Cauliflower and Pancetta Gratin

I’d never heard of Cauliflower Cheese until I started researching traditional British cooking in 2009. Naturally, I had to give it a try. I’ve done several different versions over the years. There was one with crème fraîche, one with ham and rice, and this one. The other ones were very delicious, but this one has some extra oomph, a lot of tang and a good depth of flavor. If you can make a béchamel sauce, you can make this recipe. If you can’t make a béchamel sauce, go watch some videos; I’ll wait! You’re definitely going to want to try this Cauliflower and Pancetta Gratin.

It’s pretty easy to most of the work for this dish in advance. In fact, you can make the whole recipe, stash the leftovers in the refrigerator and microwave it later. You can also assemble it in advance (topping in a separate container) and cook it when you’re ready for it. Start the filling in a cold oven then, when the oven is up to temperature, add the topping and start the timer. In addition, you can make the topping days in advance and store in an airtight container in the fridge and you can boil or steam the cauliflower in advance and store. It’s a very helpful recipe like that. Do whatever makes your life easier. I find that if I do enough of a recipe in advance it’s so much easier to just keep going than go to a restaurant or get takeout.

Cauliflower and Pancetta Gratin

1 1/2 lbs / 700 g cauliflower (weighed after trimming), divided into florets (approximately two heads)
2 tbsp olive oil
4 ounces / 100 g pancetta, cut into lardons or cubed
4 ounces / 100 g breadcrumbs
1 lemon, zest only
2 tablespoons roasted, salted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
1 1/2 ounces / 45 g cheddar cheese, grated
1 1/2 ounces / 3 tablespoons / 35 g butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 cups / 450 ml milk
1 tbsp wholegrain Dijon mustard
5 1/4 oz (150 g) soft, herbed cheese (a good grocery store option is shallot-and-chive Boursin)

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower florets, bring water back to boiling, then back off heat, cover and simmer 5 minutes. Alternatively, steam the florets in the microwave until easily pierced with a knife. Drain well and lay florets out on kitchen towels to dry completely. This is very important! No one wants a soggy gratin!

To make the crunchy topping, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and cook pancetta 5 minutes then add breadcrumbs and cook another 5 minutes, stirring. Breadcrumbs should get toasted and golden; turn down heat if they start getting too brown. Leave breadcrumb mixture to cool completely then stir in zest, seeds, and cheddar cheese.

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6. Grease a large shallow gratin dish or casserole (mine has a 6 cup/1.5 L capacity) and set aside.

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When it bubbles, whisk in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, continuing to stir. Remove pan from heat and whisk in the milk, a bit at a time. Return to heat and bring to a boil, whisking. Continue to cook and whisk until mixture reduces by about a third. Remove from heat and stir in mustard and soft cheese.

Place cauliflower in the bottom of the gratin dish and top with the sauce. Sprinkle the topping over and bake 25 – 30 minutes, or until nicely golden.

Serves 4

Adapted from Good Food Channel.