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 just 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 only 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, without butter, milk, or heavy cream (or potatoes).

Let’s make healthy baked pasta

In this recipe, steamed, puréed cauliflower creates a silky, luscious sauce to replace lactose of any kind.

The only dairy product in this recipe is Parmesan cheese, which is lactose-free. To make this vegan, use nutritional yeast instead.

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

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 knowing that a whole lot more nutrients are going into your body. And sometimes, that feels better than butter and cream taste (sometimes).

Overhead shot of creamy cauliflower sauce in a food processor.

If you’ve got some extra time, or extra veggies, on hand, you can add steamed spinach or chopped, sautéed kale or Swiss chard.

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

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Dinner American
By Samantha Serves: 6
Prep Time: 1 hour Cooking Time: 25 minutes Total Time: 1 hour 25 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 heads cauliflower, (about 3 lbs total)
  • Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 tsp finely chopped or pressed garlic, divided
  • Zest of 2 lemons, divided
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes, divided
  • 3/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1/4 cup, plus 4 teaspoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 lb shells, or other short pasta (such as rotini, penne, farfalle, etc.)
  • 3/4 cup panko or breadcrumbs
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley

Instructions

1

Slice off the bottom 1/4-inch or so of cauliflower cores; discard. Roughly chop cauliflower stems and florets; they are going to get blended later so they don't have to be perfect. Transfer chopped cauliflower to a large pot, fill pot with water, season with about 3 teaspoons of 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 spider or a slotted spoon, transfer half of the cauliflower to a food processor or blender, along with a 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid, 1/2 of the garlic, 1/2 of the lemon zest, 1/2 of the red pepper flakes, and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Leaving an opening at the top of the blender or food processor so steam can escape, blend until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. With blender running on low, stream in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. You're going to toss this with pasta later, so make sure your bowl is big enough. Repeat with remaining cauliflower, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, and 1/4 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Blend until creamy, then stream in remaining 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Transfer to the bowl with the rest of the sauce. Taste the sauce and season as desired.

3

Heat the oven to 425℉.

4

To the now-empty pot, add 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. Since it will be baked later, you don’t want to overcook it. 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.

5

Transfer the mixture to a 9x13-inch baking pan. Combine the panko, parsley, remaining ¼ cup Parmesan, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and remaining 4 teaspoons of olive oil in a bowl. Sprinkle it on top of the cauliflower pasta. Bake for 20-25 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.

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

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