Three Cheese Cauliflower Gratin
In case you live under a rock, Dana is the editor-in-chief of Food & Wine Magazine, and she is the Beyoncé of the food world. Like Queen B, I am Queen D’s biggest fangirl, and I was therefore convinced that I had received the invitation in error.
I hadn’t. (OHMAHGOD.)
The dinner was in honor of Dana’s new cookbook Mastering My Mistakes in The Kitchen, which is an absolutely beautiful compilation of recipes, stories, and tips for overcoming kitchen conundrums of all kinds (many of which come from some of the world’s most talented chefs). The book is informative, hilarious and heartwarming, and I was pee-my-pants excited appropriately thrilled to celebrate it. Duh.
In keeping with the book’s theme, Dana asked that everyone bring a dish that they once struggled with and had since mastered. We would have a potluck dinner, and then each person would tell the story behind her dish. For the record, the guest list included Deb(!!!), Phoebe, Julia, Amanda, Merrill, Anna, Ali and several of my other culinary heroines. (OH. MAH. GOD.)
Naturally, I spent the past several weeks full-blown panicking about what to make for this momentous occasion. In an effort to inspire myself, I went back through my old Le Cordon Bleu binders in search of dishes that had initially made me cry. Sadly, I realized the majority of the recipes that had traumatized me the first time around were never mastered because they involved stuffing fish with other fish. (The French love of stuffing fish continues to upset and confound me.) And being the girl that brings fish-stuffed-fish to a potluck would probably not bode well for my future in the food world, so I had to think outside the box…
I considered all of my best recipes, trying to remember which ones had caused me significant pain and heartache over the years. Although there were an embarrassing amount of dishes that fell into that category, Three Cheese Cauliflower Gratin stood out from the pack.
In its current incarnation, this gratin is a revelation. Tender roasted cauliflower is bathed in a cauliflower-based sauce that calls for fresh herbs, garlic and a heady blend of Gruyère, Parmesan, and goat cheeses. The casserole is then baked with a topping of cheesy toasted breadcrumbs, and the resulting flavor party is pretty mind-blowing. (I’m confident in that statement, as I made it three times last weekend just to be 100% sure.)
1. The cheese sauce. I used to have a really tough time with cheese sauces due to my regular struggles with béchamel at LCB. For those of you who don’t know (no judgment), béchamel is the simple cream sauce that’s used as a base for countless other sauces. It’s made by cooking flour and butter together and then whisking in milk, which isn’t overly complicated, but you have to whisk/cook the sauce for several minutes (sometimes as long as 8-10) before it thickens.
As you can imagine, the anxiety I experienced pre-thickening was extreme and all-consuming. I’d be standing over my stove, whisking and sweating in my hairnet, feeling the eyes of the mean French man my esteemed culinary instructor bore into the back of my head as I whispered prayers to any god that would listen. There were a few occasions where my béchamel never came together (for reasons still unknown), but I try very hard not to think about those terrifying experiences.
Funnily enough, there was a time after my first term at school that I thought maybe I could skip the béchamel step altogether. Why not just dump some milk and cheese in pot and boil the whole shebang together? Genius! (Dana said at dinner that most good cooks have good instincts. I have NO instincts.)
Needless to say, boiling milk and cheese together does not, in fact, have a delicious outcome. And as I watched everything in the pot separate in a chunky, watery mess, I felt both confused and defeated. The fact that I had chosen to conduct this experiment while attempting a fancy gratin for Logan’s parents (it was my first time meeting them, and I planned to be the most impressive girlfriend ever!) only made the situation worse. Sneaking out of the kitchen with a giant pot and surreptitiously dumping its contents in a corner of their backyard was very stressful. (John and Linda, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.)
Over the years, I have mastered making béchamel, but I’ve also discovered a fun hack for sauces that require it: cauliflower purée. Puréed cauliflower is foolproof, super creamy, gluten-free, and it’s the ideal base for this gratin’s magical three-cheese sauce. Cauliflower on cauliflower is perfection.
2. Par-boiling the cauliflower. Most vegetable gratin recipes suggest par-boiling (boiling the veggies until they’re just slightly undercooked) prior to assembling the casserole. The first time I made a cauliflower gratin, I skipped this step because I’m lazy, which led to an uncomfortably crunchy final product. Not good.
The next few times I attempted the recipe, I included the par-boiling step, but I got a little distracted and ended up cooking the florets far beyond “al dente.” They were very soft going into the gratin, and absolute mush when they came out. I like to call that dish, “Crushed Cauliflower Brick.” Also not good.
Thanks to the aforementioned mistakes, I finally came up with a solution. For an ideally textured cauliflower gratin, one must quickly roast the florets in a 400 degree oven. As long as you set a timer, you’ll end up with perfectly tender (not mushy) cauliflower in the final dish. Masterful.
3. Seasoning. Since we’re being honest today, I’ll admit that I used to be shamelessly lax about seasoning every element in a dish. I’d tend to focus on making a really good sauce and hope that it would flavor everything else involved. This sort of worked with my early cauliflower gratins, especially once I nailed the cheese sauce, but there was always something missing. No matter how tasty the sauce, or how perfectly roasted the florets, things were just a little bit bland.
Don’t worry, I fixed it! The cauliflower gratin you see on your screen is layer-upon-layer of flavor, as it should be. The roasted cauliflower itself is seasoned generously with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. The lightly golden florets get smothered in sauce (which I’ve already told you is impeccable), and then the whole thing is topped with a breadcrumb mixture that involves Parmesan, salt and smoked paprika. BOOM.
Incredibly long story short: I used to make really shitty cauliflower gratin. But through a lot of trial and error cooking (and countless heads of cauliflower), I’ve mastered my mistakes and learned to make one truly fabulous dish.
Yes, admitting all of the above to a room full of my food idols was slightly humiliating, but it was also empowering. Much to my delight, all of these amazingly talented women laughed, commiserated, and shared their own ridiculous culinary mishaps, which reinforced a truth that I have always suspected: Kitchen failures are bound to happen, but they ultimately help you become a better cook and make for excellent party stories. Hallelujah.
In the spirit of inspiring all of you to face your culinary fears and master your mistakes, I’m giving away copies of Dana’s gorgeous cookbook to TWO lucky readers. All you have to do is leave a comment with a dish you’ve mastered or your biggest culinary fail (or BOTH), and you’ll be entered to win. Do it.
The giveaway will close on Wednesday, October 8, at 11:59pm EST. A winner will be chosen at random and announced on Thursday, October 9. This giveaway is now closed.
In case you don’t win, you’re going to need to order a copy of this book ASAP. Dana is dropping all kinds of knowledge bombs, and you don’t want to be the only one missing out. (Peer pressure.)
p.s. Make this gratin.
Three Cheese Cauliflower Gratin: (Serves 6)
2 heads cauliflower, florets removed, divided
2½ tablespoons olive oil
Coarse black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 medium shallot, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme
5 fresh sage leaves (plus extra for garnish)
2 cups milk (I used 2%)
1/3 cup whole wheat Panko breadcrumbs
1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
½ cup grated Parmesan, divided
1 1/3 cups freshly grated Gruyère cheese
3 ounces goat cheese
Preparing your Three Cheese Cauliflower Gratin:
-Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees.
-Arrange the florets from 1½ heads of cauliflower on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle generously with salt and coarse black pepper, and toss to coat.
-Roast for 20 minutes until lightly brown and just tender.
-Meanwhile, melt a tablespoon of butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When melted and foamy add the shallot and garlic and sauté for about 3 minutes until the shallots become translucent and the garlic is fragrant.
-Add the thyme and sage and cook for another minute. Add the florets from the remaining ½ head of cauliflower and milk. Simmer gently for 20-25 minutes until the cauliflower is very tender.
-While all your various cauliflower situations are cooking, toast the breadcrumbs. In a small saucepan, melt the remaining tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the breadcrumbs and stir to coat with the butter. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the breadcrumbs darken slightly and literally smell like toast. Transfer to a bowl to cool and then stir in the paprika, ¼ cup Parmesan, and a pinch of salt. Set aside until ready to use.
-Now you’re going to make the cheese sauce! Use a fork to fish the sage leaves and time from the milk. (You can throw those out.) Transfer the cauliflower and cooking liquid to a blender or food processor and puree until smooth.
-Pour 1/3 of the cheese sauce into the bottom of a gratin dish (or whatever medium baking dish you happen to have). Add the roasted cauliflower in an even layer and top with the remaining cheese sauce. Sprinkle the toasted breadcrumb mixture over the cheese. YESSSS.
*I like to top my gratin with some crispy fried sage leaves. This is obviously optional, but it does look very pretty and impressive. If you’d like to follow my lead, simply heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add 6-8 sage leaves and fry for a few seconds until they darken and crisp up. (I’m literally talking like 3-6 seconds, peeps. Be careful). Transfer them to a paper towel and sprinkle with a little salt.
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