Have you ever made a recipe and been pleasantly surprised by the results? You know, those recipes that sound like they’ll be good, just not great? And then when you finally make it you’re like, “Wow, I’m so glad I finally made this damn recipe! I knew I was keeping it around for a reason—I’m a genius! This Cheesy Baked Penne with Cauliflower and Sausage is one of those recipes.
It’s basically mac ‘n’ cheese with the volume turned up, as Ina Garten would say. Adding cauliflower makes such a cheesy dish seem healthier (emphasis on the seem), and adding sausage makes it even heartier for those men in your life bound to complain if there’s no protein involved in their dinner. (I know, I have one. I save my vegetarian dishes for my girlfriends.) Although I must say that everyone—guys and gals—voiced approval for the cauliflower and even went as far as to say that it’s what made this dish, and I have to agree. If you don’t like cauliflower, I promise you will after you eat this.
This dish is also perfect for a crowd. I made it for 10 people on a Wednesday night and served it with a salad and a light dessert. You can make it up to two hours ahead and let it sit on the counter until you’re ready to bake it. And I haven’t ever met a crowd that didn’t love a fun twist on mac ‘n’ cheese.
Cheesy Baked Penne with Sausage and Cauliflower
This recipe was adapted from one that appeared in Bon Appetit in October 2008. If you really like cauliflower, I suggest adding even more because it’s what really makes this dish special. You can find crème fraîche, which adds a nice tanginess to this dish, in the specialty cheese section of most supermarkets. This dish can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature until ready to bake. Serves 8-10. Click here to download a copy of this recipe.
1 head of cauliflower (1¾ to 2 pounds), cored, cut into 1-inch florets
2 large heirloom tomatoes, a small X cut into the bottom of each
6 Tbs. butter, divided
½ c. thinly sliced green onions
Coarse kosher salt
1 lb Italian sausage, hot or mild
2 heaping tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 c. heavy whipping cream
1 c. milk
3 c. coarsely grated Comté cheese (or half Gruyère and half Fontina; about 9 oz.), divided
¾ c. finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 c. crème fraîche
1 Tbs. whole-grain Dijon mustard
1 box (16 oz.) penne pasta
1 cup breadcrumbs
Blanch and shock vegetables. Cook cauliflower in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, make an ice bath by filling a large bowl with ice and cold water. When the cauliflower is fork-tender, transfer it to the ice bath using a large sieve. Add the tomatoes to the boiling water; cook 1 minute. Remove from water and plunge in ice bath; peel and dice tomatoes. Remove cauliflower from ice bath. Reserve pot of water.
Sauté veggies. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add cauliflower; sauté until beginning to brown, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and green onions. Cook 1 minute to blend flavors. Remove from heat. Season with coarse salt and pepper.
Brown sausage. Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add a small amount of oil, and squeeze the sausages out of their casing and into skillet. Cook sausage until browned and pretty much cooked through, using a wooden spoon to break up the sausage as you go.
Make cheese sauce. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in cream and milk. Cook until sauce thickens, whisking occasionally, about 4 minutes. Gradually add 2 cups Comté cheese, and whisk until melted and sauce is smooth. Whisk in ½ cup Parmesan, then crème fraîche and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
Cook pasta. Return reserved pot of water to burner, add more water if necessary, and bring to a boil. Add pasta and cook until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain; return pasta to same pot. Stir in cauliflower mixture, sausage and sauce.
Layer and bake. Butter a very large baking dish. Spoon in pasta mixture and sprinkle with remaining Comté cheese. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a small pyrex dish in the microwave. Remove from microwave, then add breadcrumbs and toss to coat. Mix in 1/4 cup Parmesan. Sprinkle crumbs over pasta. Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake pasta uncovered until heated through, brown and bubbling, about 35 minutes.