Creamy Cauliflower Pasta Bake

by Samantha
6 servings
1 hr 10 min

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.

If you'd like to add another vegetable to the mix, whip up an easy, bright Mixed Greens and Herb Salad.

How to make Creamy Cauliflower Pasta Bake

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.

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.

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.

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
Recipe details
  • 6  servings
  • Prep time: 25 Minutes Cook time: 45 Minutes Total time: 1 hr 10 min
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  • 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

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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
  • 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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  • Jan Jan on Feb 17, 2022

    I followed this recipe exactly and really wanted to love it but just didn't. It is very bland...yes, even with the addition of the red pepper flakes and parmesan cheese. If I try it again I will definitely jazz it up with a few other ingredients. Probably won't try this again.

    • Samantha Samantha on Feb 20, 2022

      Hi Jan! Did you also use the lemon zest, garlic, and season with salt and pepper to taste? This recipe needs a decent amount of salt since cauliflower can be bland. Just trying to get to the bottom of this so I can adjust the seasonings if necessary!

  • Day31438169 Day31438169 on Feb 21, 2022

    I made this yesterday and made in 2 - 8 x 8 pans for 2 events, Everyone absolutely

    loved it. I used palmini noodles to make keto friendly. I did add extra parmesan and

    garlic!! I would definitely make again...

    • Samantha Samantha on Feb 22, 2022

      Love the idea of breaking it up into two pans! So happy you liked it.