This is a truly decadent, grown-up version of your favorite Mac & Cheese. I made this for my husband and a friend who likely would have enjoyed the disgusting lovely blue box version with chopped hot dogs, but three cheeses + cauliflower + a grainy mustard tang + bread crumbs = one amazing dinner.
When I say decadent, I mean it. This dish is not figure friendly. Or wallet friendly. The several cheeses and crème fraîche can add up, but it’s worth it once in a while when you want to splurge and really punch up a classic favorite.
Now, I won't go so far as to say this is the best Mac & Cheese...yet. I think some more research is in order. I've made other versions in the past and have some I'd like to revisit before making a final decision on my ultimate, go-to Mac & Cheese favorite. Stay tuned...
Cheesy Baked Penne with Cauliflower and Crème Fraîche
Recipe by Bruce Aidells, Bon Appetit
1 1 1/2- to 1 3/4-pound head of cauliflower, cored, cut into 1-inch florets
2 large heirloom tomatoes
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions
Coarse kosher salt
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup heavy whipping cream
3 cups coarsely grated Comté cheese (or half Gruyère and half Fontina; about 9 ounces), divided
3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 cup crème fraîche
1 tablespoon whole grain Dijon mustard
10 oz penne (3 1/2 cups)
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from crustless French bread ground in processor)
Cook cauliflower in large pot of boiling salted water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Using large sieve, transfer cauliflower to bowl. Add tomatoes to pot; cook 1 minute. Remove from water; peel and dice tomatoes. Reserve pot of water.
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.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add flour and stir 2 minutes. Gradually whisk in cream. Cook until sauce thickens, whisking occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add 2 cups Comté cheese; whisk until melted and sauce is smooth. Whisk in 1/2 cup Parmesan, then crème fraîche* and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
Return reserved pot of water to boil. Add pasta and cook until tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain; return pasta to same pot. Stir in cauliflower mixture and sauce.
Butter 13 x 9 x 2-inch glass baking dish. Spoon in half of pasta mixture; sprinkle with 1/2 cup Comté cheese. Top with remaining pasta mixture and 1/2 cup Comté cheese. Melt remaining 1 tablespoon butter in small skillet. Add breadcrumbs and toss to coat. Remove from heat; mix in 1/4 cup Parmesan. Sprinkle crumbs over pasta. DO AHEAD Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Bake pasta uncovered until heated through and bubbling, about 35 minutes.