Cauliflower cheese: its history and how to make the best

“But for me the real fascination is with the Cauliflower Cheese itself. Some kind of gratin with cheese and cauliflower? A head of cauliflower with a cheese sauce poured over it? Can my British readers enlighten me? What is it? Do people still make it? Is it delicious or is it kind of bleak?”

Thomas Hogglestock, writing on his blog, Hogglestock, reviewing Barbara Pym’s Some Tame Gazelle

My, what a treat this reader has in store!

 Some kind of gratin with cheese and cauliflower? Check.

A head of cauliflower with a cheese sauce poured over it? Well, nearly. Some people keep the cauliflower whole but it usually results in the outer florets becoming overcooked and mushy. It’s better to divide it into florets.

Do people still make it?

They certainly do! If you look at this graph which compares cauliflower cheese with mac n cheese you will see that they are level pegging, with a spike for mac n cheese around Thanksgiving, and a spike for both dishes at Christmas, and the mac n cheese being eaten in north America, and the cauliflower cheese being eaten in the UK, Ireland, and Australia.

Looked at over a five year period the popularity of both dishes is on the rise.

Is it delicious, or is it kind of bleak?

Well, it’s like everything, it depends on how you cook it. If the cauliflower is overcooked, as I remember all to well from my school days, it will be sad, watery, and mushy.

However, cooked carefully (this is not, actually, difficult), it is sublime.

In this post we:

  • give our Saucy Dressings’ version of the classic cauliflower cheese and explain why we think it’s the best
  • give some ideas for what can be added to it
  • give some ideas for what to serve it with
  • and some ideas for what to do with leftovers
  • we also give a history of its origins
  • and include a discussion as to why there is no ‘and’ in its name

A bit of explanation about the recipe

The breadcrumbs

The ‘sippets’ or fried bread specified in the very early recipes remained a constant for a reason – the crunchiness of them adds texture, and they also add a few (not many) comforting carbs. These days the same effect is achieved by using crisped up breadcrumbs – an essential part of the recipe. I sometimes add chopped walnuts which bring out the nuttiness of the cauliflower.

The cheese

The cauliflower is a delicate soul, and you don’t want to overwhelm it. A stout, mature cheddar might well do this. A good Lancashire (Mrs Kirkham’s) has a kinder, gentler character. Felicity Cloake, in her ‘perfect’ series, uses Lancashire in the mornay sauce, and cheddar to sprinkle on top. But keeping, and/or finding two types of cheese is a bit of a fiddle.

The mustard

On the other hand, being so delicate, cauliflower can be in danger of being insipid. To counter that I include a couple of teaspoons for mild English mustard.

The shallot

A ‘proper’ béchamel sauce (which becomes a sauce mornay when you add the cheese) is made by infusing the milk with an onion (or half an onion for this amount of milk) pierced by a clove. But then you throw the onion away (alright, you can use them for making stock if you are as organised as that, but I am not) which seems wrong. So I use a banana shallot which gets thrown in later.

At the risk of sounding pompous, I am more concerned with making meals which taste good, and which respect nature and the hands that tend it, rather than being ‘authentic’, but bear in mind that the second recorded recipe I have found (John Smith’s, see below) for Cauliflower Cheese, suggests adding ‘very small onions’.

cauliflower cheese recipe
The shallot is a good addition.

What to eat cauliflower cheese with

  • You don’t need to eat it with anything – it’s a grand dish in its own right.
  • Traditionally it was eaten with roast beef or lamb, and potatoes.
  • sausages… especially Cumberland sausage.
  • tomatoes… try Édouard de Pomiane’s Tomatoes Á La Polonaise.
  • It goes very well with ham, or gammon.
cauliflower cheese a grand dish in its own right
Cauliflower cheese is a grand dish in it’s own right.

What to add into cauliflower cheese

Frozen baby peas

Added to the just drained cauliflower

Broccoli

Treated in the same way as the cauliflower (maybe boil for a minute or two less) adds colour and variation.

Mushrooms and shallots

As John Smith suggests in the first ever published vegetarian cookbook (see ‘History’ further down this post), cooked mushrooms or shallots can be added ‘instead of cheese’. That would take away half the taste, not to mention the very identity of the dish…’cauliflower mushroom’ doesn’t have the same cachet. But you could experiment with adding one or other of them ‘as well’.  Indeed, our recipe includes the shallot.

Leeks

Edward Schneider in a post on the New York Times blog describes an interesting twist, he bases his béchamel on leeks:

“I julienned the white part and a couple of inches of the pale green, then sweated them with salt in plenty of butter. When the leeks were tender but not even slightly browned, I stirred in a couple of tablespoons of flour, letting it cook for a minute or two.”

What to do with leftover cauliflower cheese

  • Make it into a sauce for pasta
  • Use it as a topping for baked potatoes
  • Serve on sourdough toast, drizzle with truffle oil, top with a fried egg
  • mix with smoked haddock and make into pasties
  • top toasted sourdough to make a sort of cauliflower Welsh rarebit, and serve with red onion chutney

Where does cauliflower cheese come from, who invented it?

Cauliflower cheese has just three main components. Cauliflower, a béchamel sauce, and cheese… originally Parmesan cheese.

The cauliflower

Pliny the Elder described a plant he called cyma in his Naturalis Historia, a book he wrote sometime around AD 70, saying that it was the most pleasant tasting of all the varieties of cabbage. He was probably describing the flowering heads of a particular type of cabbage but it sounds similar.

By the middle ages the cauliflower had developed a bit more, and was again described by botanists, this time Spanish Arabs. Ibn al-‘Awwam, whose Book on Agriculture was written towards the end of the twelfth century, and Ibn al-Baitar, who was writing in the early thirteenth century who both described an early form of cauliflower being cultivated in Cyprus. It seems likely that cauliflower was common in the Arab world in the middle ages. Cauliflowers made their way, via Genoa, to France in the sixteenth century where they were commonly known as chou de Chypre.

So how did cauliflowers make it across the Channel? In the late 16th century the Huguenots (French protestants) suffered terrible persecution, and many fled to England. They brought skills with them, notably weaving, lace-making and glass-blowing, and they were also knowledgeable kitchen gardeners. With them came cauliflowers and hops.

And, in turn, it was the British who introduced cauliflower to India.

Long story short: cauliflowers were around in Britain in the seventeenth century.

The Parmesan cheese

Parmesan cheese had certainly reached Britain by 1666, when Samuel Pepys describes burying his precious wheel of it in his garden to protect it against the Great Fire. So, again, we’re back to the seventeenth century. For more on Parmesan cheese, follow this link.

The béchamel sauce

In 1533 Catherine de’i Médici married Prince Henri of France, and brought with her, among other things, both Parmesan, and a forerunner to béchamel sauce, salsa colla. In 1651 La Varenne swapped the breadcrumbs for butter and flour and named his development after the chief steward at the time, Louis de Béchamel. So here we are again, in the later part of the seventeenth century. For more on béchamel sauce, follow this link.

So all three ingredients were around in Britain towards the end of the seventeenth century, but they were also in France, and Italy. What caused them to be assembled in Britain, and for that trinity to become so beloved? So far, it’s still a mystery.

The first recorded recipe for cauliflower cheese was published in London, in 1802, in John Mollard’s The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined.

“Cauliflower with Parmezan Cheese: Cut off the leaves and stalk, boil it in salt and water till nearly done, and drain till dry. Have ready a dish with fried bread dipped in white of raw egg, and put round the rim. Set the flower in the center of the dish, and pour over it a sauce made with boiling-hot benshamelle, and three minutes before it is to be put over the cauliflower, add grated parmesan cheese.”

Some 60 years later, it’s also documented, this time without the cheese being specified, and with the benefit of a grill (the salamander) to get it golden. But the fried bread remains:

“Boil a cauliflower till tender, drain the water well from it, and divide it; lay it in a dish and pour a quarter of a pint of good white sauce over it; then grate or slice some cheese over it, and brown it before the fires or with a salamander*. Instead of cheese a few small mushrooms, or very small onions previously boiled, may be put into a saucepan with the cauliflower and white sauce. Serve with toasted sippets**.”

John Smith, The Principles and Practice of Vegetarian Cookery (1860)

*A salamander was an early form of top grill. ** Sippets were pieces of fried bread.

Interestingly, Mrs Beeton, an infamous plagiariser, published her version of cauliflower cheese a year later in her Book Of Household Management. She follows John Mollard in saying that the cheese of preference is Parmesan. But she comes up with the idea of using brown breadcrumbs instead of the fried bread. She puts some of the grated Parmesan in the white sauce, and mixes the rest with the breadcrumbs. She doesn’t use a grill, she bakes hers in the oven (she may have had a range, rather like my Aga).

The British v USA linguistic contention

There is a wonderful post (referenced with regard to adding leeks, above) written by Edward Schneider on the New York Times blog.

In it, Schneider explains he can’t understand the English way of referring to cauliflower cheese without an ‘and’ in between.

I’d be a bit sad as an Englishwoman if I didn’t enter at least momentarily into the fray by explaining that, this side of the pond at least, if you said cauliflower AND cheese you could even be talking about a raw head of cauliflower and a block of cheese. Take out the ‘and’ and you have a cooked, melded, dish.

There are many comments, most passionate, on Schneider post. ‘Kev’ muses that ‘The English have more French influences in their language. Sauce mornay, cauliflower cheese. The second noun becomes more active, almost verb-like, rather than the more complacent -and cheese.’ I’m not sure about the French influence, but it’s a good description on how the word is used.

Just Cook It’ explains,

“To an Englishman, Macaroni and cheese would be just that: little tubes of boiled pasta covered with grated cheese. Cauliflower and cheese? Cooked cauliflower with cheese judiciously melted over the top.
The omission of the ‘and’ is important. Essential even. It transforms the mundane into the sublime. It transfers knowledge that what you will receive in return is a steaming pile of comfort food, oozing with bechemel and positively replete with melted cheese.So, cauliflower cheese it is. And shall always remain so. To those of us on this side of the pond, at least.
But then again, we have a national health service too…”

Whether or not you want an ‘and’ in there, or not, nothing stops this dish from being endlessly popular, and, particularly, a go-to in times of stress. It’s slightly better for you than mashed potato!

Music to cook to

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong – Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

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