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Cauliflower Gratin with Manchego and Almond Sauce

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I'm not going to even try to hide the fact that despite cauliflower being in the name of this Food & Wine recipe, this is not even close to being health food.
 
So if you are going on a diet come January 1, I'd suggest you go ahead and make this incredibly decadent and delicious dish now. You have what, 3 days?

It doesn't matter if you don't typically like cauliflower. You will love this. I'm sure of it. Because who doesn't love something chock full of rich, cheesy, nutty goodness?

I made this as a side for Thanksgiving, and I can tell you when I told everyone what it was, I was greeted by more than a little skepticism.  But the empty dish and multiple helpings served is the only evidence needed to show just how fantastic this is.

While I served this as a side, it would also be perfect with a salad and a hunk of crusty bread as an entree.


A few notes:
- In a pinch, I had to use raw shaved almonds (almond slices). I put them in the oven to toast them up a bit. I'm sure this didn't give it the amount of deep nuttiness that whole roasted almonds would have, but it worked nonetheless.
- I used more than the 3/4 cup plus 2 tbsp of Manchego that the recipe called for. More cheese can only help right?
- I didn't have a sieve at my parent's house (nor a cheese cloth). So that step got skipped. When I make this again at our house, I will use one though, just to make the sauce a bit smoother.  But if you process the almonds really well, it isn't the end of the world if you can't strain them out.
- If you don't have smoked paprika, regular paprika will work.

Cauliflower Gratin with Manchego and Almond Sauce

3/4 cup half-and-half
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper
One 2-pound head of cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2-inch florets
1/2 cup whole roasted almonds with skin, plus 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped almonds (3 ounces)
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons finely shredded Manchego or other mildly nutty semi-aged sheep's- or cow's-milk cheese (3 1/2 ounces), such as Gouda
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 teaspoon Pimentón de la Vera (smoked Spanish paprika)

Preheat the oven to 400°. In a small saucepan, heat the half-and-half until steaming, then transfer it to a food processor or blender. Add the 1/2 cup of whole almonds and process until finely ground. Let stand for 10 minutes. Strain the half-and-half through a fine sieve set over a bowl, pressing on the almonds to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the ground almonds.

In a medium saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the flour and whisk over moderately high heat for 1 minute. Add the milk and the half-and-half and cook, whisking constantly, until thickened, 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add 3/4 cup of the Manchego and whisk until melted. Whisk in the nutmeg; season with salt and pepper. Keep warm.

In a large skillet, bring 1/2 inch of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower, cover and cook over high heat until crisp-tender, about 4 minutes. Drain the cauliflower in a colander. Wipe out the skillet.

Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in the skillet. Add the onion and cook over moderately high heat, stirring until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the cauliflower and cook, stirring until lightly golden, about 2 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Transfer the cauliflower to a 7-by-10-inch glass or ceramic baking dish and spread the Manchego sauce on top.

Sprinkle the gratin with the remaining cheese, the 2 tablespoons of chopped almonds and the paprika and bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, or until bubbling and browned on top. Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Make Ahead The gratin can be prepared through Step 4 and refrigerated overnight. Bring it to room temperature before baking.

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