Saturday, November 9, 2013


Nothing fancy here, just a classic French homey gratin, and as much a comfort food of childhood as now. Gratin refers to the pan in which this is cooked, and so all things cooked in a gratin are gratin. :-) With a salad and perhaps bread, this is an easy dinner. It's a make-ahead kind of dish that can sit in the oven for as long as an hour without drying out thanks to the béchamel sauce.

It's also quite a versatile dish - if you want, add a cubed potato or two to the cauliflower. Traditionally, you rub the gratin pan with garlic but I add minced garlic to the béchamel. Sometimes I add a chopped shallot as well. Contrary to what some recipes say, the classic gratin does not require cream of any kind. Just milk - preferably whole, but at least 2%. Skim milk is a waste of time.

In this gratin the star of the show is the béchamel sauce - one of the mother sauces of French cuisine, best presented in Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire or his 800 page, 2000 recipe compendium Ma Cuisine. I bought a hardbound old copy of Ma Cuisine for $2 at a used book store in Half Moon Bay years ago. I have no idea why anyone would get rid of this book, but they did, and I scored! Anyway so béchamel is the base of other sauces such as Mornay and soubise. The quality of bechamel however, depends on the quality of the roux. Roux is nothing more than about equal parts of flour and butter - slightly more flour than butter - cooked together to form a binder for the other ingredients. There's brown roux, pale roux, and white roux. The color of the roux, logically, will determine the colour of your sauce.

Gratins such as potatoes dauphinoise, this cauliflower gratin, and other recipes where béchamel sauce is used, require a white roux which is used for white sauces. A brown roux is used for dishes that call for a brown sauce, and a pale roux is used for veloutés - velvety cream sauces.

Béchamel is really easy to make once you can make roux correctly. Cook the roux on a low-medium flame, never medium or high. You want to allow time for the starch cells in the flour to burst so that the butter combines with the starch without burning the starch (which high heat will do, and therefore require more roux in your béchamel which therefore will be really sludgy and overpower the other ingredients). You will see that as the starch and butter combine, the flour-butter mixture goes from the initial large clump to a soft, loose, stir-able mixture. And it will smell nutty. 

It's very important to keep an eye on the roux when it starts to smell nutty because then it will turn colour from white to brown - which we don't want for béchamel. So once it's loose and stir-able, cook for a minute or so and add the milk, salt, pepper, and whatever seasonings and spices you're using.

Cauliflower Gratin: Gratin de Chou-Fleur
Makes: 4 servings

- 1-1/2 lbs florets of white cauliflower
- 5 tbsp unsalted butter
- 6 tbsp all-purpose flour
- 3 cups milk, 2% or whole
- 1-1/2 tsp sea salt or any other good quality salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black or white pepper
- 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1 clove garlic, minced or chopped
3 cloves, whole (don't use powdered!)
- 1/4 cup shallot, finely chopped (optional)
- 1/2 cup grated Comté, Gruyere, Emmenthaler, or Pecorino Romano cheese
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F / 180 C.
  2. Boil a generous amount of water - enough to completely submerge the cauliflower - in a large stainless steel pan and add the cauliflower florets. Bring everything to a boil, and cook, uncovered, for about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside. Or you can steam the cauli for 5 minutes.
  3. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the flour and cook over low heat for about 2 minutes, stirring with a whisk. Don't let the mixture brown - it should be white, maybe very slightly off-white. 
  4. When the flour-butter mixture feels and looks loose and smells nutty, add the milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly to prevent it from burning or sticking to the pan.
  5. Simmer over low heat for 2 minutes. Add the salt, pepper, nutmeg, garlic, and cloves if using. Bring to a boil. Remove from the heat.
  6. At this point you can remove the whole cloves if you want, but I always leave them in because they don't overpower the flavour and give the gratin a warm fragrance which I love.
  7. Generously butter or oil a gratin dish. Put half of the cauliflower florets in the dish and evenly pour half of the béchamel over the florets.
  8. If using shallots, sprinkle the chopped shallots over the béchamel, add the remaining cauliflower florets and evenly pour the remaining béchamel over the florets.
  9. Sprinkle with the cheeses and bake for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
  10. Pull the bubbling gratin out of the oven and let it stand for 10-15 minutes before serving.
  11. Enjoy!

No comments:

Post a Comment