This homemade version of Baked Mac and Cheese with Cauliflower is creamier, and more flavourful, than any mac and cheese you’ve ever had. Easy to make, comforting, satisfying, and completely worth the effort.
When there is a lot of cheese bits leftover from the holidays and lots of dried pasta in your pantry, there is one very obvious thing to cook: baked mac and cheese. More Covid restrictions and super chilly days also make it the perfect time to indulge in this warming, comfort-food dish. Basically, here you have the classic mac and cheese sauce enhanced by the inclusion of pungent shallots, garlic, and sweet-tender broiled cauliflower. Fresh breadcrumbs, thyme leaves, salty parmesan, and toasted pecans are tossed with melted butter to make a crunchy, tasty crust on top. Baked until bubbly and golden, you couldn’t find more good stuff, all in one dish, if you tried.
This shockingly flavourful baked mac and cheese with cauliflower is so worth the effort to make from scratch. It will happily feed a large family, or a smaller one with plenty of leftovers for lunch. All you need on the side is a simple arugula or radicchio salad to offset the richness and to make it a meal. And if, like me, you now have a very tiny family to feed, you can easily halve the recipe. But even better, make the full batch, divide in two, and freeze one for later.
About The Cauliflower
Adding cauliflower to mac and cheese is nothing new. Most versions are made by blending boiled cauliflower with the cheese sauce. This makes a delicious creamy sauce while also adding to the daily veggie quota. Here, however, the cauliflower is broiled so that the florets char and slightly soften, while still retaining their crunchy texture. A feat achieved in 5 to 6 minutes total.
Broiled cauliflower is deliciously crisp and tasty. When tossed with the cheesy sauce and pasta, it is downright irresistible. So good in fact, if I didn’t have my youngest to feed, I would absolutely make this an all cauliflower, pasta-less, cauli and cheese dish.
Ingredients For Baked Mac and Cheese with Cauliflower
I have been making a classic homemade version of mac and cheese for my kids for years, and rarely did I ever eat any of it. My kids of course loved it but I found always found it rather bland and cloying. This one is far from that. The crispy cauliflower adds texture and interest and the shallots and garlic add a ton of savouriness and flavour.
- Pasta – A classic macaroni shape is obvious to use here, but any short shaped, tubular pasta will work.
- Cheese – I like to use a mix of melty, flavourful cheese. Aged white cheddar, gruyere, mozzarella, Fontina, Ementhal, etc. Note, mozzarella is my least favourite since it doesn’t have a lot of flavourful, but it is th only cheese that will give you that stretchy-pull.
- Cauliflower – This recipe calls for a whole head of cauliflower. It may seem like a lot but cauliflower really shrinks when roasted or broiled. Plus, it’s delicious, so go ahead and use the whole head.
- Butter – Here we use butter to make the cheese sauce, and a bit for the breadcrumb mixture. If you wish, you could use olive oil for the breadcrumb mixture instead.
- Milk – Whole milk is best to make a thick, creamy cheese sauce. That said, I have often used 2%, and non-dairy, with great success.
- Dijon mustard – The spicy tang of dijon mustard is a wonderful addition to this cheesy sauce.
- Flour – To thicken the cheese sauce.
- Shallots and garlic – You can certainly omit these two ingredients but I urge you to try it at least once. They will take this mac and cheese to a whole new level.
- Breadcrumbs – Fresh, homemade breadcrumbs are so much tastier but good quality store-bought, such as panko, will also work just fine.
- Pecans – This is getting a little extra, I know. But add toasted pecans to this breadcrumb topping and you will never go back. So good.
- Fresh thyme leaves – A bit of herby-ness in a dish is always welcome. Feel free to use dried.
- Salt and pepper – Depending on the cheese you use, you will season to taste.
How to make Baked Mac and Cheese With Cauliflower
Aside for the broiled cauliflower, this mac and cheese is made using only one pot. The pasta cooks quickly in a large pot, once drained, you will use the same pot to make the cheese sauce.
Here is the step-by-step:
- Broil cauliflower for 4 – 6 minutes then set aside.
- Cook the pasta until it’s more al dente than you’d normally like your pasta to be. In other words, about 2 minutes less than your pasta package indicates. Drain, rinse with cold water and set aside. A drizzle of olive oil will prevent it from sticking. Place the same, now empty, pasta pot over medium heat and add the butter. Once butter is melted add the shallots and garlic and cook until slightly softened, about 1 minute.
- Stir in the flour whisking constantly, until the flour is foamy and just starting to turn a light golden brown, about 3 minutes.
- Slowly whisk in about 1 cup of the milk, whisking constantly to avoid clumping. Add the remaining milk, mustard, and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, whisking constantly to make sure the mixture is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- Once the mixture has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream, remove from heat.
- Add grated cheese and mix until the cheese is completely melted. Taste and season with a little more salt and pepper, if needed.
- Add the cooked pasta, stirring to coat well. If the sauce seems a bit thick, add a few splashes of pasta water (about 1/4 cup) to loosen.
- Stir in the cauliflower tossing very gently to coat.
- For the topping, combine all ingredients in a bowl.
- Transfer the macaroni and cauliflower mixture to a 3-quart or 9 x 13 baking dish and scatter breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top. Bake until breadcrumbs are evenly golden, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve immediately.
Tips For The Creamiest Mac And Cheese
This mac and cheese with cauliflower recipe is straightforward and easy. There are, however, a few mistakes that could result in a sauce-less, over-cooked, or grainy mac and cheese. Here are my best tips to avoid any of these mishaps.
- Use freshly grated cheese – Pre-grated, packaged cheese has anti caking agents to preserve it. These agents are not only questionable from a health standpoint, but they also prevent the cheese from melting well. This could make your sauce grainy. It is always worth grating your own cheese.
- Cook off the raw flour – When making the roux, be sure to cook the flour in the butter for at least 1 to 2 minutes. Rushing this step will give your sauce a raw flour taste.
- Prevent grainy cheese – For the smoothest cheese sauce, be sure to remove the milk mixture from the heat before you add the cheese. If the milk mixture is too hot when you add the cheese, the cheese mixture can separate and become grainy. Not good.
- Undercook the pasta – All pasta casseroles need to be made with pasta that is slightly undercooked so it does not become mushy once baked. I like to rinse the under-cooked pasta in cold water then drizzle it with a little olive oil so it doesn’t stick.
- Hold back some noodles – Add your noodles to the sauce in phases. If the sauce seems plentiful, add the rest, if not, don’t add the rest. Remember you will also be adding the broiled cauliflower and you want it plenty saucy.
- Reserve pasta water – The cheese sauce should be thick but if it is too thick, it can clump up when bakes. Adding a splash or two of pasta water will loosen, and further flavour, the cheese sauce.
- Do not over bake! This may be the biggest tip of all. Some recipes will tell you to bake for 30-40 minutes. Sure your mac and cheese will bubbly and hot but it will be completely sauceless once it cools. I like to cook the mac and cheese at a high temperature for just 15 minutes or so. This finishes the pasta quickly and toasts the tips on the top layer. If you like the top crunchier, just set it under the broiler for a minute or two.
Make Ahead And Freeze
Unfortunately mac and cheese will lose some creaminess if made ahead. You can however follow two simply tips to ensure a made-ahead mac and cheese remains saucy.
#1: Make a thinner cheese sauce. When making the milk mixture, do not allow it to thicken very much. As soon as it looks the consistency of heavy cream, and lightly coats the back of a spoon, remove it from heat.
#2: Allow the cheese sauce to cool completely before adding the pasta. This prevents the al dente pasta from cooking any further, or absorbing too much of the sauce, before it is refrigerated.
Make ahead and refrigerate: Following the tips above, assemble the dish completely in the casserole without baking. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and refrigerate for up to 8 hours or up to 2 days. When ready to cook, preheat oven to 425°F and bake for 20 minutes, uncovered.
Make ahead and freeze: Following the tips above, assemble the dish completely in the casserole without baking. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, then with aluminum foil. Place in freezer for up to 2 months. When ready to cook, place baking dish in refrigerator for around 24 hours to thaw. Preheat oven to 425°F. Remove foil and plastic wrap and bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden on top and bubbly on the inside. You can also bake frozen: Preheat oven to 375ºF. Remove plastic wrap, cover again with aluminum foil, bake for 1 hour. Remove the foil and bake until bubbly all over and lightly golden, about 10-15 minutes longer.
This mac and cheese would be just as happy with broiled broccoli replacing the cauliflower. Simply cook it, and add it, in the exact same way as the cauliflower. If your kids will not eat either, consider serving it on the side for those that do.
A gluten-free pasta works fabulous here. Just be sure to barely cook the pasta as gluten-free pasta can become extremely mushy if over cooked. Or forgo the pasta all-together, reduce the amount of sauce, and make it a “cauliflower and cheese” dish, so good.
Other Comforting Dishes You Might Enjoy
Baked Mac and Cheese with Cauliflower
For the Cauliflower
- 1 head cauliflower, broken into florets
- 1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the Mac and Cheese
- 1 pound macaroni pasta (elbows) or other short, tube-shaped pasta, such as shells, cavatappi, farfalle, bow-tie, or fusilli
- Kosher salt
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 1 clove garlic finely grated, or minced
- 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk you can use 2%
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- Freshly ground pepper
- 8 ounces sharp or aged white Cheddar cheese grated
- 8 ounces Gruyère grated
For the Topping
- 1 1/2 cups coarse breadcrumbs or panko
- 1/2 cup fiinely chopped tasted pecans optional
- 1 - 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves optional, or use dried thyme
- 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese optional
- 3 tablespoons melted butter or olive oil
- Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- Place an oven rack 10 inches from the broiling unit and turn the broiler on. Place cauliflower florets on a large baking sheet in one layer. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive and season with salt and pepper to taste. Broil cauliflower for 4 - 6 minutes, checking after 3 minutes to make sure it isn't charring too quickly. Remove from oven, turn broiler off, and set cauliflower aside.
- Meanwhile, cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until it’s more al dente than you'd normally like your pasta to be. In other words, about 2 minutes less than your pasta package indicates. Reserve 1 cup pasta water then drain the pasta, rinse with cold water, and drizzle with a little olive oil to prevent from sticking. Set aside.
- Place the same, now empty, pasta pot over medium heat and add the butter. Once butter is melted, add the shallots and garlic and cook until slightly softened, about 1 minute. Stir in the flour whisking constantly, until the flour is foamy and just starting to turn a light golden brown, about 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in about 1 cup of the milk, whisking constantly to avoid clumping. Add the remaining milk, mustard, and season with 1 teaspoon salt and black pepper to taste. Bring to a bubbling simmer, and cook for about 5 minutes, whisking constantly to make sure the mixture is not sticking to the bottom of the pan.
- Once the milk mixture has thickened slightly (it should look no thicker than heavy cream), remove the pot from heat and allow to sit for about 1 minute. Add the grated cheese and mix until the cheese is completely melted. Taste and season with a little more salt and pepper, if needed. Add the cooked pasta, stirring to coat well. If the sauce seems a bit thick, add a few splashes of reserved pasta water (about 1/4 cup) to loosen. Stir in the broiled cauliflower, tossing very gently to coat.
- Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Combine breadcrumbs, pecans, thyme leaves, and Parmesan with the melted butter. Season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Use your hands to mix well to ensure the whole mixture is evenly coated.
- Transfer the macaroni and cauliflower mixture to a 9 x 13 baking dish and scatter breadcrumb mixture evenly over the top. Bake in preheated oven until breadcrumb topping is slightly golden-brown, 10 to 15 minutes. Let cool slightly before serving.