On Friday night, I was driving home from a very good talk by Ben Campbell at the library and listening to my radio, when it suddenly started to send out shock waves ofNoelinto the unseasonably warm night air. With that familiar refrain, I suddenly realized that it was Twelfth Night. Because, as I've already alluded, I'm a creature of idiosyncratic culinary habits tied to all sorts of things, certainly including but not limited to the ecclesiastical calendar, I realized with delight that I'd therefore be producing the beloved cauliflower and Stilton soup over the weekend, for around here, Twelfth Night and Stilton soup go hand in hand. It all goes back to my Christmas obsession with Stilton. I grew up with a creamy round of Stilton being an integral part of the fabric of the holidays as, I imagine, it is in most English households. Even before I was old enough to love the musty blue cheese myself, I loved all of the accoutrements that it brought with it. The monogrammed Stilton "shovel" used to dig the green-veined cheese from the very heart of the round, the little glasses of port that accompanied it, the table water biscuits, the walnuts and the old familiar nut cracker, etched with complicated squiggles, that added the sound of a nice resounding crunch to the festivities.
Since I've been a grown-up (in theory at least) I've taken great pains to ensure that there's always a beautiful round of Stilton to make its first appearance here on Christmas Eve. Year's ago, finding it was quite a production. I originally would have to have it shipped from England and then from New York. About fifteen years ago I was able to get it in Richmond, as long as I "special ordered" it months in advance. In recent years, of course, it's been much more easily attainable, usually no more difficult than sallying forth to Whole Foods. They are a bit alarmed when I instruct them to cut a 2-inch round off the top of the best Neal's Yard Stilton they have, and somewhat taken aback by the astronomical price that the computer spits out for my purchase. What they don't know, however, is that this is my annual, over-the-top Christmas present to me, and that it's probably my only non-negotiable Christmas purchase.
As an aside, when I went to pay for it this year, the cashier told me that as of January 1, Whole Foods was no longer accepting checks. I was completely horrified and said, " Oh dear, then this is the last time I'll be shopping here." My sister tells me that I'm the last person in the world who doesn't have a smart phone and who refuses to use a debit card. I may be a fairly unreconstructed Luddite--although, I have a blog for goodness sake--in that I just like to write checks. I suppose it's because it reminds me of my school days in England when an overdraft would get me a crisp note from my bank manager in Petersfield who'd have me in for a little talk which was a very gentle rebuke from an exceedingly long-suffering, very nice man. All a bit Downton Abbey now that I think about it.
In any case, the Stilton is doled out around here, all through the twelve days of Christmas. It's trotted out, of course, as an option to round out every dinner. It's the star accompaniment to several meals of beef and barley soup when it's teamed up with very good bread. I think it snuck its way into some omelets and I'm pretty sure certain household "mice" were nibbling away at other, random times by the way in which it slowly but surely began to resemble more of a Stilton donut, rather than a Stilton hubcap.
It's last great shinning moment is in this soup. I don't know where the recipe came from but I've always made it at this time of year. I may have devised it myself in recognition of my previously discussed obsession with cauliflower cheese, or I may have gotten it from someone else. Only one thing is sure. Sometime next December, I shall be writing a rather large check somewhere or other for a large round ofthe best Stilton I can find. It just won't be to Whole Foods.
Cauliflower and Stilton Soup
1 very large head of cauliflower, cut into smallish florets (about 3 pounds)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 medium onions, finely chopped
3 ribs of celery, finely chopped
3 leeks (carefully cleaned, white and pale green parts only) chopped
1/2 cup flour
6 cups chicken stock
2 cups whole milk
8 ounces (or more) Stilton, rind removed and chopped into large chunks
ground white pepper, salt and smoked paprika
Melt butter in a large, heavy soup pot over medium heat. Add onion, leeks, celery and cauliflower. Cover and cook until onion is tender but not browned, stirring frequently, about 15 minutes. Add flour and stir about 2 minutes. Gradually stir in stock and milk. Bring to a boil and reduce heat. Cover partially and simmer until vegetables are very tender and soup thickens, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.
Turn heat off soup and blend until desired consistency with an immersion blender. Bring soup to simmer, thinning with more milk if desired. Gradually add Stilton stirring until melted. Season to taste with white pepper and salt, and serve with a sprinkling of pimenton over each bowl of soup.