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Baked Penne with Cauliflower and Cheese


Serves 6

  • by from Fine Cooking
    Issue 121

Cauliflower and cheese are a classic combination, and here they come together in a sophisticated take on macaroni and cheese. The cauliflower adds flavor and beneficial nutrients, and it lightens up the calorie count of each portion.

  • 4 cups 1-1/2-inch cauliflower florets (about 1 lb.; from 1/2 head)
  • 1 medium onion, sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled
  • Fine sea salt or table salt
  • 12 oz. dried penne
  • 2 cups 1% milk
  • 1 tsp. dry mustard
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
  • 2 oz. coarsely grated sharp white Cheddar (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1-1/2 oz. finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1-1/2 cups using a rasp grater)

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 375°F.

Put the cauliflower, onion, and garlic in a steamer basket set over 1 inch of boiling water in a 6- to 8-quart pot. Cover and steam until the cauliflower is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the cauliflower, onion, and garlic to a blender.

Fill the pot three-quarters full of salted water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for 3 minutes less than the package timing. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.

While the pasta cooks, add 1 cup of the milk, the dry mustard, 1 tsp. salt, and 1/2 tsp. pepper to the vegetables in the blender and purée until smooth. Transfer to a 3-quart saucepan and stir in the remaining 1 cup of milk and the thyme. Heat over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling, about 3 minutes.

In a small bowl, mix the Cheddar and Parmigiano. Add all but 1/2 cup of the cheese to the sauce and stir until the cheese is melted. Add the sauce to the pasta and stir to combine. Transfer the pasta and sauce to an 8-inch square baking dish and sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is beginning to brown, 20 to 30 minutes.

nutrition information (per serving):
Calories (kcal): 350, Fat (kcal): 8, Fat Calories (g): 70, Saturated Fat (g): 4, Protein (g): 18, Monounsaturated Fat (g): 2, Carbohydrates (mg): 52, Polyunsaturated Fat (mg): 1, Sodium (g): 790, Cholesterol (g): 20, Fiber (g): 5,

Photo: Scott Phillips

First of all, you can't give a recipe five stars if you add ingredients and make substitutions. It's not the same recipe anymore. I made this EXACTLY, as written and I thought it was terrible. It smelled amazing while it was cooking but was not worth waiting for. It was dry and lumpy (guess I didn't run the blender long enough) and it lacked flavour. I won't make this again.

What a lovely little recipe! I'm bummed that others didn't find it so, but here are my thoughts. I hate "health" food. HATE it. So I was skeptical but willing to try this one. I was fascinated by how the pureed milk and veggies mirrored a great bechamel. I did not find the texture odd, but I did have the blender going for at least a minute. With the final addition of milk, I added it until the thickness seemed right, so maybe that's what makes the texture difference. I did not find the recipe bland at all, but I added salt to taste rather then measure. I did swap out a couple ingredients, so here they are: asiago for parmesan, skim milk for 1%, and I added some cut up rotisserie chicken and a few extra cloves of garlic. If you do try this one, I hope you have success with it, because it really is good.

I enjoyed this dish quite a bit and was intrigued by the alternative use of cauliflower to make it more nutritious. I'm knocking off 2 stars because there is no way in heck that 1.5 ounces of parmesan is equivalent to 1.5 CUPS! I had 1/3 pound of parm and when I grated it all THAT didn't even reach the 1.5 cup level. Also, I much prefer pasta recipes that call for a full pound rather than 12 ounces. So much easier.

It is amazing how our ratings and tastes vary. I thought this was very bland and tasteless. Will not make again.

Wanted something to take to a potluck that was easy. This is likely the poorest pasta dish I have ever made. I doubled the cheddar and added sun dried tomatoes to try to perk up the flavour. It was pretty tasteless and definitely not a hit. I will not make this again.

I'm always amazed when reviewers differ so widely on a recipe. How can some people love it while others hate it? Anyway, I'm in the "I hated it" camp on this one. I think I followed the recipe as written - onion, garlic, fresh parmesan, good cheddar, what's not to like - but I found nothing to like about it. It was too milky/sloppy, quite tasteless despite all the good ingredients and, as others mentioned, the texture was odd. I think roasting the cauliflower and sauteeing the onions & garlic might have helped the flavour and it seemed to me there was too much milk and not enough seasoning. The cooking challenge is how to improve the leftovers.

Thanks for this recipe! Great, the family loved it! Made a couple of changes - we had grated Emmental cheese instead of cheddar, and wholegrain mustard instead of dry mustard powder. Gave it a bit of crunch anyway! Also to save on washing up, I mixed it all in the dish, instead of using the blender. The cauli was slightly broken up/mashed, and this added to the texture... Delish!!

This dish was so so. It most definitely has a much grainier texture than traditional mac and cheese. My daughter took the substantial left overs and said it was better once she added alot of goat cheese. This probably smoothed out the texture.

Very tasty! Easy and hard to believe it is low calorie. I would make this again!! My husband even liked it, added some marinara sauce on the "leftover" night. Yummy!!

I found this dish to be quite satisfying. I shredded too much cheddar, so I used only cheddar in the sauce and then sprinkled a little parmesan and cheddar on the top before it went into the oven. I also used whole wheat penne. I broiled the dish for the last few minutes because I was too impatient to let it brown at 375 degrees. It was really good! I will make this again. Thanks Ellie!

I made this tonight and really liked it. It was rich tasting and comforting. It was hard to believe it was a healthy recipe! The cauliflower puree was tasty even on its own. I may make it another time and see about serving it as a soup. My husband liked it as well, although thought there should have been more black pepper. The only ingredient change I made was to substitute the 2 oz. cheddar with 2% Velveta, as I needed to use it up. And I made it in an 11x17" pan, as I wasn't sure it would fit into the 8x8". Update: Like others, I wondered how the cauliflower, onion, and garlic puree would taste as soup. I was looking for a cauliflower soup recipe, and thought - why not try this? I did and it was wonderful. I poured the whole 2 cups of milk into the veggies to make it easier to puree them. I added a bit of extra cheese and it was perfect. It's now my go-to cheesy cauliflower soup recipe.

The fact that my cauliflower-hating 6 year-old like this says everything. Yes, the texture doesn't have the creaminess of normal mac and cheese, but the flavor is wonderful. The whole family enjoyed this casserole. You can read my full review at Taking On Magazines:

We really enjoyed this. I made half the recipe for 2 of us, using a little less than 6 oz. of mini penne, and subbing aged gouda for the cheddar. I put a layer of ham bits in the middle of the casserole. The texture is not EXACTLY like regular mac & cheese, but it's fine, if you puree the veg for long enough in the blender. I don't make mac & cheese at home, since I like the Stouffer's red box stuff so much I just buy it (infrequently, when I want to indulge.) I will definitely make this lighter version again, trying different cheeses and additions.

I thought this was ok, but my husband didn't like it. There was something a bit off about the texture. So, I wouldn't make this again as written. However, I probably would make a 1/2 recipe of the puree and add it to my next batch of mac & cheese. I think I would up the garlic, and maybe add a touch of nutmeg to the puree though - and more pepper.

This is a fabulous recipe. I much prefer it to regular mac & cheese. The sauce is amazing. I didn't have fresh thyme so I substituted saffron. Delicious!!

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