Friday, March 4, 2011

A gorgeous gratin (with a secret ingredient)

Is there anything that doesn't taste good smothered in bechamel sauce?

I'm sure I could eat anything wrapped in that creamy goodness. Include some sharp cheddar and a golden-crumbed topping, and I'd wager you could hide a tennis shoe underneath and I'd at least give it a try. Probably lick the sauce from the laces.

Last weekend, we were invited to a combo birthday/Oscar party potluck. I knew dessert was covered, it being a birthday celebration, and didn't want to bring the standard potluck salad, whether it be green, pasta, or potato. I decided on this divine cauliflower gratin, which, let's face it, is just a fancy name for casserole.

My friend Stephanie made this at Thanksgiving and it was the hit of the dinner. I bothered her for the recipe for a long time to no avail, and even tried this one in my desperation, which was very good. But it did not stand up to Stephanie's. When I finally wore her down (no friendship stands in my way of food) and got my greedy paws on it, I knew had to make it, soon. Heather's birthday bash seemed like the right opportunity.

"Why is it so good, Hungry Dog?" I can hear you clamoring. "Tell us!"

Well, there's the bechamel sauce I mentioned, which is fortified with loads of cheddar and a handful of scallions, giving it a mild oniony bite and a pleasant sprinkling of green. Then there's the topping, which is actually made from crackers instead of breadcrumbs, giving it both delightful crunch and a good dousing of trashiness, befitting its casserole roots. But what elevates this dish from delicious to divine is that the the  topping is made from...wait for it...horseradish cracker crumbs.  

What you do is, you melt some butter, and then stir in the horseradish, then toss it all with the crumbled crackers. So you've got yourself a buttery, peppery, crispy top layered over creamy, cheesy goodness. Oh yeah, there's cauliflower in there too. (Does anyone even care?)

I doubled the recipe and brought it to the potluck, where it was a great success. Heather emailed me the next day for the recipe, and although I considered playing it coy like Steph, in the end I decided, sharing is good. Plus, it's not like I made this one up.

I only made one edit to the dish, which was a concession to the husband. The recipe calls for Saltines -- you know, those flimsy salty little things. That's what I would have gotten if I'd been at the store alone. But the husband was with me, and he noticed that Saltines contain trans-fat. He batted his eyelashes a bit and said, wouldn't I consider some of the good fancy crackers we usually buy?

I was resistant at first--you know I can be a rule follower (a pointless characteristic, I'm realizing as I get older, as all it ensures is that I do the same thing as everyone else) -- but ultimately relented. And, although the crackers were quite a bit tougher to crumble, they yielded a better topping.

I guess after nearly 11 years together, I shouldn't be surprised that we've morphed into each other a bit. But, come on: the boy from Kentucky recoils at trans-fat while the California girl grudgingly agrees to use the rosemary and sea-salt crackers? Just goes to show, anything can happen if you give it time.


  1. Ooh, I would've never thought of using crackers for the topping. What a good idea! Haha, I love how you describe it as "trashy."

  2. Cracker topping is a great idea! Personally, I'd try it with Ritz, trans fats be damned.

  3. horseradish in the crumbs is SNEAKY, and i love it! ah, bechamel. it's a luscious word for a luscious creation. :)

  4. Ah, bechamel, moves me to my sole, err, I mean soul ;P What a way to fancy up cauiflower, it sounds so darn good. Can I let you in on a little secret? I can' believe this but I don't think I've ever used horseradish before, about time to start I think.

  5. Jessica: Well, casseroles are a little trashy, right? Still can be delicious, but trashy.

    camille: good call on the Ritz.

    egg: yes, crunchy goodness.

    grace: totally sneaky!

    shaz: hey it was my first time w/horseradish too! I'm a convert. It's a great little accent.

  6. Trashy is good....
    Bechamel makes everything better.....

    Are you talking about those divine little Stonewall crackers we use for dips? Yum.

    Trying to think what I used horseradish in last I know I have it. A salmon dip, I think.
    Never would have thought to put it in a cracker crumb topping though. Brilliant.

  7. Horseradish-coated crumbs? You are a genius! I love this idea in the same way that I love how a little Dijon in mac 'n' cheese adds that lovely, subtle bite.

  8. Barbara: no, the crackers I used are called Panzanella or something like that, fancy little italian ones.

    CJ: Isn't it brilliant? Wish I'd thought of it!

  9. Wow. This would be a delicious way to eat cauliflower. Thanks for the idea! I wonder what other veggies would work?

  10. hungry dog, I insist you give up the recipe! I love cheesy casseroles, and am appalled to learn that saltines contain trans-fats... they seem so bland and fatless. not like this recipe to be sure. so come on, we're waiting (or you could just email it to me)...

  11. Ash: Broccoli would be fine, I'm sure. Seems like something kind of sturdy would be best to stand up to the bechamel.

    foodhoe: The recipe is linked above. But I'll send it to you too.

  12. Funny you should mention saltines as I had to eat a whole box of them in one day (all the while bemoaning the transfats which I aggressively avoid) as I got incredibly ill with stomach flu the day of the Oscars.

    But enough of that because this recipe sounds awesome. I love both cauliflower and gratin, and the horseradish crackers are a brilliant addition. Can't wait to make this!

  13. Connie: Poor thing! (Both for the flu and all the saltines!) I think you would love this--it's truly delicious.