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How to mess with a good thing: Cauliflower and Pasta Gratin

cauliflower pasta gratin

Usually when people begin to mess around with perfectly good recipes, it’s with the admirable aim of improving them: making them quicker to prepare, healthier, or just plain tastier. Not me, though. I confess to sometimes messing for far stupider reasons- laziness, boredom, the fun of messing.

This dish, originally from Simple Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin, is one that probably didn’t need any changes in the first place. Creamy, cheesy, fresh-tasting and slightly spicy, it always hits the spot. My Mum used to make it when I was growing up, and when I went away to university, it was one of the recipes I carefully copied into my green plastic notebook of familiar foods, in preparation for feeding myself. I think I made it once in four years. 

Lately, though, I’ve been eating this dish a lot more. I finally figured out what it was that made this dish, delicious as it was, appear so infrequently on my table. It’s the cream. Not that I’m anti-cream, mind you- I’m not one of those- it’s just that I rarely have any in the fridge, let alone a whole cup of it. I tried using milk, but it lead to disappointment (as using milk in place of cream generally does). Inspiration eventually struck, though, in the form of a béchamel. I always have milk, butter and flour around, and the creamy texture is just what I was after.

Look, I know. By making a béchamel, you not only add to the recipe list, but also to the time required, what with all that pesky whisking action. But I can’t help it; I just really, really like making white sauces. I always have, ever since I started making my own mac and cheese at the age of 12, with a little help from a 1980′s Canadian Living Microwave cookbook. It doesn’t matter how many times I do it, I’m always entranced by the magical thickening power of butter and flour. 

Feel free to use cream if you wish (just replace the butter, flour and milk with one cup of cream, and mix all sauce ingredients together, no heat required), but I like it this way. 

cauliflower pasta gratin inside

  • Cauliflower and Pasta Gratin
  • Adapted from Jeanne Lemlin
  • serves 4
  • 1 small cauliflower, cut into florets
    250g penne or similar pasta shape
    1 Tbs butter
    2 garlic cloves, minced
    1/2 tsp red chili flakes, or to taste
    1 Tbs flour
    1 cup milk
    1 1/4 cup passatta (or purée canned tomatoes) 
    1/4 chopped basil
    1/4 grated fresh parmesan
    salt and pepper
  • 1 slice fresh bread, brown or white
    1 Tbs fresh grated parmesan
    1 tsp olive oil
    salt and pepper
  • 1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Put a large pot of water on to boil. Prepare a gratin dish by coating the inside with a touch of olive oil. 

    2. When the water boils, drop in the cauliflower and cook until tender, approx 4-5 minutes. Scoop out with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the pasta to the water and cook until al dente. Drain and set aside with cauliflower. 

    3. In a saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter until it begins to foam. Add the garlic and chili flakes and cook for about one minute. Then add the tablespoon of flour, and whisk into a paste for another 30 seconds. 

    4. Add the milk and whisk continually until the mixture thickens enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon. Turn off the heat and add the passatta,  basil, parmesan, salt and pepper to taste, and mix to combine. Add the pasta and cauliflower, stir to coat, then pour into the prepared gratin dish.

    5. To make the parmesan breadcrumbs, tear up the piece of bread and grind in a food processor or spice blender until fine. Add the parmesan, olive oil, salt and pepper to taste and mix well. The breadcrumbs should be faintly moist from the oil.

    6. Sprinkle the breadcrumbs over the top of the gratin, and bake for 20-25 minutes. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.


  1. Hilary says:

    Ack! Why mess with that recipe? It is the best thing in that cookbook! But I’m intrigued – what does the bechamel bring to the recipe that it doesn’t already have?

  2. Ele says:

    Um, the freedom to be able to make it when you don’t keep cream in the house? Geez Hil, at least read the post! ;)

  3. [...] white cauliflower will probably be dinner tonight, most likely in this favourite recipe. The purple one I bought because I was so inspired by Sophie’s post about them the other day. [...]

  4. Vera says:

    This was fabulous – perfect weeknight dinner and the whole family loved it! Thank you!