When I came across a recipe from Mark Bittman for sneaky, stealthy Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese with a head of cauliflower hidden in the sauce, I took note. I love love love the idea of sneaking in veggies wherever possible and try to take advantage of that strategy when I can, so how could I resist?
So Mark Bittman…I know him best from his book “How to Cook Everything” and his Ted Talks. I was pre-primed to love this because Bittman’s pretty amazing and ‘sides, I love cauliflower. Oh, and I love Mac & Cheese, too. I mean who doesn’t? Oh my gosh, I just gotta stop stop stop saying love love love, or even just one love at a time, lol!!
About Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese:
I gotta say, though, was a bit ambivalent when I tried the recipe. I think maybe it was just a bit too healthy, so I tinkered just a little bit. I think as the recipe stands below, you’re going to be surprised at how good it is. That being said, I’d probably rather have this Ultimate Macaroni & Cheese, but this is a great, healthier, option. And there’s just not quite as much guilt involved!
What makes this recipe work so well is that cauliflower has just a bit of a bite; a sharpness. When that’s mixed in this casserole with just a bit of cheese and the touch of milk (Bittman’s original recipe had no milk, but it really needed at least a touch) the sharpness in this Cauliflower Mac & Cheese makes me think that it was made with Vermont cheddar!
So you don’t even need to like cauliflower to like this recipe; when I served it to my son, he wolfed it down and had absolutely no clue at there was any cauliflower in it at all. Heck, honestly I think maybe he was just happy to have mac & cheese coz it’s really not something served often at my house.
Making Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese:
This recipe is pretty darned easy to make. You will need to dirty two pots, one for the stock/cream mixture, which really does taste better in the recipe if it’s steeped with the bay leaves and peppercorns. I wouldn’t recommend you skip that step, but then it’s not the end of the world if you just pour in the milk and stock as is and blend it with the cauliflower if you feel the need to shortcut.
As far as the cauliflower, I love that Bittman cooked the cauliflower in boiling water, scooped it out and then cooked the macaroni in the same water. I’m keeping that little trick in mind for future recipes! Smart. Maybe the idea was just new to me but I love learning a new little trick like that. I just said love again, didn’t I, lol!
Another great thing about this recipe is the make-ahead option. I can say that Mark Bittman says it can be made ahead one day and he was right; adding an extra day makes the noodles a little strange. The breadcrumb topping pretty much “makes” the casserole. If you want to brush up on making and/or toasting your own breadcrumbs, see my post Breadcrumbs Seasoned or Not. One more thing: just like real deal Mac & Cheese, Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese is best the first day. I’d cut back the recipe rather than planning on serving leftovers.
Saving Money on Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese:
This recipe was made in June 2012 for a cost of $1.96 and repriced in March 2014 for $2.40. You can’t beat that for a big ol’ casserole!
If you read me regularly, I make my own stocks with scraps of vegetables and chicken or bones using this recipe for Best Turkey or Chicken Stock – it’s not difficult to make if you get in the hang of it. If buying stock, compare prices to cans and boxes; there was a time you could count on a box to be abetter quality, but that’s no longer the case. Watch for sales around Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas and stock up.
Cauliflower can be expensive if you’re not watching the sales, and on sale, it’s usually about 1/2 price, and mine was $1.48 per head. Watch the per pound/per head sales. When it’s cheap, pick up several heads if you have room and use it a lot. A head will keep well for a good while in the fridge and it’s an amazingly healthy vegetable.
Noodles or other basic pantry items I never buy at full price. It might be worthwhile to consider high protein and surprise: the better brand names often have coupons to match the sales and can often be less than a box of generic old noodles. Freeze any product containing flour that comes into your home and you’ll avoid little “peskies.”
Creamy Cauliflower Mac & Cheese
- Total Time: 45 minutes
- Yield: 6 to 8 servings 1x
- Category: Vegetarian Meal
- Cuisine: American
- 1 can of chicken stock (14 1/2 ounces) (see note)
- 1/2 cup of milk plus 1 1/2 ounces (see note)
- 1/2 cup milk
- 6 Black peppercorns
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt for water
- 1 cauliflower, cored and separated into large pieces
- 8 ounces elbow, shell, ziti, or other cut pasta, preferably whole wheat
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for greasing the baking dish
- 3/4 cup grated cheese (like sharp cheddar or Gruyère or a combination)
- 1 teaspoon dry mustard, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, or to taste
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, for topping
- 1/2 cup toasted bread crumb for topping
- 1 tablespoon of melted butter or additional oil for topping
The stock and milk measurements are odd! A can is 14 1/2 ounces, so add tht to a two cup measuring cup. Top off with milk so the total milk and stock equals 2 cups. Then add an additional half cup of milk so the liquid measure of milk/stock is a total of 2 1/2 cups. If you’re not using a can of stock, no need to be so particular; if you’re pouring from a box, going with 2 cups stock and 1/2 cup milk is fine.
Heat the oven to 400°F. Grease a 9-inch square baking dish or equivalent casserole with a little oil.
Add the stock, milk, peppercorns and the bay leaves in a small saucepan and heat over medium-low heat. When small bubbles appear along the sides, about 5 minutes later, turn off the heat and let stand and steep.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Cook the cauliflower in the boiling water until very tender, 20 to 25 minutes. Scoop the cauliflower out of the water with a slotted spoon and transfer it to a blender or food processor.
Add the pasta to the still boiling water and cook until still somewhat chalky inside and not yet edible, about 5 minutes. Drain and return to pot.
Remove the peppercorns and bay leaves from the stock or stock/milk mixture. Carefully process the cauliflower with 2 cups of the stock/milk mixture, the 2 tablespoons oil, the cheese, mustard, nutmeg, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. (It’s very likely this will need to be done in batches; don’t fill the blender more than 3/4’s full and be careful when processing hot foods in a blender. Don’t cover until ready to blend, loosen the lid or vent slightly and firmly hold the lid in place using a towel to protect hands.)
The mixture should be just slightly soupy; if the sauce seems too thick, add the remaining 1⁄2 cup stock or stock/milk mixture. For a small head of cauliflower, the 2 cups of liquid will most likely be sufficient, with a larger head, the whole 2 1/2 cups should be sufficient. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Pour the sauce over the pasta, toss to mix. Add to the greased baking dish or casserole and spread the mixture evenly in the dish. The dish may be made to this point, covered, and refrigerated for up to a day; return to room temperature before proceeding.)
For the topping, mix together the Parmesan and bread crumbs with the butter or oil. Sprinkle over the top of the casserole. Bake until the pasta is bubbling and the crumbs turn golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. If the casserole is hot and bubbly but the breadcrumbs haven’t yet nicely browned, turn the broiler on for a few minutes and watch carefully. Serve hot.
Note on bread crumbs: Starting with toasted breadcrumbs will make a more appealing topping. 15 to 20 minutes is not enough time to brown plain white bread crumbs.
Keywords: Bargain Meal of the Week, breadcrumbs, Casserole, Cauliflower, Cheese, Macaroni and Cheese, Mark Bittman, milk, Olive oil, parmesan, Pasta, Vegetarian Meal