Comfort food is food that makes you feel warm and safe. It should be more than just mindless munching (although that's good, too), extending beyond your tastebuds to nourish the body, warm the soul and calm the mind.
That's the criteria behind the smorgasbord here of the 20 most comforting things in food right now. Each one had to pass the strictest of psychological tests – did it make us feel better? Did it soothe anxiety while at the same time stimulating the brain? Is there chocolate involved? Yep, yep and frequently.
But food can only do so much. It's the warmth of togetherness, the sharing and the social interaction with family and friends that's the most comforting thing of all. Hold them tight if you have them with you, and look forward to getting together once again if you don't. In the meantime, let's raise an Irish coffee to things that bring us comfort – and pass the pan-fried cheese toastie.
1. Breakfast and friends
Why get out of bed, you ask? One word: breakfast. Or if it's that late, brunch. Order in Pepe Saya's breakfast box of crumpets, cultured butter, lemon curd and creme fraiche ($35, Australia-wide delivery) for a lazy weekend feast and you'll barely need to wake up.
In NSW, This Is Us partners with Black Star Pastry founder Christopher Thé to bake the squishiest, spongiest sourdough crumpets ($7 for four) for Harris Farm Markets, ready to pop in the toaster and slather with butter and honey.
In Melbourne, pick up St Ali's community breakfast box, with Pepe Saya butter, Uncle's Smallgoods bacon, Riverina milk, Ned's Bake sourdough, Burd eggs, and Orthodox coffee beans ($55), and see out the apocalypse in style. JD
Xiao long bao dumplings from Din Tai Fung. Photo: Wayne Taylor
2. Frozen dumplings for the low-energy win
We're talking local, quality dumplings from the likes of Din Tai Fung (delivering frozen xiao long bao across Sydney and Melbourne), Hutong (Melbourne deliveries only) and Big Sam Young (Sydney deliveries only).
Serve them as is (either steam or pan-fry with a splash of water for tender skins and crisp bottoms) or pop them in some good broth with egg noodles and Asian greens for wonton soup. Many supermarkets stock decent frozen dumplings that are made locally, too. Unsure? Check the back of the packet for the list of ingredients. MR
Cinnamon scrolls made by Danielle Alvarez. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
3. Cinnamon scrolls, the unexpected baked treat of iso
Why are we so obsessed with dough? Is it that soothing connection with food that comes with being elbows deep in a soft, soon-to-be-edible blob?
Whatever it is, cinnamon scrolls (those buttery, cinnamon-perfumed North America-by-way-of-Eastern Europe baked treats) have been emblematic of lockdown, a sure-fire way to bed down in some deep culinary comfort. MR
4. Bake a Basque cheesecake, rake in those Instagram hearts
Deeply browned outside (OK, scorched; OK, charred), and insanely smooth, rich cheese custard inside, Basque cheesecake is everyone's favourite new baking project.
In Victoria, find it at Melbourne's Marion, Attica and Estelle, inspired by the wood-fired cheesecake cooling on the counter at La Vina in San Sebastian. NSW, you're going to have to bake your own from Dani Valent's recipe below, which is even better. JD
5. Bring back the Irish coffee
It's unlikely anyone born after 1980 will have tried one of these, but it's time spiked coffee regained its rightful place in the winter comfort cannon. Happily, it's a cocktail that can be modernised from its 1940s roots without too much fuss.
Basically, it's a teaspoon of sugar (or honey/agave/stevia), 60ml of hot, fresh brewed espresso (try pour-over method for this, for extra show-off points), 30ml Irish whiskey and a spoonful of whipped cream on top for full retro glory. You could eschew that final flourish, but what would be the fun in that? MR
6. Batch your own negronis
Convenience can play a large role in the pursuit of comfort. Especially in these uncertain times where planning can feel like failing in advance. But there's an easy answer, which means you always have a cocktail on hand, whether you have company or flying solo. And one that requires little more than a clean bottle or jar with a lid, ice, equal parts gin, Campari, sweet vermouth and a maximum of 20 minutes of your time to stir down those ingredients, pop the lid on and refrigerate.
If making them yourself is a bridge too far, consider ordering them online from the professionals. Made in the Shade (the guys behind Melbourne's Heartbreaker, The Everleigh and Bar Margaux) deliver nation-wide. MR
Spicy dark hot chocolates. Photo: Katrina Meynink
7. Hot chocolate for one
Why for one? Because hot chocolate is personal. Heat 200ml milk with 30g grated dark (70 per cent) chocolate, 1 tablespoon dark bitter cocoa powder, and 1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk (which brings deep caramel sweetness), whisking until smooth. Strain into a coffee cup and top with whipped cream and grated chocolate. JD
8. The unbridled joy of a perfectly crunchy roast potato, with accompaniments
A roast jacket potato is the perfect way to transfer some warm vibes to your dining room. Heighten this by attempting the DIY potato bar. Bake your spuds into golden, yielding perfection then lay a table with bowls of sour cream, chopped fresh chives, trout roe, bacon pieces, whipped butter and, because sometimes in these trying times you need a whiff of excess, fresh truffle.
At $2-$2.50 a gram (you'll need 2-3g per potato) from any central market in Victoria, Harris Farm in NSW or specialty luxury food stores nationwide, it's excessive but not inconceivable. Just imagine slathering a hot potato in butter, then hitting it with the earthy musk of truffle shavings. Any leftovers can be stirred through your scrambled eggs for breakfast the next day. Unapologetic, luxurious comfort – it's the only way to fly. MR
- Also try: Jill Dupleix's baked potato with sour cream and prawns
- 20 recipes to make the most of truffle season
9. Red wine recipes
Coq au vin, boeuf Bourguignon (pictured), Tuscan beef peposo – so long as it has red wine in it, you'll be fine. And it might sound criminal, but if you simmer a bottle of red wine until it has reduced by half, you'll have an incredibly deep, rich reduction to add to your stews, sauces and the world's greatest red wine risotto. JD
10. Cooking with cast iron
All the best comfort dishes are cooked in a cast-iron pan, from a crusty steak (chef Neil Perry swears by it) to cinnamon scrolls, baked beans, shakshuka, frittata, paella and pizza. Our two favourite brands are America's Lodge and Australia's SolidTeknics. They're heavy but not too heavy to move from stove-top to oven and back again, and are beautiful to serve directly from at the table or on the couch. lodgecookware.com.au, solidteknics.com JD
11. Easy, cheesy fondue
Nick Haddow of Bruny Island Cheese has pre-melted your next cheese fondue for you, genius that he is. You just pop the gooey cheese – a combo of Bruny Island's seriously good Raw Milk C2 and George cheeses – into a pan with some milk, and gently heat. Serve with crusty bread, salumi and pickles, or just pour the lot over a whole steamed cauliflower. Hearts (and cheese) melted. brunyislandcheese.com.au JD
12. Roast chook, of course
It's comfort central, and brings everyone to the table. Best on ground: Simon Sandall's whole roast chicken, chips, roast cauliflower salad and gravy to take home ($56) from Boronia Kitchen in Hunters Hill, NSW. In Melbourne, the ultimate bird in hand is stuffed with black truffles and spit-roasted at Philippe ($100), available via providoor.com.au.
Or elevate your own roast chook at home with Good Food's favourite truss-worthy birds: Sommerlad heritage chickens, Bannockburn and Game Farm. To elevate the cooking of your chook, Google our current fave, Samin Nosrat's buttermilk chicken. JD
- 40 next-level roast chicken recipes (featuring Adam Liaw's roast chicken on bacon and potatoes, pictured)
13. Sausages and all their possibilities
Can there be anything more comforting than sausage and mash? Sure, it's got that school dinner retro appeal going for it as a dish, and when so many of us are craving stability and risk-free dining experiences it's hard to make an argument against it. But there are other possibilities when it comes to the snag, which makes the choice of sausage so very important.
Take a couple of Italian-style pork and fennel sausages from, say, Brenta Meats in Melbourne or Vic's in Sydney, skin 'em, and crumble into a pan with a little olive oil on a very low heat and you've immediately got the base for a fantastic pasta sauce. They can be turned into meatballs, burgers, and, as Richard Cornish wrote back in 2018, a good-quality banger is better baked in the oven. MR
Miso caramel sundae. Photo: Katrina Meynink
14. Hot fudge sundae
Creating a banging sundae is as simple as making a salted chocolate ganache, and pouring it – still warm – over a few scoops of quality vanilla ice-cream. Add a handful of chopped, roasted peanuts or almonds, crushed honeycomb, and a sliced banana if you're feeling pious. Or try Katrina Meynink's miso caramel sundae. A cool treat to warm the soul. MR
15. Statement cauliflower
This is the winter the vegetable that's been steadily climbing the vegetarian hit parade became the centrepiece of the dining table. The statement cauliflower: whole, roasted, topped with a comforter of herbs, capers, garlic and oil.
16. Porridge is what's for breakfast
Cheap, nutritious, filling, and delicious – what's not to love about porridge? And all you need is 10 minutes and a wooden spoon. Combine one scant cup of porridge oats with 1½ cups of water, half a cup of milk and a pinch of sea salt and bring up to the boil, stirring. Simmer on low for 7 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and creamy. Top with brown sugar, honey, a dash of milk, banana, rhubarb or berries. JD
17. The laziest baked ravioli in town
Lovers of convenience and good company, this one's for you. Pasta purists, avert your eyes. Buy the best frozen cheese-stuffed ravioli you can find. Throw them in a pot over a low heat with a few tins of crushed tomatoes, season to taste, then tip the lot into an oiled casserole dish and top with a mix of torn mozzarella and parmesan. Cook at 180C until everyone's made friends in the dish and the cheese is melted and golden (about 15 minutes). Take out of the oven, give the lot a little drizzle of olive oil, throw some torn herbs over if you have any handy, and place on the table and let everyone (or just you) have at it. So much soul warmth, so little time to prepare. MR
Cheese toastie from Penny's Cheese Shop in Sydney. Photo: Chris Pearce
18. Old-school pan-fried ham and cheese sandwich
There are times nothing else will do, quite frankly. To serve two people, spread some nice soft butter on four slices of bread (both sides, double the fun). Place two slices side by side in a hot, dry frypan and load with grated tasty and gruyere cheese. Top with thin slices of leg ham, slather with Dijon mustard, add more cheese, then gently press the remaining bread on top. Cook for 2 minutes until golden and firm to the touch, then flip and cook until golden, melty, oozing and so crisp it makes a noise when you bite into it. JD
19. Anything on a kid's menu
Think about it. The stuff on a kid's menu is small, straightforward and comes with tomato sauce. THAT'S WHAT WE WANT TOO. Namely, chicken parma, sausages and mash, and spag bol. Recreate your favourite cafe's baked beans on toast, crumbed fish or soft-boiled eggs with Vegemite soldiers, then serve house-made ice-cream with honeycomb sprinkles like the Builders Arms in Fitzroy, Melbourne. (Hold the tomato sauce for that one.) JD
S'mores - gooey marshmallow biscuit sandwiches. Photo: Edwina Pickles
20. Campfire cooking and backyard s'mores
Is there anything quite so effective as a mental reset than sitting in front of an open fire in the middle of winter? There's something profoundly restorative about staring into the flames, watching the embers burn down to a soft, ambient glow, and then cooking something delicious over them.
The set-up can be as lo-fi as a $20 charcoal box that packs down flat, or half a 44-gallon drum propped up with a few bricks can make for an incredibly serviceable outdoor fireplace. Just add some strong mesh or a barbecue plate on top to grill on, or leave it open and make s'mores.
American Graham crackers (the base for all s'mores) are now available in specialty supermarkets, as is Hershey's milk chocolate. Just toast your marshmallow to desired gooeyness, then sandwich between a piece of chocolate and two crackers and wait for the marshmallow heat to do its melting magic.
Of course, all the bougie options of the rainbow are available to you if aesthetics play a larger part in your fire-making, but ultimately you're just looking to contain the flames and make something that's a joy to be near. MR
I first ate this jiggly, creamy cloud of joy at La Vina, the San Sebastian pintxos bar famous for its Basque cheesecake. One bite and my mission was clear: get the recipe. And so I did, notwithstanding my embarrassment as the chef enunciated "feel-uh-delf-ya" about 20 times before I understood which cream cheese he used. For something so incredibly delicious, this cake is surprisingly simple. I urge you not to omit the high border of baking paper – this cake rises spectacularly before subsiding somewhat. Take your Basque beauty out of the oven when it's slightly firm to the touch but still a little jiggly and let it cool completely before removing from the tin to eat.
- 6 eggs
- 900g cream cheese, chopped in cubes
- 300g white sugar
- 400g pouring cream (thickened is fine)
- 30g flour
- Preheat oven to 180C fan-forced (200C conventional). Line a 22cm springform tin with baking paper, ensuring the paper extends 10cm beyond the top of the tin.
- Place eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer and mix until combined.
- Add cream cheese and blend until smooth, stopping to scrape the sides of the bowl as necessary.
- Add sugar and mix until smooth.
- Add cream and mix until smooth.
- Add flour and mix until smooth.
- Pour the cheesecake mixture into the lined tin and bake for 1 hour.
- Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in the tin. To serve, carefully open the springform tin, peel away the paper and transfer to a serving plate. You could serve it with berries or just keep your bliss pure!
Check the cake is ready using the "jiggle test": you want a little bit of wobble in the centre and not too much around the edge. Err on the side of over-baking rather than under-baking if you are not sure. It is normal for the cake to darken on top as it caramelises but if you are concerned it's getting too dark, place a sheet of baking paper over the cake about halfway through baking time.
For a video of Dani Valent making the cake, go to danivalent.com