This is a mac and cheese for grown-ups. It is not the ooey-gooey comfort food of your childhood, but something a little more refined that just so happens to be cheesy and crispy.
For this baked pasta recipe, sweet, roasted cauliflower and onions are paired with salty Parmesan and buttery Gouda and topped with a crispy Ritz cracker crust. It can be served as a simple vegetarian dinner or as a side dish for roast chicken or grilled steak.
To start, roast the cauliflower and onions together in a hot oven. Cut the cauliflower in slices rather than in small pieces. Not only will you save on initial prep time, but you’ll end up with much better caramelization with good crispy bits.
While they are busy becoming golden and tender, you have time grate the cheeses and cook the pasta.
There are plenty of pasta shapes to choose from to suit your mood or what is in the cupboard. Ziti, penne rigate, shells, rotini, or my favorite, pipe rigate (little pipes!) are all good choices.
Be sure to cook the pasta until al dente (firm to the bite, not soft) since the pasta will continue to bake in the oven and if cooked until soft first, will become mushy as it bakes.
I recently learned a great trick: Toss hot pasta in Parmesan as soon as you drain it. The hot pasta melts the Parmesan and absorbs all that cheesy goodness.
Toss the cheesy pasta in a baking dish with the roasted vegetables and even more cheese, sprinkle everything with a crispy Ritz cracker topping, and put it all back in the oven to bake until hot.
Cauliflower Pasta Bake
- For the pasta:
- 1 large head cauliflower
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/2 pound pasta, such as shells, pipe rigate, or rigatoni
- 1/2 cup (1 1/2 ounces) finely grated Parmesan
- 1 cup milk, whole or 2%
- Zest from one lemon (about 1 tablespoon zest)
- 2 tablespoons chopped thyme leaves
- 3 cups (8 ounces) grated Gouda
- For the cracker topping:
- 14 (1 small sleeve) Ritz crackers, or similar buttery crackers
- 2 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
Preheat the oven to 425ºF:
Place one rack in the top third of the oven and one rack in the lower third.
Prepare the cauliflower and the onions:
Trim away the outer leaves and cut the cauliflower into slices roughly 1/4-inch thick. Some smaller florets will fall away; this is fine.
Spread the cauliflower slices and any florets that have fallen off on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil. Using your hands, rub the oil into the cauliflower, coating both sides. Sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Roughly chop the onion. On a second baking sheet or in an ovenproof skillet, toss the onions with the remaining 1 tablespoon of the oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt.
(Roasting the cauliflower and onions on separate pans will give them more space and help them roast better.)
Roast the cauliflower and onions:
Place the cauliflower on the lower rack of the oven and the onions on the top rack. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, until both are tender and golden. Flip the cauliflower once during roasting; stir the onions occasionally. Remove the onions from the oven if they finish before the cauliflower or start to burn.
Let the vegetables cool slightly in their pans. Break the cauliflower into smaller florets.
Lower the oven temperature to 375ºF for baking the pasta
While the vegetables roast, cook the pasta:
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta to the boiling water and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until al dente (do not overcook or the pasta will become mushy after baking). Scoop out and reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water.
Drain the pasta in a colander.
Assemble the casserole:
Return the drained pasta to the pot and immediately stir in 1/2 cup of Parmesan while the pasta is still hot. Once the cheese has melted and absorbed into the pasta a little, stir in the milk.
Add the roasted cauliflower and onion, lemon zest, thyme and Gouda, and stir well. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if you like. If the mixture seems dry, add a little pasta cooking water, a tablespoon at a time.
Transfer to a 3- or 4-quart baking dish.
Top with the crispy cracker crumbs:
Place the crackers in a zip-top bag and crush with a rolling pin until coarsely crumbled.
In a bowl, mix the crushed crackers with 2 tablespoons Parmesan, the melted butter and parsley. Sprinkle this evenly over the pasta.
Bake the pasta:
Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the pasta is hot and the top is golden.
Cool briefly and serve:
Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 5 days and reheated in a microwave or a warm oven.