Cauliflower Gratin with Tillamook Aged Cheddar, Caramelized Onions & Applewood-Smoked Bacon

Cauliflower Gratin with Tillamook Aged Cheddar, Caramelized Onions, & Applewood-Smoked Bacon

I spied a cauliflower gratin on a restaurant menu recently and was filled with nostalgia. It’s been some time since such lovely, old-fashioned country French dishes were in vogue, and I miss them.
Cauliflower Gratin Mise-en-Place I wasn’t able to order the gratin that night and am compensating by creating what I imagine the quintessential dish should be. Happily, Northwest farmers markets are overflowing with just-picked cauliflower, so the timing is perfect.
Mixing Cauliflower, Bacon, and Caramelized Onions The combination of tender cauliflower, creamy sauce, crisp bacon, smoky flavor, melted cheese, and crunchy topping make this dish especially appealing, as well as comforting at some deep level. It’s the kind of dish I can imagine Julia and Paul Child eating half a century ago in their Paris apartment. Yes, I just saw Julie and Julia. J
Mixing Cauliflower, Bacon, Caramelized Onions and Cream in a Bowl Ingredient Notes

With applewood-smoked bacon (which is sensational), this dish stands on its own quite well, perhaps accompanied by a simple salad of leafy greens, oranges, and toasted hazelnuts tossed with a zippy vinaigrette.

To give the gratin an even smokier flavor, consider using Tillamook Smoked Cheddar in place of the aged cheddar.

If you plan to serve the gratin with something along the lines of Roast Tenderloin of Pork with Rhubarb Sauce (Pacific Northwest Palate: Four Seasons of Great Cooking), or even something as simple as baked ham, I recommend leaving out the bacon, which would add one too many competing flavor elements.

On a side note, it is actually a bit odd to see both fresh rhubarb and fresh cauliflower in Northwest farmers markets at the same time–mid August as of this writing. Small, local growers have extended fresh rhubarb season by many weeks, which is a gift to the seasonal cook.

Technique Note

The method I use here differs from the classic approaches I have encountered (such as the inestimable Julia Child’s Cauliflower with Cheese featured in my well worn copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking), in which you build a mornay sauce and then cover the steamed cauliflower with it.

This is lighter and fresher I think, and certainly easier. Cheese, even well-aged cheese, tends to separate in a sauce, so I have learned to always keep it separate in dishes such as this (or macaroni and cheese or potato gratin)–in short, in any dish where I have the opportunity to layer it, rather than melt it into a sauce. And there is no need to build a separate sauce here, as it creates itself in the oven.

Cauliflower Gratin Hot from the Oven

Cauliflower Gratin with Tillamook Aged Cheddar, Caramelized Onions & Applewood-Smoked Ba

A wonderfully aromatic gratin, with an interesting play of flavors and textures. In short, heaven.

1 medium-large head white cauliflower (1 pound 2 ounces or 6 cups trimmed florets)
4 slices applewood-smoked bacon, fried or baked until crisp, drained, and crumbled
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1½ cups chopped onion (1 medium onion)
½ cup pale ale or dry white wine (or chicken stock and a teaspoon or two of fresh lemon juice)
½ cup chicken stock
2 cloves garlic, peeled, and pressed or minced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup cream
2 cloves garlic, peeled, and pressed or minced
2 ounces (about 1 cup) shredded Tillamook Reserve Extra Sharp Cheddar (or Tillamook Smoked Cheddar or other medium-firm aged cheese with good melting quality)

Bread Crumb Topping
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups fresh bread crumbs
1 clove garlic, peeled, and pressed or minced
¼ cup grated Parmesan

2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a full rolling boil and add the cauliflower. Cook for about 2 minutes, until the cauliflower has a bit of tenderness but is still decidedly crunchy. Drain into a colander set in the sink and refresh the cauliflower under cold running water until cool. Reserve.
  2. Prepare the bacon as indicated above.
  3. In a large sauté pan set over medium-low heat, melt the butter and add the onions.
  4. Cook, stirring regularly, until the onions are softened but nicely caramelized, about 20 minutes.
  5. Raise the heat to medium-high, add the wine and chicken stock, and simmer briskly until the liquid is nearly evaporated, about 10 minutes.
  6. Add the garlic, thyme, and rosemary. Toss and season to taste with salt and black pepper.
  7. Add the cooked, crumbled bacon, toss, and transfer the mixture to a lightly buttered or oiled baking dish.
  8. Put the flour into a large measuring cup with a pouring spout and add a few tablespoons of the cream, whisking to achieve a smooth paste. Gradually add the remaining cream, whisking to dissolve the flour. Add the garlic, season the cream with salt to taste, and then pour over the cauliflower mixture.
  9. Top the gratin with the cheddar cheese.
  10. To make the breadcrumb topping, in a small sauté pan set over medium-high heat, melt the butter and add the fresh bread crumbs.
  11. Sauté, stirring, until the bread crumbs are lightly toasted.
  12. Remove from the heat and add the garlic. Remove to a small mixing bowl and combine with the parmesan.
  13. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the gratin.
  14. Bake, uncovered, in the upper third of the oven at 350º for approximately 25 minutes, until the sauce has thickened and is bubbling through the top edges. The top should also be nicely browned and the cheddar melted by this time. If not, broil the top briefly to brown the top and melt the cheese.
  15. Sprinkle the top of the hot gratin with chopped parsley and serve.

Serves 4-8, depending on whether it is the main dish or a side dish.

 Copyright 2009 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.


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  1. Crystal Babich says

    I made this in soup form, it was exquisite. Paired well with a nice stout and a lovely bread, Thank you for the inspiration. Crystal Babich, Charleston, SC

  2. says

    I’ve been following your blog for quite a while and enjoying your wealth of good recipes. When Foodista announced that they are going to publish the best food blogs in a full color book that will be published by Andrews McMeel Publishing Fall 2010, I naturally thought of you. This recipe would be a good submission! You can enter here:

    Editor and Community Developer — The Cooking Encyclopedia Everyone Can Edit

  3. Linda says

    There is nothing new under the sun, right? I made this dish tonight thinking I’d never seen one quite like it. I’ve seen cauliflower gratin, but I have a new love of caramelized onions, so used that, added broccoli to the cauliflower, plus I used maple bacon, but otherwise very similar to yours. I served it along with Chicken Rolls Florentine with mushrooms. It was fantastic, pleased my dinner guests and my dear husband. I enjoyed your post!

  4. says

    Whenever I’ve tried to make cauliflower gratin it always turns out too much on the watery side. This one though looks, quite simply, perfect. Definitely on my list of recipes to try.

    • sms bradley says

      Thank you so much, Tim! This gratin is definitely creamy and almost decadent. What a way to get your cauliflower. :-)

    • Anonymous says

      I always get the same problem of watery gratin!!! I boil them… It turns out you need to put them into boiling water (not cold) to begin with . After they are done you need to leave them in the sieve at least 2 hrs to drain more (overnight is recommended).

    • sms bradley says

      Thank you, Kate! Let me know what you think when you make it. I just made it again with Gruyere and a pale ale and oh my!

    • sms bradley says

      Thank you, Allison! Yes, I think the little ones will definitely eat this. The beer option tastes like beer in the completed gratin though, so maybe use chicken stock instead. However, if they don’t like it, that’s all the more for you. As I recall, we had very little left over when I served this to only two people. :-)


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