pretty good cauliflower leek gratin

Cook's Illustrated takes a sort of physicist approach to cooking. They focus on a small number of recipes in each issue and completely tear them apart, test many variations, and draw analytic conclusions from the process about the best  way to proceed and why. Usually bob snags it on impulse when he sees a topic that touches some food nerve. It should really be a subscription mag but the dr bob team is already unable to deal with the current load. Best New York Cheesecake was the hook that got bob to pull the issue with this recipe. Leeks are a dr bob cooking team weakness and cauliflower is a substantial veggie favorite that needs partners. This one showed promise.

Oscar night 2002 provided the occasion to implement while the issue was still current, an unusual event in an endless post-it marking process of recipe after recipe that life never seems to allow time for revisiting. Ani was busy with a work presentation, so it was a solo effort. Living up to its expectation, accompanied by a wonderful Cuvee `Le Charnay' Menetou-Salon by Jean-Max Roger, a French white wine we'll probably never see again, picked for us by our wine outlaw facilitators at the Princeton Corkscrew. Coincidentally a major location for the current Oscar contender in six categories. Princeton that is. Princeton math in particular. A story bob knew something about from firsthand experience.

We modified this recipe out of laziness, taking a shortcut with the topping, reducing the cream fat content and therefore disqualifying our version as "the best ever". But "pretty good" is not a bad alternative for us impatient amateurs.


1 large cauliflower, trimmed into small pieces
2 T unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, mince (about 2 T)
3 small leeks, cleaned and chopped finely
1 T all-purpose flour
1 1/2 c light cream
pinch nutmeg
pinch cayenne
1/8 t freshly ground black pepper
1 t minced fresh thyme leaves
1/2 c gruyere cheese, grated
breadcrumbs to coat top
2 T parmigiano
spray olive oil to dampen breadcrumbs


  1. Boil pasta water in the usual pot, add 1 T salt, and throw in the cauliflower pieces as if they were pasta. Cook about 3 or 4 minutes until tender but still crunchie inside (al dente?). Drain and rinse under cold water in a colander until cooled down (to prevent them from continuing on to a mush state). Leave them there for now.
  2. Sauté the shallot and leeks in butter until softened, about 2 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic and cook about 30 seconds.
  4. Stir in the flour until combined, about 1 minute.
  5. Whisk in the cream and bring to a boil.
  6. Stir in the spices and gruyere cheese until incorporated. Remove from heat.
  7. Gently stir in the cauliflower (so you don't pulverize it) until evenly combined and then dump into a baking dish.
  8. Sprinkle with the parmigiano, then a coating of breadcrumbs and spray with olive oil spray to wet down the breadcrumbs.
  9. Bake in a preheated 450º oven for 10 to 12 minutes until golden brown.
  10. Serve immediately.


  1. The Best Cauliflower Gratin, by Julia Collin, April 2002, Cook's Illustrated, pp.18–19, leek variation.
  2. A Beautiful Mind, Oscar for Best Picture 2002. Film by Ron Howard (Best Director) with ex-Gladiator Oscar winner Russell Crowe as the Nobel prize winning mathematician John Nash from the book by Silvia Nasar. Read the book.
cauleekg.htm: 28-may-2002 [what, ME cook? © 1984 dr bob enterprises]