Recipe: Hot Baked Pasta

French-Inspired Baked Pasta with Cauliflower and Comté Cheese
Serves 4-6 as a main course

1 head cauliflower, separated into small florets, about 1-inch in diameter
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
½ pound spicy Italian sausage, sliced (optional)
2 cups peeled, cored and diced tomato, preferably vine-ripened heirloom varieties
1/2 cup thinly sliced green onions, white and green parts
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoon flour
1 cup cream
3 cups (about 9 ounces) shredded Comté cheese, divided
3/4 cup (about 2 ounces) grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, divided
1 cup crème fraiche
1 tablespoon whole grain mustard (I prefer French Dijon)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
10 ounces uncooked penne pasta
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs

Cook cauliflower in 6 quarts salted (about 2 tablespoons salt) boiling water for 6 minutes or until just tender when checked with a knife. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain, saving the water to cook the pasta later. Set florets aside.

In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Add optional sausage. And fry for 2 minutes on each side. Add florets and fry until they begin to brown on the edges and develop a nutty aroma. Add tomatoes and green onions and fry 1 minute more. Set pan aside.

To make cheese sauce, melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium low heat. Whisk in flour and continue to whisk until the flour is well coated with the butter. Whisk a minute more then gradually pour in cream, whisking while you combine the cream with the flour. Simmer and continue to stir until the sauce thickens. Gradually stir in 2 cups of the Comté cheese and continue to stir for 2 minutes or until the cheese is melted. Stir in 1/2 cup Parmigiano Reggiano and then stir in the crème fraiche and mustard. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Bring the reserved cauliflower water back to a boil and cook pasta until tender. Drain and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Scrape in the cauliflower/tomato mixture and stir to disperse.

Grease a 9x13x2-inch baking dish with butter and pour in half of the pasta mixture. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the remaining Comté cheese. Pour in the remaining pasta mixture then sprinkle with the remaining Comté cheese.

Melt the remaining butter and in a small bowl, toss with the breadcrumbs and remaining Parmigiano Reggiano. Sprinkle all of this mixture over the top of the pasta and bake for 30 minutes or until lightly browned and bubbly.


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