Cauliflower Gratin

My thoroughly modern mother was the Queen of Canned Goods, serving Green Giant corn, green beans, waxed beans, and, occasionally, B&M baked beans, breaking up the monotony. She wasn’t alone in her canned-vegetable dependence, considered to be the norm. In fact, in my childhood neighborhood, if you dared to go against the processed food movement, you were considered an oddball. I overheard my mother’s coffee club discussing a neighbor down the street, “growing her own vegetables in her backyard, like some farm woman – she needs to discover convenience foods”. Someone else whispered they thought that she might even breast-fed. They may as well have been talking about her growing illegal drugs out in her garage and running a prostitution ring, for all the shock that was expressed that day.

My brothers and I were thrilled when the coffee club shared new recipes, the most exciting one being Tater Tot Hotdish, a novel use of canned veggies and the usual, canned soup, mixed together with browned hamburger and onions, covered with a layer of Tater Tots and baked until “crispy, golden brown”. It was the “crispy, golden brown”, that I think we found so refreshing, a nice change from over-done and mush.

Some day, history will bear me out, that the 70’s were a dark time in the history of food, with most relying on canned foods, and an increasing number of processed “complete dinners” being announced every week by the likes of General Mills, Pillsbury and Kraft. Finally, women would be free, free at least from the drudgery of the kitchen, or so we thought.

It wasn’t until I had graduated from college, started cooking for myself, that I began to discover a whole new world – fresh vegetables – rejecting canned goods, to my mother’s dismay. And worse, my favorite fresh vegetable dishes are French-influenced, seen as snobbery by some. All I know is it means flavor, my favorite being any form of gratin, a word taken from an obsolete old French word “grater” meaning to “scratch, scrape” which really doesn’t give clarity as to what a gratin is.

A gratin, simply, is a layered dish of sliced vegetables (potatoes, root vegetables, or in this case, cauliflower) that is layered with onions, (or apples), often grated cheese, and absolutely cream and butter, and lots of it. Sometimes, a layer of breadcrumbs is sprinkled over the top, or other times, more cheese, often a parmigiana or reggiano. It’s then baked until tender, usually served as a “starch” alongside a grilled or roasted slice of meat. I admit to being so gratin-happy that I sometimes get carried away, having a selection of two or three during dinner.

Cognac and Cauliflower This particular gratin is one of those rare recipes which is perfect as it is, something I can rarely say for most recipes, the Gruyere cheese, cauliflower and Cognac a perfect marriage of flavors. Fresh-ground nutmeg is also a must, although the same is true in any recipe which calls for nutmeg. As always, I’m assuming all ingredients are organic, or as close to it as possible, raised or grown in a sustainable manner, purchased from local sources. That may be a problem with the Cognac, though, unless you’re living in France.

This dish is wonderful served warm, allowing it to cool slightly, rather than serving straight from the oven, giving the flavors a chance to meld. Leftovers, which I’ve been known to eat for breakfast, mixed in, or as a side to scrambled eggs, are a great way to start the day. Enjoy!

Cauliflower Gratin

  • 2 1/2 cups grass-fed unpasteurized milk
  • 1/4 small onion, rough-chopped
  • 1 clove
  • 1 small bay leaf
  • 1 small sprig fresh thyme
  • 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour or freshly-ground and sifted whole-wheat pastry flour
  • 1 head cauliflower, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch florets (about 7 1/2 cups)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
  • 3 ounces finely grated Gruyere cheese (3 ounces)
  • 1 teaspoon Cognac or brandy
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • 4 gratings of fresh nutmeg
  • 1 cup fresh bread crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Short Directions

  1. Prepare pan, preheat oven to 325f.
  2. Heat milk, onion, clove, bay leaf, thyme to a low simmer; make a roux with 3 T butter, flour; strain milk mixture, whisk into roux, simmer 10-minutes, stirring occasionally.
  3. Arrange par-cooked cauliflower in buttered, prepared casserole
  4. Add herbs, cognac, salt, cheese, off-heat, to Bechamel.
  5. Pour Bechamel over cauliflower; make crumb topping using remaining 3 T butter.
  6. Bake

Long Directions


  1. Preheat oven to 325 F.
  2. Butter a 1 1/2 quart gratin dish; set aside.

Bechamel – white sauce made with roux (cooked flour and butter)

  1. Heat milk, onion, clove, bay leaf and thyme in a medium saucepan to a fast simmer (steam begins to rise from surface. Do not boil.
  2. Remove from heat, strain, and set aside.
  3. In medium saucepan, melt 2 T butter, over medium-low heat to low simmer stage.
  4. Stir in sifted flour.
  5. Cook, stirring constantly, with wooden spoon for 2-minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and cool for 5-minutes.
  7. Fill a large pan with water and 1 tsp of salt; cover and heat over medium-high heat; will be used to par-cook cauliflower
  8. While cauliflower water is heating, whisk the strained milk SLOWLY into the flour mixture.
  9. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, whisking to prevent lumps.
  10. Reduce heat to low, and simmer, stirring occasionally making sure to carefully scrape the bottom to prevent sticking and burning, until the sauce is thickened, about 10 minutes.
  11. While sauce simmers, add the cauliflower to the large pan of hot water (which should be boiling. Cook cauliflower until tender, about 4 to 5 minutes.
  12. Drain and pat dry.
  13. Arrange the cauliflower, florets-side up, in the buttered gratin dish.
  14. Remove Bechamel from burner, season with teaspoon salt, pepper, nutmeg, and cayenne to taste.
  15. Whisk in the cheese, 1 tablespoon of the butter, and Cognac until smooth, taking care not to over mix.
  16. Pour the cheese sauce over the cauliflower.
  17. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan. In a medium bowl, mix the bread crumbs with the butter to coat evenly. Sprinkle the top of the cauliflower with the buttered breadcrumbs. Bake until the top of the cauliflower gratin is golden brown and bubbly, about 20 to 25 minutes.
  18. Let rest 10-minutes before serving for flavors to meld.