A gratin is a type of casserole that is baked in the oven, and its main feature is usually a crunchy topping made of bread crumbs. Cauliflower gratin features the vegetable as the star of the dish. It usually also contains dairy ingredients, such as milk and cheese. Most gratins are prepared in a special gratin dish, which is shallow and oval in shape.
Usually, the cauliflower itself is partially cooked before the cauliflower gratin is put together and baked. Some cooks boil it in water for several minutes, until it is just tender. Others prepare a Bechamel sauce with flour, butter, and milk, and add the cauliflower to the sauce. As the sauce simmers and thickens, the vegetable becomes tender.
A lot of the flavor in a cauliflower gratin comes from the addition of cheese to the sauce mixture. Gruyère or another type of Swiss cheese is often used because those varieties have a nutty flavor and melt well. Cheddar cheese gives the dish a sharper, less sweet flavor that any people enjoy. Any cheese that melts easily can be added to the gratin.
The word gratin originally referred to the crispy coating on the top of a casserole. It comes from a French word that means 'crust.' This coating can be made by sprinkling plain bread crumbs or torn pieces of bread over top of the cauliflower gratin before sliding it into the oven. Another option is to combine fine bread crumbs with a hard, grated cheese — like Parmesan — or chopped herbs before sprinkling it over the dish.
A baking dish that is oval and no more than 2 or 3 inches (5 to 7 cm) high is commonly used to bake the cauliflower gratin. These dishes may be made of stoneware, porcelain, or metal, such as copper. Cooks are also free to use dishes that are a different shape, like a rectangular casserole dish.
Nutmeg, salt, and pepper are often used to season a cauliflower gratin. A cook may alter the flavor of this dish by adding different vegetables along with the cauliflower. For example, he may decide to add onion and garlic to the gratin. Other additions can include potatoes, broccoli, or other, sweet root vegetables, such as carrots or parsnips.
The dish should spend enough time in the oven to develop a crispy, crunchy top layer. Some recipes call for cooking a gratin, uncovered, for only 20 minutes, while others suggest that it be baked for 20 minutes covered, then 20 minutes uncovered. A longer cooking time will result in softer cauliflower.