Illustration by Elling Lien
Since Christmas, my daughter has graduated from having storybooks read to her at bedtime. It’s all about chapter books now. I had always imagined that the first chapter books I would read to her would be the ones I love: The Secret Garden, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Chronicles of Narnia. Wholesome classics to give her a sense of what literature should be. No dice. Her preference is for the books in the Disney Fairies series, starring Tinker Bell and a host of fairies and sparrow men (apparently boy fairies aren’t fairies, not even in Pixie Hollow) who use their talents to solve problems and to whom nothing particularly bad ever happens.
At ten chapters and about 90 pages a pop, we’re zipping through them. They’re not nearly as vomitrocious as they could be—as far as the Disney crap factory goes, this is almost tasteful—and I can’t help but love how much my daughter loves them. Last night, after we started another volume in this seemingly (and lucratively) unending series, she asked me which one of the fairies was my favourite. Naturally, I answered that it was Dulcie, a baking-talent fairy who delights the other fairies with her cakes and biscuits and poppy-puff rolls. It was kind of a default answer: I’ll admit, I have a hard time remembering the names of the other fairies, which ones talk to animals and which ones make bubbles and which ones make babies laugh or whatever the hell.
But Dulcie is my girl. In one recent adventure, she suffers from baking burnout, never having taken a day off in as long as anyone could remember. Her cakes are flat, breakfasts are disastrous, her mojo is lost, and Dulcie is forced by the queen to take some time off, much to her indignation. Not knowing quite what to do with herself, she starts kicking around the library, where she finds an ancient fairy recipe for “Comforte Cayke.” Well, Dulcie, like any of us food nerds with occasionally impaired mojo, is bound and determined to follow the recipe through, despite the fact that it is written in ancient fairy language, and that the ingredients only appear on the page one at a time, after the one before has been procured.
To cut to the end, Dulcie gathers her ingredients, sneaks into the kitchen, bakes the cake using her instincts (there are no directions, like in many ancient recipes), and just when the whole thing looks like a complete flop, the cake magically rises into a magnificent display of home-baked deliciousness. The Comforte Cayke is a success, and indeed it brings comfort to all the fairies and sparrow men, Dulcie gets her job back, and six-year-old girls get to go to sleep happy.
But here’s the cool part: when the fairies eat Ye Olde Comforte Cayke, it tastes different to each one of them. Because, of course, comfort food is something different for everybody. I, for one, hit the peanut butter and banana sandwiches pretty hard when I’m in need of a big foodular hug. Buttery mashed potatoes and tinned corn niblets are another comfort food standby. My mother’s chicken curry with a side of yogurt and tinned peaches was a university-era favourite. It’s essential to make too much rice so that there’s extra for making old-fashioned baked rice pudding later, with raisins and cinnamon, eaten warm with cream poured on top.
There’s an attitude in our culture that “emotional eating” is somehow the wrong kind of eating. I think that’s ridiculous. Eating is, by nature, emotional. Foods wouldn’t have mood-altering qualities if we weren’t supposed to use them to alter our moods. If you survey people’s comfort foods, most of them involve a one-two hit of sugar or starch and fats—pasta Alfredo, chicken pot pie, bread and butter, chocolate chip cookies and milk, a hot turkey sandwich and fries submerged in a pool of gravy. This makes sense: the carbs elevate your mood, and the fats stabilize it for a while. It’s not going to make your troubles go away, but it might normal you up long enough to put things in perspective, or to at least stop crying for a while. How on earth can this be a bad thing? As I’ve said many times before, the value of food isn’t just to be found in its nutritional profile, but also in how it makes you feel. If chocolate cake with a big scoop of ice cream transports you to a happier place for a little while when you’re feeling down, then that has great value. We all need to take our comfort where we can find it sometimes.
Almost-Instant Macaroni and Cheese
Macaroni and cheese is a classic comfort food. I first found this method for making it in Nigella Lawson’s Nigella Express, but it turns out it has a long history. I’ve adopted it because it uses an egg-based sauce instead of one with flour, which means I don’t have to go fiddling around to de-gluten-ize it. Essentially, the noodles are baked in a cheese custard. One warning: be very careful that you don’t cook the sauce too long, or the eggs will harden and go kind of scrambly. It’s just as delicious this way, but it loses some of the silkiness that makes it so warm-fuzzy-blankety.
Serves 4 (or one, on a very hard day)
250 grams macaroni noodles of choice (I use brown rice pasta in elbow or corkscrew shapes)
3 cups loosely packed grated sharp cheddar cheese (250 grams by weight)
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
½ teaspoon prepared yellow mustard
dash Worcestershire sauce
salt and pepper to taste
1. Cook pasta according to package directions in well-salted water. Heat oven to 450F.
2. While pasta is cooking, combine all other ingredients in a large bowl.
3. Drain pasta and return to pot. Add sauce ingredients and stir over very low heat until cheese has melted and sauce has just begun to thicken.
4. Transfer pasta and sauce to a shallow baking dish (I use a cast-iron frying pan), and place in the oven, until the top has begun to brown, about 8-10 minutes. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t burn. Remove from oven and serve.
Feel free to customize your mac and cheese with a topping of bread crumbs, sliced tomatoes, cooked bacon, a handful of green peas, a blend of favourite cheeses, whatever makes you feel happy.