Baked Shells with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce

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

There’s something about baked pasta.

Sure, any baked pasta recipe is already delicious before baking, but the final product is so much more special.

Like a cookie that has transformed from dough to dessert, both iterations are delicious but the final product makes a culinary statement. This recipe is worthy of your next dinner party.

Close-up view of healthy baked pasta with creamy cauliflower sauce in a casserole dish.

The problem with most baked pasta recipes is their copious amounts of cheese, butter, and milk. Tiny bits of overcooked pasta get lost in a maze of bubbling dairy products.

I wanted a baked pasta recipe for both the health-conscious and the lactose-intolerant (hi Mom!) that still tasted as creamy, comforting and satisfying as any four-cheese lasagna.

Close-up view of healthy baked pasta with creamy cauliflower sauce in a casserole dish.

I came up with a cross between baked pasta and potatoes au gratin, but with no butter, milk, or heavy cream (or potatoes).

WATCH how to make Baked Shells with Cauliflower Sauce 👇

Let’s make healthy baked pasta

Tender pieces of steamed cauliflower replace the potatoes, and puréed cauliflower stems create a silky, luscious sauce to replace lactose of any kind.

The only dairy product in this recipe is Parmesan cheese, which is lactose-free.

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

Half of the cauliflower gets blended while half of it gets steamed. Two expressions of one addictive vegetable create a stunning whole that is far creamier than the sum of its parts.

In addition to the blended cauliflower, the sauce includes aromatic lemon zest, spicy garlic, Parmesan cheese and shimmering olive oil. It’s like a thicker, more flavorful version of Alfredo sauce.

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

It tastes like everyone’s favorite fettuccine pairing. But, you can eat this healthy baked pasta without feeling stuffed, sleepy, or running to the bathroom (hi again, Mom!).

Overhead shot of creamy cauliflower sauce in a food processor.

Its first ingredient is a nutrient-dense vegetable, and the pasta-to-cauliflower ratio is 1:6. One to SIX! Feel free to add more vegetables to your taste.

A sprinkling of panko or breadcrumbs creates a crusty, crunchy topping to contrast the creamy interior of the dish.

Close-up view of healthy baked pasta with creamy cauliflower sauce in a casserole dish.

If you’re looking for a healthy baked pasta recipe that’s delicious enough to serve to your family and friends, but nutritious enough to eat leftovers for days (straight out of the fridge, with a spoon)- this is your answer.

This recipe is vegetarian, but feel free to add ground turkey, chicken or sausage if you’d like. Diced pancetta would be great.

Close-up view of healthy baked pasta with creamy cauliflower sauce in a casserole dish.

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

There’s just something about baked pasta. Maybe the smile it brings to other peoples’ faces is that one secret ingredient.

Baked Shells with Creamy Cauliflower Sauce

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (8 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Dinner American
By Samantha Serves: 6
Prep Time: 1 hour Cooking Time: 15 minutes Total Time: 1 hour 15 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.


  • 2 heads cauliflower, (about 3 lbs total)
  • Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic (about 2 small cloves)
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest (from about 2 lemons)
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1/2 pound shells, or other short pasta (such as rotini, penne, farfalle, etc.)
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
  • 1/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 cup panko or breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves



Slice off the bottom 1/4-inch or so of cauliflower cores; discard. In a circular motion, cut around both cauliflower cores to remove; halve cores lengthwise and slice thin crosswise. Slice cauliflower head into slabs, then cut stems from slabs to separate stems from florets. Chop florets into 1 or 2 inch pieces. Reserve stems and core in one bowl, florets in another. Ideally you should have about 6 cups of florets.


Heat the oven to 425℉.


Fill a large pot halfway with water and bring to a boil. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, the cauliflower stems, core, and half of the florets to the water. Using a steamer basket, place the remaining cauliflower florets on top of the pot of boiling water (it's okay if florets are slightly submerged in water). Cover, and steam florets in basket until they are tender, 5-7 minutes. Remove steamer basket and drain florets. Transfer to a large bowl, season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper and set aside. Cover pot and continue to cook stem mixture until very soft, about 5 minutes longer.


Using a slotted spoon or a spider, transfer stem mixture from the boiling water (reserve water) to a food processor or blender and add 1 cup cooking liquid, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and ¼ cup Parmesan. Make the pasta while you wait for the mixture to cool (don’t blend the mixture while it's boiling hot).


Add 1 tablespoon of salt to the reserved boiling water, followed by the pasta. Cook until very al dente, about 2 minutes less than package instructions. Since it will be baked later, you don’t want to overcook it. Drain pasta and add to the bowl with the cauliflower florets.


Meanwhile, process the cauliflower stem mixture until smooth and velvety, about 2 minutes (purée should be pourable; adjust consistency with additional water as needed). With food processor running, add 1/4 cup olive oil and cornstarch mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Pour over cauliflower florets and pasta, toss gently to coat. Taste the mixture again and season with salt and pepper as desired.


Transfer the mixture to a 1.5 quart baking dish or 9x13 baking pan. Combine the panko, parsley, remaining ¼ cup Parmesan, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle it on top of the cauliflower pasta. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until sauce bubbles around the edges and the breadcrumbs are browned on top. Let stand for about 5 minutes so you don't burn the roof of your mouth when you take a bite, then dive right in.


  • 332 Calories


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.

You Might Also Like

1 Comment

  • 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 […]

  • Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.