bowl and season well with the salt and pepper. Toss the meat in the flour and coat well. Leave to one side for a few minutes. The flour is important as it makes your gravy.

Slice the onions very finely and mix in with the floured lamb cubes.

Place a layer of potato slices in the bottom of your lidded casserole dish or hotpot if you have one. This doesn't have to look beautiful as it is on the bottom!

Add in half the lamb and onion mix. Sprinkle in a little thyme at this point. Cover with more potato slices and repeat.

When adding the top layer of potato take time to overlap the potato as school cook's pride is at stake. Try to make it look reasonably tidy.

Add the stock or water until just under the top layer of potatoes. Dot the top with butter or brush the top with a little melted butter. Cover and bake for at least 2 hours.

After 2 hours remove the lid and brush or dot again with the butter. Pop under a grill until the top is browned and crispy.

Serve from in front of a large map of the UK so everyone knows from whence this wondrous dish originates.

Fruit crumble

Serves 4

Crumble topping

250g plain flour
125g butter or margarine
125g sugar

Fruit filling

Enough fruit to fill the bottom of a large baking dish (choose from rhubarb, plum, apricot, apple, pear or whatever you can scrump!)
Sugar to taste

Preheat oven to 200C/Gas 6

Cut up the fruit into manageable pieces (with rhubarb about 2cm or 1in sticks), halve stone fruit and remove stones, cut apples and pears into good-sized chunks.

Lay in the bottom of a deep baking dish. Be generous.

Try a small piece of fruit and add sugar to taste. You can liven up this dish with spices if you like. Rhubarb works well with ginger, apples go well with cinnamon and pears love a splash of red wine.

Place the flour, butter and sugar into a separate bowl and rub together with your fingers until the mix resembles breadcrumbs.

Pour this mixture over the fruit and bake for 30 minutes until the fruit is bubbling away.

Leave to stand for a few minutes. The word volcanic is not an exaggeration! Serve with custard.

Rice pudding

Serves 4

50g pudding rice
1 pint full-fat milk
25g sugar
25g butter
Grated nutmeg

Preheat oven to 150C/Gas 2. Wash the rice and place in a buttered gratin-type dish.

Pour over the milk and stir in the sugar. Place in the oven and stir every 15 minutes for the first hour. Grate a little fresh nutmeg over the surface of the pudding and place back in the oven for the final hour's cooking until the surface is golden.

Serve with rosehip syrup or a dollop of jam.

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