A GBBO Winner Shares Her Three Go-To Comfort Foods

For Sunday Times columnist, pub landlord and 2016’s Great British Bake Off winner Candice Brown, the kitchen has always been a happy place. In her second book, Happy Cooking, she focuses on the uplifting meals and comforting treats that have seen her through some of the toughest of times. Here, she tells us why there’s no point striving for perfection in the kitchen and shares three of her favourite comfort food classics…
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For me, food has always been about more than just eating. It is the cooking, the process – from start to finish – that I love. Even when it doesn’t go to plan, cooking raises my spirits. It still usually tastes good even if it’s not what I planned. Cooking is a saviour for me. Learning from mistakes and knowing what to do to improve it next time – it’s how I learn to be a better cook and is also a kind of therapy for me.

The kitchen has always been my happy place. My first memories of my nan are in the kitchen, me stood next to her watching her make pastry, Yorkshire puddings and my grandad’s favourite cakes. The kitchen is the place I always gravitate to, whether it’s at a family gathering, friends’ houses, parties or visiting restaurants – I’ll always ask for a little look or try to linger there. It’s the only place I feel completely at ease.

I cook and bake when I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m bored, anxious or fidgety – which I now know is sometimes down to my ADHD – when that dark cloud surrounds me like a thick, heavy burden and I have no idea why. It’s my place. Cooking has got me through some proper shit times, and it continues to do so.

My mental health is something I hadn’t spoken about until fairly recently, but it is something I’ve been battling with for quite a few years. I have had days where I didn’t want to get out of bed, I’ve cancelled plans, not spoken to family and friends and felt completely useless. But I have also accomplished things I never thought possible – and this is because I found something I love doing. Cooking at home puts me in my comfort zone and cooking outside my kitchen pushes me out of my comfort zone too, which is a good thing.

Our lives are busy, sometimes chaotic and often unexpected things happen. Things change, don’t go to plan, derail us, upset us, shock us and that’s okay. What we need to do, sometimes, is just slow down, take time and take stock of the things that we enjoy and that make us happy – or at least smile for a while. We can often forget to look out for number one and get easily overwhelmed. We need to ensure we take time for ourselves. Cooking gives me confidence when I feel my least confident. It reminds me I can do something good, that I can make people smile and bring joy to others through something I’ve done myself.

Inspired? Here are three of Candice’s favourite comfort classics to try at home? 

Brown Butter Macaroni Cheese

This is the best macaroni cheese I’ve ever tasted and, believe me, I’ve tasted a lot. It’s the ultimate comfort food. Mum used to make it in bulk and freeze it so I could take it to university and my housemates were always jealous. This version is next level though – tart with gherkins, a little kick of heat and nutty from the brown butter and all the cheese. If you’ve got some crisps lying around, scrunch them up and whack them on top too.

Serves

Serves: 4

Total Time

1 Hour

Ingredients

250g of dried macaroni
50g of unsalted butter
100g of plain flour
700ml of whole milk
150g of emmental cheese, grated
150g of gherkins or cornichons, roughly chopped
4 spring onions, roughly chopped
100g of jalapeño chillies, roughly chopped
150g of brie
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method

Step 1

Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas Mark 4.

Step 2

To make the topping, melt the butter in a small saucepan over a medium heat. Once it has melted, leave it to foam and then turn a rich dark brown colour, scraping the bottom of the pan so it doesn’t burn. Remove from the heat.

Step 3

Blitz the breadcrumbs, parsley, dill and garlic together in a food processor. Mix this through the brown butter and set aside.

Step 4

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil over a high heat and add the macaroni. Cook until al dente (with a slight bite as it will finish cooking in the oven). Drain and set aside.

Step 5

Add the butter to a large saucepan and melt over a medium heat. Once melted, allow the butter to foam and turn a golden to rich brown colour – use a spatula or wooden spoon to scrape any bits off the bottom of the pan to prevent it burning.

Step 6

Add the flour and mix to cook out the flour – this may take a couple of minutes. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly, until it is all incorporated and then continue to mix until the sauce has completely thickened and coats the back of a wooden spoon.

Step 7

While the sauce is still hot, stir through the emmental cheese until melted. Stir the gherkins, spring onions and jalapeños through the cheese sauce and add salt and pepper to taste. Tip the cooked macaroni into the cheese sauce and fold through until evenly combined.

Step 8

Tip into a 25 x 30cm ovenproof dish.

Step 9

Slice the brie lengthways and lay across the top of the macaroni cheese, then sprinkle over the brown butter breadcrumbs.

Step 10

Bake for 25-30 minutes until the edges are bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown. Serve hot and gooey.
Lemon-y Tomato & Pepper Cod Parcels

Anything seafood, I’m there. These little parcels of tastiness are so fast to make, and you can put everything in together, so it’s minimal fuss, mess and prep. If cod is too expensive or you can’t get it, then go for another sustainable white fish such as haddock or pollock, which both work beautifully. The little parcels make you feel quite fancy too, plus all the veg in there means you’re getting those vitamins and minerals to keep you fighting fit even though you may not feel it.

Serves

Serves: 2

Total Time

30 Minutes

Ingredients

1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped into small pieces
1 handful of mangetout thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into matchsticks
1 garlic clove, crushed
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
2 cod fillets or loin, skin on olive oil
2 vines of cherry tomatoes, with about 6-8 tomatoes on each
1 small handful of fresh dill, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g of cooked couscous, to serve

Method

Step 1

Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C Fan/Gas Mark 4.

Step 2

Put the pepper, mangetout, ginger, garlic, lemon zest and juice and some salt and pepper in a bowl. Give it a really good mix, then add the cod and gently rub the marinade into the fish.

Step 3

Place a large piece of foil on a flat baking tray and drizzle over some oil. Place the cod on top and tip over the lemony vegetables. Top each piece of cod with one of the tomato vines.

Step 4

Drizzle over a little more oil. Fold up the edges of the foil and roll the top down to make a large, sealed parcel.

Step 5

Bake for 15 minutes – if the cod is thick, it may need slightly longer. The fish should flake away easily when cooked.

Step 6

Remove from the oven and undo the parcel. Gently lift out the cod and vegetables, place on top of some cooked couscous and sprinkle over some freshly chopped dill.
Whack-It-All-In Chocolate Cornflake Rocky Road

The title basically says it all. Any leftover chocolate, old Easter eggs or odd biscuits, whack it all in, melt it together and pop it in the fridge. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can theme it for different times of the year – bunnies and chicks for Easter, snowflakes and reindeer for Christmas. Other cereal works well, too.

Serves

Serves: 9

Total Time

45 Minutes

Ingredients

250g of dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids for a more grown-up flavour), chopped or dark chocolate chips
125g of unsalted butter, cubed
4 tbsp of golden syrup
100g of cornflakes
100g of oaty biscuits
75g of dried cherries
50g of sultanas
100g of marshmallows either mini or larger ones roughly chopped
50g of pecans
50g of white chocolate, chopped or white chocolate chips

Method

Step 1

Heat a saucepan of water over a medium heat until simmering. Place a heatproof bowl over the saucepan, but don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl (this is a bain-marie).

Step 2

Put the dark chocolate, butter and golden syrup in the bowl and melt slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once melted, remove from the heat and leave to cool slightly.

Step 3

Stir through the cornflakes. Break up the oaty biscuits, then add them to the melted chocolate along with the remaining ingredients, except the chocolate caramel bars and white chocolate.

Step 4

Gently fold through so everything is evenly coated in melted chocolate.

Step 5

Line a 20cm x 20cm baking dish with greaseproof paper and scrape the mixture evenly into the tray. Gently spread it out but leave it jagged and lumpy.

Step 6

Break or cut up the chocolate caramel bars and dot over the top.

Step 7

Melt the white chocolate in a bain-marie or in 20-second bursts in a microwave. Drizzle the melted chocolate over the top of the rocky road, then transfer to the fridge to set for 20-30 minutes for a soft-set rocky road.

Step 8

Any leftovers will keep in an airtight container in the fridge or a cool place for up to one week.

Happy Cooking by Candice Brown is out now via Ebury Press. Photography: Ellis Parrinder.

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