When I was a child, cauliflower casserole was as essential to Thanksgiving as the bird. My mom first remembers it appearing on the family table when she was a kid, in the early 1960s. The original recipe card is labeled “Company Casserole,” but we never called it that.
When it came time to host my first Thanksgiving, I ordered a shockingly expensive heirloom turkey and gently suggested to my mom that maybe we should reimagine the cauliflower casserole. Perhaps we could substitute a different cheese for the Kraft Old English slices? Cook down fresh mushrooms, instead of using canned? Wisely, my mother stood firm, and together we cooked it as my grandmother had written it. The cauliflower casserole was as rich and dreamy as ever; the heirloom turkey was dry and weirdly fishy.
For many of us, our heirlooms involve processed cheese or maybe a can of mushroom soup. We’re encouraged to aspire to the Norman Rockwell vision of the holidays, but remember, Norman Rockwell illustrated advertisements for Jell-O and Coca-Cola.
Makes: 8 servings
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 cups cubed ham, about 8 ounces
4 to 5 ounces sliced mushrooms, or 1 can (7 ounces) sliced mushrooms, drained
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1½ cups whole milk
3 slices American cheese, cut into narrow strips
3 slices sharp cheddar, cut into narrow strips
¾ cup sour cream
½ teaspoon salt
Ground white pepper
1½ cups breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons olive oil
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 2-quart shallow gratin dish.
Cook cauliflower in well-salted boiling water until just tender; drain. Toss in a bowl with the ham and mushrooms.
Melt butter over medium heat in a medium saucepan; stir in flour. Cook, stirring frequently, until light golden brown, about 8 minutes. Whisk in milk; cook, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 10 minutes.
Take the sauce off the heat; add half of the cheese, plus the sour cream, salt and white pepper to taste. Return to heat; stir until cheese melts and sauce is smooth, about 3 minutes.
Toss together the breadcrumbs and olive oil in a bowl until well combined. Stir sauce into the cauliflower mixture until well combined. Scrape into the prepared gratin dish. Layer the remaining cheese on top; sprinkle with breadcrumbs.
Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly and golden, 30-35 minutes.
PER SERVING: 346 calories, 19 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 58 mg cholesterol, 25 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 16 g protein, 951 mg sodium, 3 g fiber