Creamy Cauliflower Pasta Bake

Close-up view of healthy baked pasta with cauliflower sauce with a wooden spoon dipping into it from the right.

This Creamy Cauliflower Pasta Bake is about to make your Tuesday night so much tastier. Featuring al dente shells baked in a luscious sauce made entirely of cauliflower, then topped with crispy panko breadcrumbs, it’s the kind of surprising recipe that your dinner companions will request again and again.

I’d suggest washing and chopping the cauliflower the night before, as it’s the most time consuming part of the dish. Prep all of your ingredients for the sauce as the cauliflower cooks for a seamless experience. It’s still not a quick recipe, but the effort will pay off in a delicious dinner and even better leftovers all week.

It’s a healthy baked pasta recipe unlike any other, with an impossibly creamy sauce—made without cream or butter—that inspires an I-can’t-believe-it’s-vegetables thought with every bite.

Serve this as a complete vegetarian dinner—it doesn’t even need a side—that puts meat-based meals everywhere to shame.

How to make Creamy Cauliflower Pasta Bake

Overhead shot of raw cauliflower cut-up on a cutting board to the left and in a clear bowl on the right.

To start, roughly chop 2 small heads of cauliflower (including stems and florets). Transfer the chopped cauliflower to a large pot, fill with water, season with salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the cauliflower is very soft, about 10-12 minutes. Do not drain.

Overhead shot of the ingredients for creamy cauliflower sauce before blending: parmesan, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, cauliflower.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cauliflower to a food processor or blender, along with a bit of the cauliflower cooking liquid, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and Parmesan cheese. Parmesan cheese is the only dairy in this recipe, so if you’re vegan, use nutritional yeast instead. Blend until smooth and creamy; it should be the consistency of a thick Alfredo sauce.

Overhead shot of creamy cauliflower sauce in a food processor.

Combine the creamy sauce with cooked shells and transfer to a baking dish. Feel free to stir in steamed spinach or chopped, sautéed kale or Swiss chard if you’d like another vegetable in the mix. Top with a cheesy panko topping and bake until crispy on top and creamy in the middle—one of life’s best combinations.

Close-up view of shells pasta with cauliflower sauce ​in a casserole dish

This recipe works for everyone: the dairy-free, the lactose-intolerant, the vegetarian, and the home cook. It’s the kind of recipe I can’t wait to bring everywhere, and cook again and again.

Creamy Cauliflower Pasta Bake

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Dinner American
By Samantha Serves: 6
Prep Time: 25 minutes Cooking Time: 45 minutes Total Time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Delicious, healthy baked pasta with no butter, milk, or heavy cream. A lactose-free recipe that’s great for a weekend in and decadent enough for company.

Ingredients

  • 2 small heads cauliflower, (about 3 lbs total)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped or pressed, divided
  • Zest of 2 lemons, divided
  • 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes, divided
  • 2 oz Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated (about 1 cup)
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp olive oil, divided
  • 1 lb shells, or other short pasta (such as rotini, penne, farfalle, etc.)
  • 1 cup panko or breadcrumbs
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped, optional

Instructions

1

Roughly chop cauliflower stems and florets. Transfer to a large pot, fill pot with water, season generously with salt, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until cauliflower is very soft, about 10-12 minutes. Do not drain.

2

Using a slotted spoon, transfer half of the cauliflower to a food processor or blender, along with a 1/2 cup of the cauliflower cooking liquid, half of the garlic, half of the lemon zest, half of the red pepper flakes, a third of the Parmesan cheese, and 2 tablespoons olive oil. Leaving an opening at the top of the blender so steam can escape, blend until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Repeat with remaining cauliflower, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, another third of the Parmesan cheese, and another 2 tablespoons olive oil. Transfer to the bowl with the rest of the sauce. Taste the sauce and season with salt and pepper as desired.

3

Heat the oven to 425℉. To the now-empty pot, add additional water as needed to cook the pasta. Bring the water to a boil, season generously with salt. Add the pasta and cook until very al dente, about 2 minutes less than package instructions. Drain pasta and add to the bowl with the cauliflower sauce, toss gently to coat. Taste the mixture again and season with salt and pepper as desired.

4

Transfer the mixture to a 9x13-inch baking pan. In a medium bowl, combine the panko, parsley, remaining Parmesan, pinch of salt, and remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a bowl. Sprinkle it on top of the cauliflower pasta. Bake for 20-25 minutes, until the sauce bubbles slightly around the edges and the breadcrumbs are browned on top. Let stand for 15 minutes so you don't burn the roof of your mouth when you take a bite, then dive right in.

Nutrition

  • 332 Calories

Notes

For a wine with equal weight and creaminess as this baked pasta, try a Chardonnay. Choose a zippier one from Northern Italy or France to cut through the richness of the pasta. If you'd prefer California Chardonnay, just make sure it isn't too oaky. For more of a contrast, try a light to medium-bodied Italian red. This recipe is vegetarian, but feel free to add ground turkey, chicken or sausage if you'd like. Cooked, diced pancetta would be great.

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3 Comments

  • Reply
    Baked Shells with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce — American Home Cook | My Meals are on Wheels
    May 13, 2019 at 11:33 am

    […] via Baked Shells with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce — American Home Cook […]

  • Reply
    Michelle
    February 8, 2022 at 9:45 am

    Absolutely beautiful!

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