Classic baked cauliflower with cheese sauce! My version roasts off the cauliflower first, for added flavour and no watery cheese sauce.
Before there was cauliflower "rice" and cauliflower "wings", there was cauliflower cheese. No need for quotes here. The cauliflower in this one isn't standing in for anything. It's just cauliflower being cauliflower, coming together with an equally beautiful and creamy cheese sauce. It's a classic and it's pretty much cauliflower perfection, in my opinion. So in case you've forgotten about it, I thought I'd bring it back around :)
This recipe roasts off the cauliflower before combining it with the cheese sauce and baking. Roasting brings great flavour out of the cauliflower, but also cooks off some of the moisture, which prevents a watery cheese sauce. It makes for the best cauliflower cheese!
Cauliflower: Any nice medium to large cauliflower will work best here. A small cauliflower will also work if that's all that's available, but you'll have a little more sauce-to-cauliflower ratio will be heavy on the sauce side.
Cheese: I prefer a nice aged, mature white cheddar, for the best flavour in the cheese sauce. Technically, any cheddar will work here, though, so use what you like or have on hand.
Whipping Cream: Heavy whipping cream is the best choice for the absolutely creamiest sauce. If you don't have any on hand, you could use a lighter cream, such as Half and Half (10% b.f.). In a pinch, you could just use all milk in the same quantity, though the creaminess and thickness of the sauce will suffer.
Milk: Ideally, I'd recommend whole milk here (3-3.5% b.f). 2% will work, though I wouldn't go below 2%.
Flour: Note that the recipe specifies a range of flour, which is what you can adjust to control the thickness of the cheese sauce and adjust for using a lower fat cream. See the recipe's Notes section for more details on that.
Nutmeg: A pinch of nutmeg does wonderful things to a cheese sauce! If you can find the nutmeg that comes with it's own grinder, even better, otherwise, just use powdered nutmeg.
I haven't tested this recipe with plant-based cheese or milk/cream. I also haven't tested with a gluten-free flour. If you are an experienced gluten-free cook, use whatever alternative flour you would generally use to make a roux (butter/flour thickener).
Be sure to roast the cauliflower just until tender with just a few golden spots. Test it with a knife to be sure it's tender, then remove. You don't want to roast all of the moisture out of it.
Add the milk/cream mixture in small increments (a scant 1/4 cup-ish at a time), to ensure a smooth sauce.
If you are someone who likes a touch of mustard with your cheese sauce, a pinch of Dry Mustard would not be out of place in the sauce. Just add along with the nutmeg.
Likewise, if you are a lover of breadcrumbs on cheesy dishes, go ahead and add your favourite crumb topping (buttered panko, breadcrumbs or crackers) to the top before baking.
Be sure to properly season your dish, starting with seasoning the cauliflower before roasting and ending with tasting and seasoning the cheese sauce at the end of cooking it on the stove-top, to really bring out the flavours.
Top Tip! Turning off the heat under your pot (or removing it from the burner if you have an electric stovetop) immediately after adding the cheese helps to ensure a smooth and creamy sauce, as the cheese is allowed to melt slowly from the residual heat in the sauce.
Cauliflower cheese is best served with a relatively plain accompaniment, such as roasted chicken or a grilled pork chop. You could enjoy it on it's own along with a nice salad, much in the way you would enjoy mac and cheese.
Storage, Making Ahead and Freezing Notes
Making Ahead: If you'd like to make this ahead, make the cheese sauce ahead and roast the cauliflower ahead, but keep the two parts separate until you're ready to bake later.
Storage: You can store leftovers covered in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.
Freezing: You can freeze cauliflower cheese either before or after baking. If freezing before baking, you'll need to use a freezer-to-oven container (foil even) and then bake from frozen to use.
How to cut up a Cauliflower
Turn the cauliflower head upside-down on a cutting board. Using a sharp knife, cut through each of the green leaf stems next to the main core, to remove. Cut the cauliflower head into quarters. Take one of the quarters and lay it on it's side on a cutting board, with the core-end facing you. Use a sharp knife to make a diagonal cut from the top of the core area down to and including the bottom of the core, to remove. Repeat with the remaining quarters. Once the core has been removed, you can go ahead and break apart the florets.
Classic Cauliflower Cheese
- 1 medium to large cauliflower
- Olive oil
- Salt and Pepper
- 4 Tbsp butter, salted or unsalted
- 3-4 Tbsp all purpose flour, *see Notes
- 1 cup milk, at least 2% b.f.
- 1 cup whipping cream, 35% b.f. ** see Notes
- 2 cups aged cheddar cheese, grated, well packed
- Pinch nutmeg, grated or powdered
- Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
- Preheat oven to 425F.
- Prepare and roast the cauliflower: Remove the stem leaves and core from the cauliflower and break off the florets into large chunks. (Not sure how to cut the cauliflower? Try my easy method details in the Cook's Noes above). If you like, you can cut away most of the stalks and just use the florets or use it stalks and all. Cut the florets into bite-sized pieces, but not too small.
- Place the cauliflower in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Scatter onto a baking sheet and roast in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, or until tender (test with a knife) and golden in spots. Remove from the oven, set aside and REDUCE THE OVEN TEMPERATURE TO 400F.
- Prepare the cheese sauce: Measure out your milk and cream in a 2-cup measuring cup and set aside. Grate your cheese and have ready.
- In a large saucepan (you'll be adding the cauliflower to it later, so make sure it's big enough), melt the butter oven medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly for 2-3 minutes, or as long as you feel you can without letting it scorch. Reduce the heat under the pan to medium-low. Pour in a small amount of the cream/milk and whisk until a smooth paste forms. Add a bit more milk and whisk again until smooth. Add a bit more of the milk and whisk until smooth again. Add the remaining milk a bit at a time and whisk until smooth, until all the milk has been added. Cook sauce over medium-low heat and whisking regularly, until the sauce noticeably thickens. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the grated cheese. Let stand without stirring for about 2 minutes, then stir together. The cheese should have all melted in to the sauce. If by chance it hasn't, you can return the pot to the burner over low heat to finish the melting. Add the nutmeg and stir in. Taste the sauce and add salt and freshly ground pepper, as needed.
- Add the roasted cauliflower to the pot with the cheese sauce and stir to completely coat the cauliflower. Spoon the cauliflower cheese mixture into a baking dish large enough to hold it all. Place the baking dish onto a baking sheet (to catch any bubble overs).
- Place into the preheated 400F and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until bubbly and deep golden on top. Let stand a few minutes before serving, to allow the sauce to set up a bit.
Nutritional information provided for general guidance only and should not be relied upon to make personal health decisions.