Friday, November 9, 2007

Cheesy Cauliflower Casserole

Warning: Heart-healthy cooks, avert your eyes.

This dish is full of cheddar cheese. But it is also full of cauliflower, and now that we are approaching the "dark days," when the freshest local produce may consist mainly of cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and other hearty brassicas, a good cauliflower recipe is not such a bad thing.

I've been holding onto this one for years because it is so easy and so full of decadent deliciousness on a cold night. It could be a meal in itself, served with a salad, or wonderful next to a roast chicken or ham.

We purchased a huge head of cauliflower from the farmers market down the street along with a hefty wedge of cheddar cheese from the Keswick Creamery in Newburg, PA. So this is one guilty pleasure that is completely local.

If you know how to make a Bechamel sauce, there is nothing at all tricky about this casserole. First, divide a large head of cauliflower into florets and cook them until just done in a large pot of salted water. Drain and set aside.

For the Bechamel sauce, melt 3 tablespoons butter in a sauce pan over moderate heat, then stir in 3 tablespoons flour. Cook 3 or 4 minutes, stirring frequently, until the mixture becomes frothy. The object is to cook the flour without letting it brown. Begin adding about 2 cups room temperature milk (I use 2 percent), 1/4-cup at a time, stirring continuously.

The sauce will become quite thick as it cooks. Continue adding milk as needed. Remove sauce from heat and stir in about 1 1/2 cups grated cheddar cheese. Season to taste with salt, white pepper and ground nutmeg.

Add the cooked cauliflower to a souffle dish and pour in the cheese sauce. Top with bread crumbs and place in a 350-degree oven for about 1 hour, or until the bread crumbs are golden brown. The cauliflower should be extremely tender, and the kitchen filled with the aroma of baked cheese.

Serve hot.

My secret vice is the leftovers from this dish. They are impossible to resist. The souffle dish, covered with plastic, calls to me from the refrigerator. I warm a heaping serving spoon-full into a bowl and heat it in the microwave. A glass of white wine and I am content.


Joanna said...

Fabulous ... even if I can never eat it any more. But just in case you feel your arteries clogging up with all that cheese over the cauliflower, here's a heart-healthy alternative or two.

I make the bechamel sauce, and put it over the cauliflower. Then top the gratin with a mixture of lightly fried and blitzed brown breadcrumbs and anchovy. The contrast between the sweetness of the bechamel and the salt of the topping is sublime. I should think it would work with a cheesy topping if you couldn't face the anchovy.


Ed Bruske said...

I love the way you use anchovies, Joanna. They are not appreciated the way they should be on this side of the Atlantic. People should learn to buy the salted anchovies, rather than the ones from the can that they learned to dislike so much on their pizza.