Easy-to-follow recipes for three cauliflower cheese variants.
Cauliflower Cheese: A History
Chronicling the Cauliflower
Cauliflowers have been known in England since at least 15971 , when Gerard proclaimed the “cole flourey” the best colewort along with the white cabbage, even going so far as to suggest Cato couldn’t have known about cauliflowers or he wouldn’t have commended the ruffled cole (Savoy cabbage). There is some disagreement about their origin, with some2 claiming Cyprus and others3 suggesting it is more likely Syria. We can at least agree that they travelled West, via Italy and France, to get here.
Early recipes for cauliflower (usually spelled “cole flower” or “colliflower”) are often difficult to decipher. For example, one4 calls for the fine, thin leaves of red cauliflowers, but common cauliflowers are not red, neither are their leaves a likely addition to a fruit salad. These early uses of cauliflower range from pickles5 to garnishes for boiled udders and tongues6. Strangely, recipes for pickled cauliflower were often called “Indian Pickle”7,8, despite the fact that we introduced cauliflowers to India and it was considerably later9.
The first book that describes cauliflower convincingly is from 168510, with recipes ranging from salads to pottages. Often, cauliflowers are served with beaten butter, sometimes mixed with meat stock, egg yolks, and sack (a Spanish fortified wine, the only modern version of which is sherry). Since savoury ingredients in sweet custards have been around since the earliest English cook book11, cauliflowers use in such dishes is not surprising, but it didn’t take long for the sauces to resemble roux (in that they were thickened with flour and savoury). Popular flavourings for these savoury sauces included vinegar, nutmeg, and lemon12,13, alongside the mainstays salt and pepper.
A Gouda Pairing
Although recipes in the early 18th century describe cauliflower dressed with cream and butter14, it wasn’t until the 19th century that a white sauce was used15. A year later, in 1808, the first recipe I can find for cauliflower cheese was published by John Mollard16. This first dish involved arranging fried bread around boiled cauliflower, and pouring “benshamelle” sauce mixed with Parmesan over it. The sauce was made by thickening a meat stock with a “passing of flour and butter” (basically, a cold roux) and cream, and seasoning with mace and white pepper. Preparing white sauces by starting with a meat stock was common at the time17, even though it seems unusual and unnecessary now, and many sauces required straining through a tamis to make them smooth.
Following this recipe, there were many adjustments to this dish. Many early recipes17,18 suggest using a salamander, which was an iron plate with a long handle, used to brown dishes before the invention of the oven. Later sauces were sometimes simpler, with one18 containing only flour, butter, water, egg yolk, and lemon juice. And Parmesan continued to be the most commonly used cheese, although there were other early suggestions such as Gruyere19 and Cheshire20. Surprisingly, a very common modern choice is Cheddar, but there are no recipes that call for it that I can find before the 20th century!
Lastly, this section is the result of extensive research, but if you see any mistakes or know of anything I’ve missed, please do contact me ~ extra information is always welcome!
1: John Gerard (1597) The Herball or General Historie of Plantes (p.243-250)
2: Thomas Webster and William Parkes (1855) An Encyclopædia of Domestic Economy (p.476) Read Buy
3: Jane Grigson (1978) Vegetable Book (p.175) Buy
4: Gervase Markham (1623) Countrey Contentments or The English Huswife (p.60-61) Read Buy
5: Hannah Wooley (1672) The Queen-like Closet or Rich Cabinet Read Buy
6: William Rabisha (1673) The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (p.76) Read Buy
7: Hannah Glasse (1747) The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy (p.389) Read Buy
8: Elizabeth Raffald (1769) The Experienced English Housekeeper (p.337) Read Buy
9: Gopalakrishnan, T.R. (2007) Vegetable Crops (p.209) Read Buy
10: Robert May (1685) The Accomplisht Cook Read Buy
11: Samuel Pegge (1390) The Forme of Cury Read Buy
12: John Nott (1723) The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary Read Buy
13: Robert Smith (1725) Court Cookery: or, The Compleat English Cook (p.78) Read Buy
14: Richard Bradley (1732) The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director (p.148) Read Buy
15: Maria Rundell (1807) A New System of Domestic Cookery (p.113) Read Buy
16: John Mollard (1808) The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined (p.104) Read Buy
17: Mary Eaton (1823) The Cook and Housekeeper’s Complete and Universal Dictionary (p.71) Read Buy
18: John Bregion and Anne Miller (1845) The Practical Cook (p.300) Read Buy
19: Alexis Soyer (1847) The Gastronomic Regenerator (p.456) Read Buy
20: Alexis Soyer (1858) A Shilling Cookery for the People (p.112) Read Buy
This recipe follows Alexis Soyer’s suggestion of Cheshire cheese instead of Parmesan. I wanted to make a dish that was lighter but still homely. The chives and lemon complement each other and the crème fraîche ensures it keeps the comforting nature for which it is so well known.
To make this recipe gluten free, and also to make the sauce smoother and easier, use rice flour instead of wheat flour. Rice flour is much less likely to create clumps when stirred in, and I almost always use it when I need a thickener.
- cauliflower, 6 florets & a few young leaves
- butter, 1 tbsp
- flour, 2 tsp
- milk, 4-6 tbsp
- Cheshire cheese, 2 tbsp
- crème fraîche, 2 tsp
- lemon, 1 (or ½ tsp lemon juice)
- chives, 1 tbsp
- salt & pepper, pinch
- Cut away the cauliflower leaves, saving a few young ones for garnish
- Separate the flower into florets, and wash thoroughly
- Grate 2 tbsp Cheshire cheese
- Zest and juice your lemon, if using
- Chop 3 tsp chives with scissors
- Bring a pan of salted water to boil and add florets (6 per person)
- Simmer until a knife can be inserted easily (about 5-10m)
- Add the leaves and blanch for a minute
- Drain and refresh with cold water to preserve the colour
- Melt 1 tbsp butter in a saucepan
- Add 2 tsp flour and stir to form a roux
- Add a little milk at a time, stirring between additions, until you have a thick sauce
- Add 1 tbsp of the cheese and stir until melted
- Take off the heat and add 2 tsp crème fraîche, ½ tsp lemon juice, 1-2 tsp chives, salt & pepper
- Preheat oven to 200°C
- Arrange the cauliflower leaves in the bottom of a small gratin dish
- Add some sauce and then arrange the florets in the shape of a mini-cauliflower
- Cover in the remaining sauce
- Top with 1 tbsp cheese, lemon zest, and 1 tsp chopped chives
- Bake until golden brown (about 20m)
- ✔ Nut free
- ✔ Low in carbohydrate
- ✔ Low in dietary fiber
- ✔ Source of Vitamin K
- ✔ Can be gluten-free
- ✔ Low in sugar
- ✔ Source of Vitamin C