Tips & Techniques

Is Cauliflower Carbonara Really Carbonara? Well, No—But It’s Genius

November 29, 2017

Though this is a pasta hugged by cream sauce—with all the warm, fuzzy feelings such a thing has to offer—it’s made mostly of vegetables, with no cream or egg. You’d counterintuitively call this cream-saucy pasta lightfresh, even. But would you call it carbonara?

It’s all in the cauliflower. We’ve seen its cooked, whipped up florets perform astonishing feats before, most famously in Paul Bertolli’s vegan cauliflower soup—an impossibly smooth and creamy puree, even though it’s made from little more than cauliflower, an onion, and a lot of water.

The secret is that cauliflower is naturally abundant in pectin, which helps the cooked stuff thicken voluptuously when blended. It’s frankly a wonder we hadn’t been pouring it over our pastas (and everything else) before.

Andy Bennett developed this recipe while he was the executive chef at Rouge Tomate Chelsea—a New York City restaurant with a heavy focus on healthfulness and sustainability.

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Bennett simmers cauliflower in vegetable stock till it’s very soft, then blends it all up while streaming in olive oil. The sauce fluffs into a weightless emulsion that you can heat up further and jostle around with your pasta, without risking breaking the sauce like you might with a vinaigrette or mayo.

He initially called the dish Spring Carbonara, tossing in spring onions and fresh peas—but you can take this basic premise and work it into a million different dishes. In the fall, he suggests poking in more roasted cauliflower, or Swiss chard, mushrooms, or celery root. Here, we added frozen peas, because frozen peas require no extra prep and are always in season. If you’re missing the salty smoked meat, you can sprinkle in some smoked salt as Bennett does—though I doubt you will miss the meat at all.

So why even call it carbonara? Most obviously, because it’s similar in its ability to coat noodles luxuriously, though it does so without the weight and richness of the egg yolk and guanciale you’ll find in the traditional Roman dish. If you’re looking for something comforting but not nap-inducing, this change can be quite a good thing.

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Top Comment:
“My Italian great grandmother showed us how to make pasta with cauliflower close to 75 years ago. What's old is new! She used hot red pepper flakes and Romano as the finishing garnish. My husband enjoys a drizzle of truffled olive oil. Great recipe. Thanks.”
— DeeDee

But in perhaps the truest sense, this dish reflects the spirit of carbonara—of using just the right technique to eke a simple raw egg yolk into a silky sauce. Here, you see another clever massaging of a basic ingredient, the humble head of cauliflower, and turning it to sauce is no less transformative.

Photos by Bobbi Lin

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • andmavi
  • Patricia Paling Paul
    Patricia Paling Paul
  • Jenjen
  • Angela Klein
    Angela Klein
  • rox L
    rox L
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


andmavi September 28, 2020
A very soul comforting dish. I did not miss the bacon or egg one bit.
Patricia P. September 19, 2018
I've made this several times now in the past year! Easy and VERY tasty! I add just a bit of grated parmesan on top and it's good to go! Love that's healthy and not loaded with fat!
Jenjen January 25, 2018
Can the remaining cauliflower sauce be frozen successfully for another use?
Emily K. January 25, 2018
Yes definately! Have done this many times now
Angela K. December 15, 2017
This is wonderful! I made it with peas & bacon. I also finished it off with a little cream. I thought it made that sauce just that much better. Thank you will certainly make it again.
rox L. December 10, 2017
Dee Dee, have posted your great grandmother's recipe? I'd love to have it.
Emily K. December 8, 2017
This is extraordinary. I can't believe how easy it was! I had a grumpy one year old fussing at my feet but I still got it done in half hour. And she ate it all! It could very easily be vegan by leaving out the Parmesan. The only annoying thing was that it seemed to use every pot I own so I might experiment with a method that reduces that a bit. Otherwise thank you!
Antal R. December 4, 2017
I like the recipe, I'd just really like people to stop using the word Genius for everything. This usage of 'genius' as an adjective is relatively new and would still be considered by many (including me) as slang. The good word is "ingenious". Anyway, guess I'm fighting an uphill battle here....
Maggie November 29, 2017
Any reason why one wouldn't use frozen here? I can think of about 172 things I'd rather do than take apart a head of cauliflower!
tamater S. November 30, 2017
I don't, because the cells expand in the freezer, releasing much water once thawed, and the cauli then 'deflates' and turns mushy. Here's an easy way to cut it:
Treebird November 27, 2018
It’s so easy to do. Come on.
tamater S. November 29, 2017
I'm making this with homemade meat balls, (always in the freezer) or maybe chunks of chicken instead of the pasta.
coffeefoodwrite November 29, 2017
Great recipe! Can't wait to try!
DeeDee November 29, 2017
My Italian great grandmother showed us how to make pasta with cauliflower close to 75 years ago. What's old is new! She used hot red pepper flakes and Romano as the finishing garnish. My husband enjoys a drizzle of truffled olive oil. Great recipe. Thanks.
Robin November 29, 2017
Can you share a recipe?
tamater S. November 29, 2017
DeeDee, that sounds wonderful!
DeeDee November 29, 2017
Love to share the method with you, do I do that within the confines of the comments? It seems the recipe would be too long. Let me know how please.
Catie B. November 30, 2017
I too would love to see the recipe, it sounds intriguing and delicious! Please keep us posted on how you’ll be able to share the recipe. 😄
tamater S. November 30, 2017
Well, Kristen Miglore, were waiting! :-)
Kristen M. November 30, 2017
Oh dear, I'm behind! But I'm so excited I can point out our recipe upload feature that anyone in the community can use at any time to share a recipe. Look under "Recipes" in the main site navigation above, and then click "Add a Recipe"—voila!
tamater S. November 30, 2017
DeeDee December 1, 2017
I emailed the recipe to Robin. Let me know if you'd like a copy.
Sam December 2, 2017
I would love a copy!
kyurman December 2, 2017
Sounds delicious. I would love a copy too.
Susan P. December 27, 2017
I would to see the recipe too. Are you emailing it to interested people or did you post on this site?