What, you’ve never had cauliflower cheese before? Why, it’s right up there on the American Heart Association’s recommended diet, above the kale and below the oat bran. Okay, well, maybe just the cauliflower is. I realize this dish may sound strange if you’ve never heard of it. The first time I saw it on a menu in the UK last fall, I thought a word was missing, perhaps “with” or “and.” I mean, you cannot make cheese out of cauliflower or vice-versa, or at least I hope not.* And then I tried it, bubbling and brown in a small ramekin aside my roast** at a tiny Inn in the middle of nowhere that looks like something you’d see in a Bridget Jones Diary (basically where I learned everything I knew about the UK before I got there, well, that and Morrissey songs) and I stopped talking. I stopped thinking. My heart may or may not have stopped beating for a moment, though I’m sure it was love, not fibrillations. How could it be anything but, when cauliflower florets are draped with a sharp cheddar cheese sauce spiked with mustard and a bit of cayenne and then baked in the oven until bronzed and, wait, what were we talking about again?
This is a British dish, if the sharp cheddar, mustard powder, cayenne and charmed name didn’t give it away. I realize that British food has long been a punching bag for other supposedly superior world cuisines, but I found this to be anything but the case. Even if I had, the awesome names of national dishes — toad in the holes, bubble and squeaks, spotted dicks, singing hinnies, jam roly-polys and doorstop sandwiches — would have more than compensated for any failures in the flavor department.
I understand you’re very likely thinking, “But I like cauliflower. I can eat it roasted with just salt and pepper! Why would I bury it in a thick layer of cheese sauce?” But I think you’re going about this wrong. Do you know what cauliflower cheese really is? It’s basically low-carb mac-and-cheese. I mean, look what a valiant effort you’ve made in reducing the pasta count in your life! That means you can definitely have it more often. And let’s say you’re shivering in the midst of the 11th cold rainy day of the 23 so far in October, well, I think you owe it to yourself to start right now, for dinner tonight.
* I honestly haven’t recovered from the time someone sent me a recipe for cauliflower pizza crust, which seems a very effective way to get people to dislike both pizza and cauliflower, though I’m apparently in a minority on this delicacy and am likely alienating every last one of you.
** with creamy horseradish sauce and perfectly roasted potatoes and straight-from-the-oven Yorkshire pudding and then a rhubarb custard dessert and is it any wonder I kicked and screamed the whole way back to the U.S.?
One year ago: Spinach and Egg Pizzettes
Two years ago: Roasted Pear and Chocolate Chunk Scones
Three years ago: Pear, Cranberry and Gingersnap Crumble
Four years ago: Spicy Squash Salad with Lentils and Goat Cheese
Five years ago: Silky Decadent Old-School Chocolate Mousse
Six years ago: Pumpkin Swirl Brownies and A Deep Dark Salted Butter Caramel Sauce
Seven years ago: Sweet Potato and Sausage Soup
Eight years ago: Spinach Quiche
And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Lamb Meatballs with Feta and Lemon
1.5 Years Ago: Spring Vegetable Potstickers
2.5 Years Ago: Bacon, Egg and Leek Risotto
3.5 Years Ago: Sour Cream Cornbread with Aleppo
I think a dish like this could have endless variations. You could infuse the milk, warming it, with a bay leaf or minced clove of garlic. You could stir chopped parsley into the sauce for color. If you don’t have dry mustard, you can add two teaspoons smooth Dijon or an English mustard to the sauce along with the cheese. You could sprinkle some plain breadcrumbs on top for extra crunch. Finally, I saw a version online in which the chefs had grilled pork sausages and sliced them up into the dish, baking them with the cheese sauce as well for more of a meal-in-one dish.
Serves 4 as a side
1 medium head (about 2 to 2 1/4 pounds) cauliflower
4 tablespoons (55 grams or 2 ounces) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (30 grams or 1 ounce) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons mustard powder
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper or ground cayenne
2 cups (475 ml) milk, whole is best but low-fat will probably work just fine
1 1/4 cups plus 2 tablespoons (about 155 grams or 5 1/2 ounces total) grated cheddar, the strongest you can get, preferably English or Irish
Chopped chives or flat-leaf parsley, for garnish (optional)
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Trim cauliflower and remove tough core. Cut into 1 to 2-inch florets. Steam (for about 10 minutes) or par-boil (6 to 7 minutes) florets until firm but tender. Drain, if needed, and spread florets on a towel so that it can wick out as much moisture as possible
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add flour and whisk to combine; cook for 1 minute to ensure you get rid of the floury taste. Add mustard powder and a pinch of cayenne or few grinds of black pepper, and stir to combine. Drizzle in milk in a thin, steady stream, whisking the whole time so that no lumps form. Season with salt and bring mixture to a simmer, stirring with a spoon; mixture should thicken. Stir in 1 1/4 cups cheddar, a handful at a time, letting each handful melt before adding the next. Taste sauce and adjust seasonings if needed.
Spread cauliflower florets in a 2-quart baking ovenproof baking dish. Spoon sauce over florets and sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons cheese. Bake until until bronzed and bubbly, about 30 minutes. For reference, f I wasn’t in such a rush to get dinner out on the table, I’d have baked mine a minute or two longer, up to 35 minutes.
Sprinkle with herbs, if desired. Eat with abandon.
P.S. A hat tip to Kate, who reminded me earlier this week that this site is way overdue for cauliflower cheese, and immediately solving my what-to-make-for-dinner crisis du jour.