I like funky savory pies -- crawfish pie, tomato pie, shepherd's pie, and the like -- so when I found a recipe for Cauliflower Pie in 1080 I knew what had to happen. When I first saw the recipe I pictured a deep, crusted pie full of whole cauliflower flowerets, a rich creamy sauce, and a few bites of chunky carrots. I suppose I pulled my idea from a chicken pot pie minus the bird, but the actuality is much more satisfying than my imagined dish. It's light, creamy, and full of air. Imagine a savory flan than melts into buttery polenta and you're getting close.
Before we get into the recipe, a little information regarding how to choose fresh cauliflower is in order. When selecting cauliflower, for this dish or any other, look for a head with green leaves still attached. The leaves are not eaten but their presence is a good indicator of the vegetable's freshness. Look for cauliflower that is crisp, very white, and has tightly clustered florets.
1 cauliflower, about 1 1/2 lbs, separated into florets
juice of 1/2 lemon
2 1/4 cups milk, plus a little to cook the cauliflower
2 1/2 Tbsp butter, plus extra for greasing
2 Tbsp sunflower oil
3 Tbsp all-purpose flour
pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
scant 1 cup grated gruyere
*NOTE: When cooked, cauliflower releases magnesium and potassium, causing an unpleasant smell. To counteract this add a couple of bay leaves to the water. A tablespoon of milk will also lessen the smell.
Rinse the cauliflower florets in cold water mixed with the juice of 1/2 lemon. Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Add the florets and a little milk and cook, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until tender.
Drain well, then refresh under cold running water. Pour onto a clean dishtowel to drain once more. Transfer to a bowl and mash with a fork.
(At this point you could just add a little butter, salt, and pepper and serve the mashed cauliflower as a side dish. It has a similar taste to mashed potatoes without all the starchiness. I'm a big fan.)
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Grease a tart pan with butter. Melt the remaining butter with the oil in a pan. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Gradually stir in the milk, a little at a time. Add the nutmeg, season with salt, and cook, stirring constantly, for 8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Beat two of the eggs, then beat them into the bechamel sauce. Repeat with the remaining eggs. Stir in the gruyere and when thoroughly incorporated, add the cauliflower.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and place the tin in a roasting pan. (I didn't have a roasting pan that was large enough so I used a cookie sheet with a high lip. Don't skip this step. The water bath ensures even cooking throughout the pie.)
Pour in boiling water to come about halfway up the sides of the roasting pan and bake for about 1 hour, until set. The pie should be firm and golden on top.
To serve, run a round-bladed knife around the edge of the tart pan and turn the pie out onto a round serving dish.
Serve immediately. (I plopped a little parsley on top just for kicks.)
My pie turned out beautifully. It easily slid out of the pan and held its form with no trouble. It's simplicity and the pale color reminded me of a goat cheese tart that I made earlier in the year. The goat cheese tart held its shape perfectly when sliced and looked lovely on a plate, though it did lack in flavor. I suppose I expected this pie to behave in the same ladylike manner so imagine my surprise when it collapsed upon slicing! I found it impossible to cut a pretty piece from the pie.
By the time a piece made it to a plate it had lost its shape completely and resembled a serving of grits or polenta. The texture followed suit. It's very creamy and rich because of the milk and gruyere, but the texture isn't quite as smooth as I expected, and I'm glad. It's much more interesting with a little grit.
I could not stop eating it. Seriously. I devoured this pie with very little help from anyone else. How can I possibly explain how luxurious this pie was? I had a couple servings the night I made it and enjoyed it tremendously then stuck in the fridge. Over the next few days I somehow managed to forget how sumptuous it truly is. Lucky me! I was blown over again when I reheated a little in a bowl with a sprinkling of sea salt, and after that it was all over. I consumed the remaining pie in ten minutes flat. I know this baby looks plain jane, but it packs a mean, buttery punch.
The recipe suggests pouring homemade tomato sauce on top of the cauliflower pie, but I think that would be overkill. This pie shines on its own. If I poured anything on top I think it would be pesto or something equally fresh, but it's probably best to just leave it as is. I'm still a little surprised by how much I loved this recipe. It spoke to my love of all things salty, starchy, and creamy. If you like cauliflower at all (or butter, or gruyere, or deliciousness...) try this.