Now that daylight savings time has come to a close, and the curtain of night falls on the Northeast at about 4:30 in the afternoon, we can no longer deny the impending onslaught of winter. Sandals and shorts must be tucked under the bed until next year; out come the fleece leggings and snow boots. But we shouldn’t despair! One of the perks of dropping temperatures is that we can finally reunite with our ovens and broilers, long-neglected during the heat of summer. While my typical first order of business, once the clocks change, is to whip up a batch of from-scratch mac and cheese, this year I decided to inaugurate oven season with something a bit different: a comforting, cheesy dish of cauliflower gratin.
While most gratins do feature cheese as an essential component, the word gratin simply refers to a grated (or, according to a more literal translation, scraped) topping, which could be cheese, bread crumbs, or a number of other things. However, it’s a well-known fact that Formaggio Kitchen cheesemongers have an ongoing love affair with Comté, so the topping on my gratin was a couple generous handfuls of shredded Comté Fort Saint-Antoine, aged for about 14 months, with a great balance of milky-sweet and rich, nutty flavors.
While a more basic gratin could consist simply of roasted cauliflower with a cheese topping, this version is made with dairy lovers in mind. Parboiled cauliflower is tossed in a mixture of heavy cream, egg, and mustard, which are gently cooked together until they have reduced into a silky, decadent sauce. The texture of the cauliflower, once it has baked in this rich custard, is remarkably similar to macaroni, but even more wholesome and filling. Think of this gratin as a way to satisfy all your cold-weather food cravings while still getting a healthy dose of vegetables (creamy, cheese-smothered vegetables, but vegetables nonetheless).
Because the formula for making gratin is so simple, the possible variations are endless. Swap out the cauliflower for a bunch of hearty greens, chunks of winter squash, or sliced potatoes, and switch out the Comté (if you must) for any number of cheeses. (This potato-Tobasi gratin from our friends at Cricket Creek Farm looks especially tempting.) However your palate guides you, you owe it to yourself (and your lonely oven) to make a batch of gratin– preferably tonight.
Cauliflower and Comté Gratin
1 large cauliflower, separated into florets
2 cups heavy cream
1 egg, beaten
2 teaspoons mustard
1 1/2 cups grated Comté
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil, and add the cauliflower. Cook until still slightly firm, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Put the cream in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 10 minutes. Add half of the hot cream, one spoonful at a time, to the beaten egg, whisking constantly. Return the cream and egg mixture to the saucepan, and stir in the mustard and a few generous pinches of salt.
In a 3.5 quart baking dish, mix the cauliflower and the cream sauce. Sprinkle the Comté on top in an even layer. Bake in the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes, or until golden brown.
Jesi Nishibun is a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge. When she’s not behind the cheese counter, you can find her with her nose in a cookbook, or experimenting in her home kitchen.