We first made this recipe from the Feburary 2005 edition of Food & Wine at Thanksgiving a couple of years back. It was very well received and we’ve kept it on the rotation ever since. The manchego almond sauce here is a refreshing twist on your typical cream sauce, but it definitely still has that comforting warmth that you look for in a Thanksgiving gratin.
I also think this may have been one of the first recipes to introduce me to the wonders of Spanish Smoked Paprika, or Pimenton de la Vera. This paprika is worlds away from the Sweet Hungarian Paprika that you will find on the shelves of most grocery stores. I love both kinds, but the novelty of the smoked paprika made it especially exciting to discover. It comes in a variety of heats, with “sweet” (dulce) and “hot” (picante) being the most common varieties. It will add an incredible smoky depth to any recipe in which you use it, and those who are unfamiliar with the spice will wonder how you’ve done it! You can find it at most specialty food stores, and even some good supermarkets. It typically comes in a small rectangular tin. You could use either variety in this recipe, though we usually use dulce.
We found that the dish needed a fair amount of salt. The recipe has you adding salt in many different places: in the sauce, in the cauliflower, and in the mixture before you add the sauce. The last time I made this, I seasoned the sauce right to where I liked it, and then went easy on the salt in other places in the recipe. In the end, we felt it was slightly under-seasoned. Next time, I will probably salt only the sauce (and the cauliflower cooking water) and make the sauce ever-so-slightly on the salty side, to compensate for the other ingredients when they are added. You can always add more salt at the table however, so don’t get carried away!
Lastly, if you are looking to save time and kitchen space on the big day, you can prepare this dish all the way to where you add the sauce to the cauliflower the day before. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Then bring to room temperature before adding the cheese, almond, and paprika topping and baking.
Cauliflower Gratin with Manchego and Almond Sauce
Adapted from Food and Wine
- ¾ cup half-and-half
- ½ cup whole roasted almonds with skin, plus 2 Tbsp coarsely chopped almonds (3 oz)
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- ¾ cup plus 2 Tbsp finely shredded Manchego or other mildly nutty semi-aged sheep’s- or cow’s-milk cheese (3½ oz), such as Gouda
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- One 2-lb head of cauliflower, cut into 1½-inch florets
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- ¼ tsp Pimentón de la Vera, dulce or picante
To roast the almonds, I like to place them on a sheet pan in a 350˚F oven for about 10 minutes. You can also shake them in a pan over medium-high heat on the stovetop, until aromatic. Keep an eye on them and don’t let them burn.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a small saucepan, heat the half-and-half until steaming, then transfer it to a food processor or blender. Add the ½ cup of whole almonds and process until finely ground. Let stand for 10 minutes. Strain the half-and-half through a fine sieve set over a bowl, pressing on the almonds to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the ground almonds.
In a medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the flour and whisk over moderately high heat for 1 minute. Whisk in the milk and the half-and-half and bring to a low simmer. Cook whisking constantly, until thickened, about 6 minutes. If you skimp on this step, your gratin may come out slightly runny (though still flavorful). Remove from the heat. Add ¾ cup of the Manchego and whisk until melted. Whisk in the nutmeg (as Julia Child says, you don’t actually want to “taste” the nutmeg here… just the hint of something extra); season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.
In a large skillet, bring inch of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower, cover and cook over high heat until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Drain the cauliflower in a colander. Wipe out the skillet.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in the skillet. Add the onion and cook over moderately high heat, stirring until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the cauliflower and cook, stirring until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. I like to increase the heat here before adding the cauliflower, then I will let the cauliflower brown on one side without disturbing it for about one minute. Then I’ll turn and let the other side brown for about a minute. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Transfer the cauliflower to a 7-by-10-inch glass or ceramic baking dish and spread the Manchego sauce on top. The dish can be covered and refrigerated overnight at this point if you wish to make it ahead. Bring to room temperature the next day before baking.
Sprinkle the gratin with the remaining cheese, the 2 tablespoons of chopped almonds and the paprika and bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, or until bubbling and browned on top. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.