Growing up, there were certain dishes I always looked forward to eating when our extended family would get together on holidays. Aside from the obvious “anything Grandma made,” there were the bubbling, creamy, cheesy casseroles. One in particular, made by my Aunt Carmen, was a favorite: florets of broccoli and cauliflower, plus whole brussels sprouts, blanketed in a mixture of cream soup and shredded cheese, then baked. If there was ever a way to get a kid to eat her vegetables that was it, and I often had multiple servings.
So when I tried to think about what to do with the two heads of cauliflower I had brought home from the farmers’ market (so pretty I couldn’t resist them), my thoughts turned back to that dish. We had always had it as a side to roast turkey or baked ham, but why couldn’t it stand alone as a main course?
I haven’t kept canned soup around for years now, so my first step was to make a white sauce. We had four strips of Pat’s Pastured bacon in the fridge, so I cut that into chunks and fried the pieces until crisp, figuring I’d use the fat for my roux. While the bacon drained, I whisked some flour into the bacon fat, then added equal amounts of milk and cream, stirring it until it was well-blended. I added a pinch of salt and some Herbes de Provence, then the cheese – about a cup of Morbier, diced into small cubes.
When the sauce was smooth and the cheese melted, I added the crispy bacon pieces and poured the mixture over my cauliflower (lovely purple cauliflower and spiky green Romanesco, broken into florets) in a buttered baking dish. I had spritzed an ounce or so of white vermouth over the cauliflower first, so after I added the cheese sauce I tossed everything through until it was mixed and the cauliflower evenly coated. I covered it with foil and placed it into a 450 degree oven for about 20 minutes, then took it out, removed the foil, and covered the top with very coarse fresh breadcrumbs. It went back into the oven for another 20 minutes or so, until the top was well browned and the sauce bubbly.
I went a little light on the salt, anticipating that the bacon would be saltier than it was, but it could have used a pinch more. I also think this would have benefited from a little mustard in the sauce – dry or Dijon – to balance out the richness of the cream and cheese. Overall, I’d say this was a success, if not for the faint of heart.