baked penne with cheese, cauliflower, and crème fraîche

That’s really just a fancy way of saying macaroni and cheese, but don’t be fooled.  It was absolutely wonderful.  I would probably never have made this if not for the fact that I went to the farmers market last week and bought crème fraîche that has been moldering away in my fridge ever since.  Yesterday, when I realized that I should probably use it up pretty soon, I went on over to epicurious to find something to do with it.  This recipe was perfect for me because, believe it or not, I’ve never knowingly eaten cauliflower.  Since I started this blog, in part, to help me branch out and try new things, I figured I should probably jump right in.   I don’t know why I’ve never had cauliflower – maybe because it’s white, but I always just think of it as this bland vegetable that’s not as good as broccoli.

I was definitely wrong, because it was the cauliflower that moved this dish beyond simple mac and cheese, and into something that I can’t wait to eat as leftovers.  There were also tomatoes, a little onion (the recipe called for green onion, but I had half a sweet Vidalia left over from hamburgers this weekend, so I used that instead) and LOTS of cheese.  The recipe calls for “about 9 oz” of Comté, or a mix of Gruyère and fontina, but you try finding Comté or fontina in my Publix.  I had 6 oz of Gruyère, so I used that and added some sharp cheddar into the topping.

You start out by cooking the cauliflower – not too long, 5 or 6 minutes.  You want it to be cooked, but still a little crispy.  If it’s still a little crisp, it stands out really nicely next to all the soft pasta and the sauce.  Add some tomatoes and onions…the tomatoes add just a little freshness to all that dairy.  And oh my goodness, the dairy.  Heavy whipping cream, nearly 4 cups of cheese, and crème fraîche – but don’t worry, you won’t go into a dairy coma, I promise.  The sauce seems impossible as you’re making it – it’s so thick and gooey, but just cook it over low heat and keep whisking it around, and it’ll be fine.   Once everything is cooked you just layer it all in a baking dish and stick it in the oven for 25 minutes or so, and when you pull it out…cheesy, saucy goodness.  The crème fraîche makes it a little tangy, and the cauliflower adds just a little veggie crunch to the whole thing.  Also, this was my first experience with ‘home-made’ breadcrumbs, and I was amazed at how easy it was!  I had a sour dough french bread round that I was using for sandwiches, and I just threw some in my food processor, and voila!  Breadcrumbs! I know I shouldn’t be so impressed with that – I mean, breadcrumbs?  Shred a few slices and you’re good, right?  But really, these turned out all toasty and crunchy…perfect.

Yes, I know it looks like your grandma’s mac and cheese, but it’s not.  It still feels like your favorite comfort food, but with more depth of flavor, and it does have a vegetable in it after all, so it gets credit for being kind of healthy (I’m going to pretend like all that heavy cream and cheese doesn’t completely cancel out the nutritional value).

So, I tried something new, and it turned out amazingly.  Despite the simplicity of the finished product, I’m really proud of this dish.  Not just because it turned out like it was supposed to, but because I used the cauliflower instead of substituting broccoli just because I’m more familiar with it.  It seems like such a small thing, but I’m so excited for the next time I can hardly stand it.

Cheesy Baked Penne with Cauliflower and Crème Fraîche

  • (1) 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-pound head of cauliflower, cored, cut into 1-inch florets
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 5 tablespoons butter, divided
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
  • Coarse kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 3 cups coarsely grated Comté cheese (or half Gruyère and half Fontina; about 9 ounces), divided ( I used all Gruyère, and some sharp cheddar for the topping part)
  • 3/4 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano ( I used romano)
  • 1 cup crème fraîche*
  • 1 tablespoon whole grain Dijon mustard
  • 10 ounces penne (3 1/2 cups)
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from crustless French bread ground in processor)

Cook cauliflower in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Using large sieve, transfer cauliflower to bowl. Add tomatoes to pot; cook 1 minute. Remove from water; peel and dice tomatoes. Reserve pot of water.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add cauliflower; sauté until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and green onions. Cook 1 minute to blend flavors. Remove from heat. Season with coarse salt and pepper.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in cream. Cook until sauce thickens, whisking occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add 2 cups Comté cheese; whisk until melted and sauce is smooth. Whisk in 1/2 cup Parmesan, then crème fraîche and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Return reserved pot of water to boil. Add pasta and cook until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain; return pasta to same pot. Stir in cauliflower mixture and sauce.

Preheat oven to 350°F.  Butter 13x9x2-inch glass baking dish. Spoon in half of pasta mixture; sprinkle with 1/2 cup Comté cheese. Top with remaining pasta mixture and 1/2 cup Comté cheese. Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in small skillet. Add breadcrumbs and toss to coat. Remove from heat; mix in 1/4 cup Parmesan. Sprinkle crumbs over pasta.

Bake pasta uncovered until heated through and bubbling, about 35 minutes.

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One thought on “baked penne with cheese, cauliflower, and crème fraîche

  1. Hmmm, this looks like the perfect recipe to sneak some veggies in on my husband. The last time I got him was with parsnip puree. They look like mashed potatoes and tasted yummy. I think this recipe will be a hit as well!

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