Whether you’re trying to sneak more vegetables into your day or cutting down on carbs… cauliflower “mac and cheese” is something you need in your life!
We’re giving the beloved mac and cheese a makeover today and calling it cauliflower and spinach bake aka healthy “mac” and cheese. I’m not going to lie, I was really hesitant to call this recipe “mac and cheese” because let’s be honest, there’s absolutely nothing that can replace cheesy-loaded-mac-and-cheese. BUT if you’re in the mood for something less carb loaded but still creamy-saucy, then you’ve come to the right place. I even snuck some baby spinach in it!
I’m sure you guys have seen the whole new craze with “cauli” everything. Cauliflower mashed potatoes, cauli rice, and now cauli “mac” and cheese. It’s the new healthy thing and definitely a lighter way to enjoy those carb loaded comfort dishes without…well….all the carbs.
So, I’m jumping on the cauliflower bandwagon by bringing you a side dish that you can serve alongside your favorite summer recipes. Think mac and cheese but without the pasta. Instead, tender cauliflower replace the pasta. Then the cheese sauce. I didn’t really skimp out on the cheese sauce. I kept it super creamy and cheesy. I also snuck in some baby spinach. It’s so good here! Lastly, “mac” and cheese would not be without toasted crunchy layer of breadcrumbs and a sprinkle of parmesan.
Bottom line: whether you’re trying to sneak more vegetables into your day or cutting down on carbs… cauliflower “mac and cheese” is something you need in your life.
p.s. my son had no idea it was cauliflower until he took a bite of it. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad but either way he loved it and so did my daughter 🙂
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- 1 large head cauliflower (3 pounds), cut into small florets
- 2 cups milk, divided
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
- 4 oz. cream cheese, cubed
- 3 cups freshly grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided
- ½ tsp. paprika
- ½ tsp. ground mustard
- ½ tsp. sea salt, plus more for cooking cauliflower
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- ½ cup breadcrumbs
- 1 cup lightly packed fresh baby spinach
- ¼ cup shredded parmesan
- fresh ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350 F degrees.
- Cauliflower: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season the water with salt and add cauliflower. Cook cauliflower in the boiling water for no more than 4-5 minutes or just until tender crisp. Immediately drain over a colander and let it rest until completely dry.*
- Cheese Sauce: In a small saucepan, warm 1½ cups milk, plus a bay leaf over medium heat. Whisk together the remaining ½ cup milk and the flour until there are no lumps.
- When the milk begins to lightly bubble around the edges, whisk the flour/milk mixture. Reduce the heat to low and add the cream cheese. Whisk until smooth and slightly thickened, resembling consistency of heavy cream, about 2-3 minutes.**
- Discard the bay leaf. Stir in 1 cup of cheddar cheese and whisk just until the cheese melts. Then add 1 more cup of cheese, whisking until melted and smooth.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the paprika, mustard, and sea salt. Season with ground black pepper, to taste. Set aside.
- Breadcrumbs: In a medium non-stick skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and stir until completely coated with butter.
- To Assemble: add half of the cauliflower to a 10 X 10 baking dish.*** Top with spinach and then the remaining cauliflower. Pour the cheese sauce over the cauliflower. Using a spoon, lightly move the cauliflower around so it is evenly coated with the sauce.
- Top with the remaining 1 cup of cheddar cheese, breadcrumbs, and parmesan cheese.
- Bake, uncovered, for 13-15 minutes or just until the cheese has melted. Broil for additional 2-3 minutes until golden brown. Serve immediately.
**Key to creamy and thick sauce is low heat. Super important! At no point, do you want the milk at a rolling simmer/boil. You want it barely steaming.
***Size of a baking dish is another biggie. Since both cauli and spinach are high in water content, you want to give them room to steam out during the baking process to avoid watered down sauce. That being said, you don't want to crowd the veggies too much either. You can go a little bigger on the baking dish but I would not go too big or any smaller.