The nice thing about being able to make a cauliflower cheese from scratch, apart from the obvious taste one, is that you can make exactly as much as you need. You don’t have to cook an entire fresh cauliflower and frozen also works well, so once you know how to make up the right amount of sauce and the various things you can add, you’re sorted.
Cauliflower (I cut a whole one into fairly large florets so they’d take longer to cook and not go to mush)
Butter (no more than 25g, probably half that unless you’re making loads of sauce)
Milk (any kind – I used about 250ml between 2 medium dishes)
Plain flour, a spoonful or two depending on how much sauce you want. I used 2 rounded cereal spoons for a thicker coating sauce.
Salt & pepper to taste
Cheese: grate as much as you want, depending on how cheesy you want the sauce. Save some grated cheese to sprinkle on the top.
The basic sauce, before you add cheese, is a bechamel, to which you can add nutmeg if you want. I didn’t.
Breadcrumbs – adds crunch to the topping, although I don’t usually add them
Onions, leeks, celery – anything like that can be sautéed and mixed gently with the cooked cauliflower before coating it with the sauce.
Broccoli – you can substitute or add broccoli to this recipe if you prefer. The method’s exactly the same.
Mustard / mustard powder – I like using a generous spoonful of whole grain mustard in my cheese sauces, but you could use dry mustard powder mixed with the cheese that you sprinkle on the top.
The higher the fat content of the milk, the creamier the end result so for a really nice sauce for a special meal, use full cream milk, or you could stir in a couple of tablespoons of cream.
Method, with notes for the novice.
Preheat your oven to Gas 6 / 200C / 400F
Prepare the cauliflower, if whole and fresh, by cutting it into individual florets, trying to keep them broadly the same size. Cook it however you want to do that (cauliflower can be boiled, steamed and probably cooked all sorts of other ways); I did mine in a pan of boiling water until poking it with a sharp knife showed that it was softened on the outside but not mushy. Drain the cauliflower in a colander and then put it back on the saucepan on the hob, without heat, so that it will drain well and allow some evaporation. Watery cauliflower will ruin your sauce while it’s in the oven so it’s worth allowing the heat from the oven to help things along, without continuing to cook the cauliflower.
While I was doing this, I also softened 2 chopped leeks and a small amount of chopped celery in a little olive oil in a small frying pan. Keep a low heat – you’re not actually trying to fry it, just cook it through. When they’re done, remove from the heat and set aside for a moment. This was something I hadn’t tried before (I usually just use white onion) and would count as a surprise if I served it to my family without telling them, hence the name.
Grease a glass or other ovenproof dish. I used a tiny amount of softened butter and a silicone pastry brush – dead easy, works well and cleans beautifully – although I remember my mother used to save butter wrappers in the fridge to use for greasing stuff. I softened the butter by leaving it in a ramekin for a few minutes near the oven, but it’ll microwave in seconds. If you don’t have a pastry brush and you’re using some sort of cooking spread so can’t use a bit of wrapper, take a square of kitchen paper or greaseproof paper, fold it over until you have a thickness you can work with and then just smear some spread on that with a butter knife and work it well over the whole of the inside of the dish to prevent sticking.
To make the sauce you will need:
- A saucepan large enough to hold the amount of milk you want to add, plus a bit but not so big everything heats too fast.
- A whisk
- A wooden or plastic spoon
- I also use chopsticks a lot when I cook – they’re great for getting into the corners of stuff.
For anyone who’s not made a sauce from scratch, this can seem daunting but it’s actually quite simple if you pay attention and get the lumps out before adding all the liquid. You can buy special sauce flour, but I’m using Tesco Value plain flour, which is perfectly good. If you know how to make a basic bechamel sauce (one of five ‘mother sauces’ – go and read about those if you don’t know what that means) then you suddenly have the skills to create all sorts of things: add cheese for either coating or pouring sauces, make lasagne sauce, chuck in parsley and some other bits for a sauce for a fish pie or make epic macaroni and cheese.
You can pick up a pot of ready-made ‘fresh’ sauce for pasta for about a quid but this recipe will only cost you pennies and taste infinitely better. Even if you make it with skimmed milk, the cheapest flour and the cheapest cheese, you can make something delicious. Put in little bits of ham or cooked bacon, for a pasta carbonara-type sauce. It’s not something that I’ve ever made and kept, so don’t know how long it would last in the fridge, but if you realise that you’ve made too much, set some aside, cool and then freeze it before adding in the cheese: so you have your thickened and seasoned bechamel sauce and can decide what to do with it another time.
- Melt your butter in the saucepan over a moderate heat until it begins to froth. Don’t let it go brown. Add the flour, a spoonful at a time, ensuring you completely coat it in the butter and cook, stirring with a spoon or chopstick, for two minutes.
- This is the critical bit: take the pan off the heat and very carefully add small amounts of milk to the pan. You need to turn those butter coated blobs of flour (sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It’s called a roux.) into a thick paste. Keep adding a bit more milk and using your whisk to constantly break up the lumps until you have added all the milk to your completely smooth sauce. (Don’t forget to check the bottom edges of the pan for flour as it can get stuck there and is liable to appear like an iceberg from the depths, once you’ve added all the milk.) Don’t worry if you think it’s not working, just whisk faster and try and break up any lumps you see. You’ll get there sooner than you think.
- Return the pan to the heat. Heat the sauce, stirring constantly with your whisk or spoon, until just below boiling point. You don’t want to boil the milk and have it rise up out of the pan – it’s an absolute bugger to clean off a hob once it’s dried. You’re going to have been stirring more slowly for a few minutes so most bubbles should have dissipated. What you’re looking for is a ring of tiny bubbles, close together around the edge of the pan. When you see those, just turn off the heat and keep stirring. If you’ve overheated milk and it starts to bubble up and boil over: immediately turn off the heat and only if you can properly protect your hand from burns should you carefully move it off the heat and allow to cool completely before discarding. Milk sticks to the skin, rather than running off like water, continuing to burn – you need to run it under cool water for far longer than a similar splash with very hot/boiling water. Then do the sensible thing and follow the advice here.
- At some point fairly soon after this you’ll feel the sauce getting thicker as you stir. Keep stirring as the sauce thickens and then season and add your grated cheese, a bit at a time, ensuring it melts completely.
That’s it. The bit up until you add the cheese is your basic sauce and then you just decide what you want to add to it from there. What I did was:
Added some grated mature Cheddar and Double Gloucester to the sauce. The latter was for a bit of colour really as it can look a bit bland.
Tipped the cauliflower (all drained) into the greased dishes (I made 2 smaller ones as my larger dishes were in use) and then split the sautéed leek and celery between the two. I was going to layer it but it looked better mixed up a bit.
Then, I poured the sauce over the veg, allowing time for it to filter through a bit. If you add too much too quickly it’s liable to run off the cauliflower, you’ve used too much and you find it’s then all immersed under a layer of sauce which will not be as nice as if you just coat the whole thing as best you can with a thicker one.
I sprinkled on some more of the grated cheese, into which I had already stirred a generous teaspoon of mustard powder and then grated a bit of the Pecorino Romano for good measure. Here I added a sprinkling of fairly large breadcrumbs, made by blitzing some stale homemade bread (cut into chunks) in the food processor. My hope was that it would add a lovely crunch but I’ve been the victim of too many a soggy breadcrumb topping to view it with anything other than suspicion. Blame Jamie Oliver – I’d just watched his programme on cooking economically and he was saying about it so I felt I should, rather than bin it.
I then put the dishes into the oven until the cheese on top was bubbly and golden. I ate some as soon as it reached safe temperatures and it was delicious. the breadcrumbs were a really good addition and not soggy at all. I have frozen the rest of them for future use.
Troubleshooting & Tips
You’ve coated all the flour but it’s swimming in butter. Too much butter then: quick decision time – you need to take the excess butter out (remove from heat, use edge of kitchen paper to absorb excess then resume) or just add more flour until it takes up the excess, which will mean you need to add more milk and everything else, and will get more sauce at the end of it. It’s cheaper to mop it up.
It’s lumpy and thick at stage 2 before adding most of the milk. Just add a bit more milk and whisk it until it becomes a smooth paste rather than a lumpy one. It will happen eventually if you keep going.
I got impatient, added too much milk too quickly and now I’ve got a pan of yellowy milk with lumps of flour floating in it. Try whisking more, it sometimes helps. If you can mash the lumps against the side of the saucepan with the back of your spoon that will also break them up. If nothing you do is getting rid of the lumps, just grab a sieve and strain them out. In a second pan, make the roux again, but make less than before, since the milk will have got some of it in there. Add your milk/sauce failure to the roux as if you were adding the milk on its own at stage 2. Be more careful this time about adding the milk more slowly but don’t beat yourself up: the amount of wastage would have been tiny and knowing how to rescue a stuffed-up sauce is an excellent skill.
But I used all the plain flour I had in the sauce so I don’t have anything to add. You can use any flour you have, self-raising is fine and you’re only using a little. Cornflour or thickening granules would also work and have the advantage of being able to be added as a liquid, but it would affect the taste – or, rather, the loss of the correct amount of the roux would affect the taste – and possibly the texture.
I’ve been stirring and stirring and it’s nearly boiling and it’s just NOT thickening. Why? Not enough roux for the amount of milk you’ve used to thicken it. You may have to accept defeat and use the milk for something else, if you can, but you can try rescuing it as per the steps for having to remove lumps: make a second roux or add another thickener etc. I’d always try the former. You can totally get a sauce back from disaster that way. I’ve used it many a time!
Opposite problem – the sauce has got far thicker than I wanted before I’ve even added the cheese. Add more milk – preferably not straight from the fridge. Warm it if you have time and just add a bit at a time, stirring until it gets thinner again. You’re going to end up with more sauce than you planned so at this stage you could set aside some to freeze, before the adding cheese to the sauce bit.
I took it out of the oven and the sauce had gone all watery and horrible. The cauliflower was either overcooked and just went to mush in the oven, releasing more liquid, or it wasn’t drained properly. You can try and drain it off but it’s messy. Better to use a slotted spoon to salvage what you can. You’ll get the veg and most of the cheese, it just won’t look as appetising, although it’ll taste fine, unless you added breadcrumbs and also have a soggy layer of that to contend with. Skim them off and bin them – they’ll just be horrible. Add moar grated cheese if it’s looking particularly pathetic, or chuck into another dish and bung under a hot grill to see if that improves things at all.
I took it out of the oven and the sauce has got white bits in it and looks weird. It’s probably curdled: possibly because of the cheese you used. I grate everything except very hard cheeses with a coarse grater, but grating more finely can prevent this. If you’re using a mature cheese that crumbles more than it grates, it’s more likely to happen. It affects texture but shouldn’t actually spoil the taste of it. Add mash – you’ll notice it less.
I shall chalk this one up as a win. And before anyone points out that if you look online, humans have been adding leeks to cauliflower cheese for ages, I do now know that, but I’m happy enough discovering stuff for myself, some of the time, even if I am reinventing the wheel, on occasion.