Cheesy Cauliflower au Gratin: a Hard-Won Love Story

My feelings towards cauliflower used to equal George Bush Sr.’s for broccoli. Disdain. Hate. Disgust. Cauliflower was our running family joke.
“What’s for dinner, Mom?” “Cauliflower.” “Ew! Gross! Stop kidding around. Tell us what’s really for dinner.” So much time wasted without this sweet and versatile vegetable in our lives! If you’re not a fan of cauliflower, this week’s recipe for Cauliflower Gratin will change your mind. Cauliflower Gratin beats macaroni and cheese. Hands down.

Cauliflower au GratinBut first, let me tell you how we were won over to cauliflower. We owe it all to Margaret.

When Sophie was born, we hired young Polish woman named Margaret through Chicago Nannies to help us adjust to our first 6 weeks with four kids. Sophie was a preemie and she was born a few days before the start of the school year instead of October as planned. When my water broke, we didn’t even have diapers purchased. Six weeks seemed like a good period to get us adjusted.

Jack studying Sophie carefully.
Jack studying Sophie carefully.

We couldn’t afford a full time nanny, but for 6 weeks we could make things work. Margaret was a godsend. She took our crazy household and made it run. She attacked the laundry. She re-organized the closets. She applied tea bags to Sophie’s diaper rash. She was a force of nature and we all gratefully surrendered.

The six week mark came all too quickly. Margaret looked at me, her eyes deadly serious behind her thick black rimmed glasses, and said, “I’m not leaving. You need me.” My belly was still sagging over my maternity pants. My days were one long breast pump and breast feed blur. I don’t remember much about those days, but I’m pretty sure I hugged her and cried. She gave a curt military nod, certain all along that we would be smart enough to recognize that we were hopelessly lost without her.

CauliflowerWe received a weekly vegetable share from an organic delivery service that has since gone out of business. One week, the share included a head of cauliflower. “Margaret,” I asked, “would you like this cauliflower? None of us will eat it.” She stared at me and pursed her lips in disapproval. “How can you not like cauliflower? You have not had it made properly. I will cook it for you and you will like cauliflower.”

She got right to work, chopping and blanching the cauliflower florets. Thirty minutes later, she was browning it in butter and sprinkling it with parmesan and breadcrumbs. We licked our plates. Margaret nodded with just the hint of a smile. “See? I told you that you would like it.” Once again, Margaret was right.

Margaret left us at the end of the school year to begin her own family. Her little boy is a year younger than our Sophie, blonde and adorable. Our love of cauliflower survived her departure. Although we often return to Margaret’s breadcrumbs and parmesan recipe, we also love to experiment with other recipes. Cauliflower is sweet and very forgiving. It’s a vegetable that inspires play.

Grated ComteThis cauliflower gratin recipe is easy to assemble and could be either a side or a main course. It also reheats nicely the next day. You could use swiss cheese, but I like to use Comte, not only because I’m French, but because I think the nutty sweetness of Comte makes a real impact. Try it with cheddar – that may be your gratin cheese of choice!

Cauliflower Gratin: Better than Mac and Cheese!
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Serves: serves 4-6
  • 1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
  • 1 cup of milk, preferably 2%
  • 2 Tablespoons of salted butter
  • 2 Tablespoons of flour
  • 1 teaspoon of nutmeg
  • 1¼ cups of Comte or Swiss Cheese, grated
  • ¼ cups of grated Parmesan cheese
  • ⅓ cup seasoned breadcrumbs
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Place the cauliflower florets in a large pot of cold water. Bring to a boil. Cook for 5 minutes.
  3. Grate your cheese.
  4. Remove the cauliflower from the water and place in the bottom of an 8-inch square Pyrex pan. If your cauliflower head was on the larger size, you may have a few extra florets. Don't jam them all in the Pyrex - hold a few aside to add to stir fry or other meals that week.
  5. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan on medium heat. Add the flour and nutmeg and blend with the butter with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring and cooking for about 2 minutes, so that when you bend down and get a good whiff of the mixture, it doesn't smell like flour.
  6. Add the milk and continue stirring for 2-3 minutes, until thickened. Remove from heat. Add 1 cup of the Comte cheese and all the parmesan. Stir to blend.
  7. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower. Move it around to coat it somewhat evenly.
  8. Toss the breadcrumbs and remaining ¼ cup of Comte cheese on top.
  9. Bake at 375 degrees Fahrenheit for 1 hour. Serve warm.




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