You know those crispy bits of tasty baked cheese or sauce left around the edge of a casserole? We fight over them in my family. Who can resist scraping up that last bit of crunchy goodness? The French actually have a word for it – gratin. It was originally derived from another French word, the verb “gratter” meaning “to scrape.” In 16th century France, the bits were scraped (graté) from the pan so that no amount of food was wasted. The term “le gratin” has also been used in France as a unique term describing the “upper crust” of society.
Since the 19th century, the meaning of the word has changed somewhat. Now we associate gratin or au gratin with dishes that have a crispy, baked top layer. This is usually created by placing the dish under direct heat. In the past, the cooking tool used for achieving a brown, crisp crust was called a salamander. The salamander, a rod with an attached iron disc, was heated in coals. When the disc became red hot, it was passed back and forth over the top of the dish until the top layer was brown and crisp. Nowadays we can achieve a similar result with the help of a broiler.
An antique Parisian salamander, ca. 1920
Cheese or breadcrumbs are often thought to be an essential component of gratin dishes. While they certainly help to create the desired top layer, one of the original gratin dishes, the gratin dauphinois, was made simply with thinly sliced potatoes and heavy cream and baked in a pan rubbed with butter and garlic. The dish is native to the former Dauphiné region of France, the same area responsible for creating the puff-like dauphine potatoes or “pommes dauphine.”
Gratins aren’t limited to potatoes; they can be made with anything from pasta to asparagus. And they don’t always have to be served as a savory dish. When prepared with fruit and cream and topped with sugar, a delicious crispy dessert can be made. Just like torching the sugar on top of a crème brulée, the broiler will melt and harden sugar on top of your gratin.
Gratins have been around for a few centuries, and most of us have tried them in some form. What makes the dish so fun is that it has very little restrictions in terms of ingredients. It can be re-invented over and over. Simply choose any of your favorite vegetables or fruits, add butter or cream, and turn up the heat. Or, you can make it with roasted cauliflower and cheese sauce, like I did!
I created this Roasted Cauliflower Gratin over the weekend. I’ve been on a roasted cauliflower kick lately—roasting the veggie caramelizes it, giving it a sweet and smoky flavor. I blame The Pioneer Woman and the mouthwatering Cauliflower Soup that she posted earlier this week for getting me into a cauliflower frame of mind. On Sunday I was in the mood for macaroni and cheese, but I wanted something healthier—something I could indulge in without feeling super guilty. I roasted up some cauliflower, then thought about topping it with grated cheddar cheese. I suddenly remembered a potato gratin my mom used to make for Thanksgiving—cheesy potatoes with rich cheese sauce and a brown, crispy top. Totally decadent. I started with her gratin sauce recipe and modified it a bit. Then I put the roasted cauliflower into a small baking dish, topped it with breadcrumbs (I used panko, but any type of crumbs will do), and baked it. I broiled it for the last minute or two to brown the top.
The result? Cheesy, creamy, amazing. The cheese sauce was perfection, the browned crumbly top created a lovely texture and crunch. The secret here is roasting the cauliflower, which gives it so much flavor. That, combined with the cheese sauce, makes for one heck of a delicious recipe—and the best part is, it’s much lighter than gratins made with heavy cream. Plus, you’ve got the added benefit of this being a vegetable dish, which takes some of the guilt out of indulging in all this cheesy deliciousness.
I also posted a tested gluten free modification below, I tried it out and it works great. Enjoy!
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- 2 1/2 lbs cauliflower florets (about one large 3 lb cauliflower head)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1 1/4 cups lowfat milk
- 3/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese, tightly packed
- 3 tbsp breadcrumbs (I used Panko)
Gluten Free/Passover Modification Ingredients
- 1 tbsp potato starch
- 3 tbsp parmesan cheese
You will also need
- 2 qt gratin dish or 8x8 inch square baking dish
- Gluten Free/Passover Modification: Substitute 1 tbsp potato starch for flour, substitute 3 tbsp grated parmesan cheese for breadcrumbs
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Spread out the florets on the baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Toss to coat (I usually use clean hands to make sure the cauliflower is evenly coated). Place them in the oven to roast for 10 minutes.
- After 10 minutes, stir the florets with a wooden spoon. Return to the oven and roast for about 15 minutes longer till the edges brown/caramelize and the cauliflower is tender.
- While the cauliflower roasts, in a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, salt, and pepper. Stir to form a thick paste.
- Slowly whisk in the milk, ¼ cup at a time. Heat the milk mixture over medium heat for a few minutes, whisking frequently, till it thickens and begins to bubble around the edges. Do not let the sauce boil.
- Whisk in the grated cheddar cheese and stir till melted. Reduce heat to lowest setting, stirring frequently, until ready to assemble the gratin.
- Remove roasted cauliflower florets from the oven and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees. Place the roasted florets in an even layer in a 2 qt gratin dish or 8x8 inch baking dish.
- Pour the cheese sauce evenly across the top of the cauliflower florets.
- Sprinkle the breadcrumbs evenly across the top of the cheese sauce.
- Place the assembled gratin into the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes till edges begin to brown and the cheese sauce is bubbly.
- Remove the gratin from the oven and turn on your broiler. When broiler is hot, place the gratin back in the oven and let it brown under the broiler for 1-2 minutes, watching it carefully, till the top is browned to your liking.
- Serve hot. If you're like to try a spicy modification on this recipe, substitute cayenne pepper for the black pepper, and add another pinch of cayenne to the sauce.
Davidson, Alan (1999). Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford University Press, USA.
Herbst, Ron and Sharon Tyler (2009). The Deluxe Food Lover’s Companion. Barron’s Educational Series, Inc., Hauppauge, NY.
Saint-Ange, Madame E. (1927). La Bonne Cuisine. Translation copyright 2005, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA.