I have been making this particular pasta—really nothing more than a variation on macaroni and cheese—for at least 10 years. I believe the original is from one of Molly Katzen's books—possibly The Enchanted Broccoli Forest—but I can't be sure which one, because I picked the recipe up from a fellow chef. For some reason my cookbook library doesn't include any of Ms. Katzen's books. If this recipe is a typical example of the kinds of recipes included in her books, I'm probably missing out.
I'm not even sure that the recipe bears much resemblance to the original, because I have adjusted it regularly over the years until it is what it is today. I know the original included a healthy dose of fresh basil, but since I don't tend to use fresh basil in the winter (and I don't usually eat macaroni and cheese...or cauliflower, for that matter...in the summer) the basil has never appeared in my version of this dish.
I have always told people in my classes that this pasta dish could be a good way to get kids to eat cauliflower, but sadly my own experience makes me believe that this might not be true. Several years ago I prepared a large batch of this pasta for a family gathering. It has been long enough ago that most of my many nephews and my niece were under ten...they are mostly older than that now. When we sat down to eat, one of the smaller boys eyed his plate suspiciously and asked loudly "What is this stuff?" His father informed him that it was macaroni and cheese and that he would like it. He continued to examine it and soon let loose with "This isn't macaroni and cheese...this is fake macaroni and cheese!" I have thought of this pasta as "fake macaroni and cheese" ever since. At the same meal, one of the other boys—a slightly older one—was plowing through his serving, obviously enjoying it, when he turned to me quietly and said with the air of one making a discovery, "you put cauliflower in this, didn't you?" I acknowledged that I had. He then stifled a smile, nodded, and kept eating. So maybe this dish is a good way to get slightly older children to eat cauliflower.
The dish that my small nephew would no doubt have recognized as "real" macaroni and cheese is what many of us grew up eating...something out of a box that came with a powdered "cheese" packet or actual homemade macaroni and cheese made with a processed cheese like Velveeta. The lack of brilliant orange coloring must have been the tip-off for my nephew (that, and the visible pieces of tomato floating in the sauce).
I imagine the changeover from real cheese to processed cheese as the cheese of choice for American-style macaroni and cheese took place gradually and for the usual reasons (convenience, the latest thing, "progress", etc.). The unfortunate thing about this is that eventually people forgot how to cook with real cheese. Real cheese and processed cheese behave very differently when you cook with them. Processed cheese can practically be boiled and it won't curdle. Many real cheeses will curdle when subjected to too high a temperature for too long a time period. If you add a real cheese to a white sauce that is still on the heat and stir and stir until melted, and then toss it with noodles and bake it until it is "bubbling all over", you will likely end up with a dish of noodles floating in something that looks like greasy cottage cheese. Of course, this method produces a beautiful creamy dish of macaroni and cheese when Velveeta or some other processed cheese food is used. A delicate natural cheese just won't stand up to this kind of treatment.
The best way to add a natural cheese to macaroni and cheese—or any baked casserole—is to simply fold it in last, after all the other ingredients and right before the casserole is transferred to the oven.
The cheese will begin to melt as you fold it in and it will continue to melt into the white sauce as the casserole bakes. Also, remember that everything that has gone into the macaroni and cheese is already cooked—it doesn't need to be cooked again, just heated through. So when the casserole is beginning to bubble around the edges, it's done. If it has not turned the beautiful golden brown that you like, simply run it under the broiler for a minute or two. Your final dish will be hot and creamy...just like real macaroni and cheese.
Baked Penne with Cauliflower & Two Cheeses
2 T. olive oil
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 14- to 15-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 head of cauliflower, cut into small (1/2- to 3/4-inch) florets
Juice of half a lemon, or to taste
1 qt. whole milk
4 T. butter
6 T. all-purpose flour
1 lb. penne pasta
6 oz. Gruyère cheese, coarsely grated
6 oz. sharp white Cheddar, coarsely grated
1/2 c. grated Parmesan or breadcrumbs
Preheat the oven to 350°. Butter a 13x9-inch baking dish and set aside.
In a large sauté pan, sweat the onion and garlic, along with a pinch of salt, in the olive oil over medium heat until the onions are very tender and translucent—it's OK if they are beginning to caramelize.
Add the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Add the cauliflower, stirring to coat the cauliflower in the tomatoes and onions. Season with salt, cover, reduce the heat and simmer until the cauliflower is just tender—about 15 to 25 minutes. Taste, correct the seasoning and add the lemon juice to taste.
While the vegetables cook, prepare the béchamel. In a large saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer; keep hot. In another large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, whisk in the flour. Cook stirring constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow.
Remove from the heat and pour in half of the hot milk, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately. Add the remaining milk. Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer. Taste and season as desired with salt and pepper.
Cook the pasta in 6 quarts of rapidly boiling water seasoned with 2 to3 T. salt. Stir occasionally and cook until the pasta is al dente. Drain.
In a large bowl, combine the vegetables, pasta and the béchamel.
Stir to combine. Add the cheddar & Gruyère and fold in just until evenly distributed—the cheese does not have to melt. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and scatter the Parmesan or breadcrumbs over the top and place on a baking sheet.
Bake until hot through and bubbling just around the edges—about 20 to 25 minutes. If necessary, place under the broiler (about 4 inches from the heat) until the top is golden. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.