Here’s a *slightly* lightened up version of a classic that’s typically doused in cream-so much cream that you probably won’t even be able to taste the rest of the ingredients. I’m not saying anything is wrong with that since cream is one of my 5 main food groups, but sometimes you just need something a little lighter, ya know?
I don’t remember how I stumbled upon this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen, but I served it for several meals around the holidays and it became an instant hit. It truly lets the cauliflower shine through as the star because instead of your typical béchamel sauce, the forgotten-and-often-tossed cauliflower stems and core are repurposed into a creamy, creamless sauce, further amping up the cauliflower flavor. We still need this to be a little decadent and creamy, so some cheese is thrown in for good measure. Top it with buttery, Parmesan-y bread crumbs and some fresh chives to give it a pop of color amidst the beige. You’ll never miss the cream.
Creamless Cauliflower Gratin
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 head cauliflower (about 2 pounds)
5 tablespoons butter
2 to 3 garlic cloves, peeled
1/3 cup panko bread crumbs
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated
2 ounces Gruyere cheese, coarsely grated
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
2 tablespoons minced fresh chives
Preheat the oven to 400°.
Pull off the outer green leaves of the cauliflower and trim the bottom 1/2 inch of the stem. Using a paring knife, cut around the core to remove from the head of cauliflower. Trim off any green parts of the stem and discard; thinly slice the stem. Slice the head into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Cut stems out of the slices, leaving the cauliflower florets. Thinly slice the stems and reserve with the sliced core. Break the florets into smaller pieces. (See note.)
In a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven, combine the reserved stem and core slices, 1 cup of the florets, 1-1/2 cups of water, garlic cloves and 3 tablespoons of butter. Bring to a boil over high heat. If you have a steamer basket, place the remaining florets inside and place the steamer basket in the Dutch oven. Cover and reduce heat to medium. Steam the florets until tender and the stems can be easily pierced with a paring knife, about 10 minutes. Remove the steamer basket and drain the florets. Recover the Dutch oven and reduce heat to medium-low and continue to cook for 10 minutes longer, until the stem mixture is very soft. Alternatively, if you have a steamer pot, you can use this to steam the cauliflower florets; reserve the water in the bottom to thin the puree if necessary.
While the cauliflower is cooking, melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a small skillet. Once melted, add the panko bread crumbs and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown and crisp, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside to cool. Once cool, add 1 ounce (about 1/2 cup) of the Parmesan and stir to combine.
Once the stem mixture is tender, transfer to a blender with all of the liquid it was cooked in. Add 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, dry mustard, nutmeg, cayenne, remaining 1 ounce Parmesan and 2 ounces of Gruyere. Puree until completely smooth, about 1 minute. Taste for seasonings and adjust if necessary. With the blender running, add cornstarch slurry. The mixture will be thick but pourable; add some of the reserved cooking water from steaming the florets, if necessary to thin the mixture. Combine the steamed florets and puree in a medium mixing bowl; transfer the mixture to a 9 x 13-inch baking dish or gratin dish. Scatter the bread crumb mixture over the top. Bake until the sauce bubbles around the edges, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes before serving. Scatter the chives on top right before serving.
NOTE: You can watch the video following the link below (you may need to register for an free account if you don’t have one with America’s Test Kitchen) to see how to prepare the cauliflower, like I did (several times). The written instructions alone can be hard to understand and follow.
Inspiration: Modern Cauliflower Gratin, America’s Test Kitchen