Comfort Food: Baked Mac & Cheese with Cauliflower and Pancetta

I am way behind on recipe posts due to the new job and being under the weather for the past week (and our wedding coming up in less than two weeks!), but I'm back and ready to post some of my new favorite recipes.

This recipe is a bit different from most of my recipes - it's not vegan, or gluten-free, or even vegetarian.  It's mac and cheese, and there's even a bit of bacon in it (well, pancetta, but close enough).

After starting a new job a couple weeks ago and working too many hours with too little sleep, I got a little worn down and caught my first cold in months.  So when I was figure out what to make for dinner last Friday, the only thing I wanted to eat was macaroni and cheese.  It's one of my favorite comfort foods, and while the powdered Kraft version used to be my go-to meal when I was sick (with cut-up hot dogs in it, of all things), I decided to come up with a new version of an old classic.

I wanted to add more vegetables and see if it still hit the spot.  I used a cauliflower puree instead of a traditional white sauce, which produced a light and fluffy baked pasta.  The cauliflower taste is subtle enough to blend with the cheeses, and the real flavor in this dish comes from the Cheddar and Gruyere.  If you're looking for creamier consistency for the sauce, I recommend either making a traditional white sauce and then adding 1/2 cup of cauliflower puree to it or making my vegan cream sauce recipe with yellow summer squash without the basil and garlic and then stirring in the cheese before baking.

Macaroni and Cheese with Cauliflower and Pancetta (Makes 8-10 servings)
1 medium head of cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
Olive oil
Kosher salt
1 pound pasta - penne, macaroni, or any other variety
1 cup plain almond milk, plus more as needed (
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1.5 cups grated cheese, about 6 oz. total (I used a combination of extra sharp Cheddar and Gruyere)

Optional: 1 oz. pancetta (or more if you like)

1/2 large onion (or one medium), chopped into 1/2-inch dice
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
2 Tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup Panko breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  Prepare a half sheet pan with parchment paper and spray a 9 x 13 glass baking dish with cooking spray. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

1. Toss the cauliflower in about 1-2 Tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) on the prepared half sheet pan.  Roast for 20 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender.  Transfer cooked cauliflower to the bowl of a food processor (or a good blender).

Lower the oven temperature to 375 degrees.

2. While the cauliflower is cooking, cook the pasta according to lowest cooking time on the package directions, until it is al dente.  The pasta will bake later, so you don't want to overcook it. Drain, reserve about 1/2 cup of pasta water, and return the cooked pasta to the pot.

3. Add the almond milk, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper to the food processor or blender.  Blend the puree until it is smooth.  It may take a couple minutes to get the right consistency, and you'll want to scrape down the bowl a couple times to make sure all the cauliflower and spices are incorporated.  Add additional almond milk  to the puree if it seems too thick, up to 1/4 cup. Add the grated cheese and process until the cheese is incorporated into the mixture.

4. Saute the pancetta over medium heat in about 1/2 teaspoon of olive oil for a few minutes until it starts to brown and get crispy.  Transfer pancetta to a paper towel to soak up any excess oil.  Add the onions to the same pan and saute for about 5-6 minutes until they are tender.

5. Add the cauliflower puree, pancetta, and onions to the pasta pot. Stir to evenly coat the pasta with the puree.  Add reserved pasta water to the mixture, about 2 Tablespoons at a time, until the sauce has a smooth, but thick, consistency. Taste to check the seasonings and add more salt and pepper as needed. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish.

6. Spread the tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, and breadcrumbs over the top of the pasta.  Drizzle a bit of olive oil on the topping.  Bake for 30 minutes, until the crust is lightly browned and crispy.

This dish is great straight out of the oven, but I was surprised to learn that it also reheats really well in the microwave.  The cauliflower puree coats the pasta but keeps it from getting soggy, so this makes great leftovers and lunches. 

One serving of Baked Mac & Cheese, assuming you get 8 total servings and use a combination of Gruyere and Cheddar cheese and the pancetta.   
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 188 g
Amount Per Serving
Calories from Fat 
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 
Saturated Fat 
Trans Fat 
Total Carbohydrates 
Dietary Fiber 
Vitamin A 10%Vitamin C 31%
Calcium 27%Iron 17%

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