I had the good fortune to spend a month in Italy this summer, a blissful few days of it at the cooking school of Badia a Coltibuono, a medieval abbey turned into a winery and bed and breakfast in the hills of Tuscany. We made pasta by hand and learned the secrets to Italian breads and sauces. On one day, the chef, Benedetta Vitali, told us we would make a cauliflower cheese dish to accompany the evening meal. I have to say, we students were not at first thrilled at the idea. The other ladies in the class were English, where “cauliflower cheese” is a ubiquitous comfort food dish, and I have always been underwhelmed by the seeming bland crucifer. Amidst the amazing classical Tuscan recipes, it seemed sort of plain and uninteresting. But we were there to learn, so we watched and participated as told. The first difference we noticed from our own ideas of the dish was how finely Benedetta insisted we chop the cauliflower, rather than layering florets in a baker. Then she saved the cooking water to use in the sauce. Genius. When the dish was served at dinner, we were all amazed. It was so simple to make, but so packed with flavor, rich and creamy but not heavy or cloying. We each in turn said we’d definitely be making this at home. Homemade, hand rolled gnocchi, we weren’t so sure.
As it happens, it showcased the best of Tuscan cooking – choosing the best in season, fresh ingredients and treating them simply and with respect. True parmigiano-reggiano cheese is the secret to this dish. It adds a salty edge and Italian flair, so splurge on a piece and grate it freshly for this dish. Chopping the cauliflower into pretty fine crumbs makes a huge difference in this recipe. I served this to my extended family, and they loved, each saying “I don’t usually like cauliflower, but this is delicious…”
- 1 head of cauliflower
- 10 Tablespoons butter (1 stick plus 2 Tablespoon)
- 5 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup milk
- 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- Place the whole head of cauliflower in a large, deep pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook until soft when pierced with a knife, about 20 minutes. Carefully remove the cauliflower to a plate. Reserve 1 cup of the cooking water, then wipe out the pot.
- Preheat the oven to 350° and grease a 2-quart baking dish.
- When the cauliflower is cool enough to handle, remove any stem and leaves, and place on a large chopping board. Cut the head in half, then finely chop – it should be fine crumbs. Repeat with the other half. I use my biggest chopping board and a large knife and scrape the first half of the crumbs onto the plate and continue with the rest.
- Melt the butter in the pot, then whisk in the flour until smooth. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture is pale and smooth. Whisk in the milk and the reserved cooking water and cook until thickened and smooth. Whisk in the cheese, a handful at a time, until smooth and melted. Fold in the chopped cauliflower until it is all coated in the sauce. Taste and add salt as needed.
- Scrape the cauliflower into the prepared baking dish and bake until heated through, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
- The gratin can be cooled, covered and held in the refrigerator for several hours before baking. Adjust the cooking time as needed.