Until my Holiday Side Dish experiments, my experience of Broccoli-Cheese Casserole was frozen broccoli–a few drowned florets surrounded by a lot of tough stem—blanketed in a rich, but bland cheese sauce.
My first change: flash-steamed broccoli crowns, resulting in vibrant practically stem-free florets. For the cheesy custard I rely on one of my frequent tricks—subbing evaporated milk for richer heavy cream or half and half.
Next I chose a cheese. No Velveeta for me. By using assertive extra-sharp cheddar, I didn’t need as much. (This recipe calls for about half the amount of cheese in most broccoli casseroles.) Finally I top my broccoli-cheese casserole with friendly saltine cracker crumbs, my mom’s crumb of choice for her macaroni and cheese.
One final point: Many broccoli-cheese casseroles are baked in deep casseroles or soufflé pans. Stick with a shallow pan. Otherwise the custard takes too long to set and the broccoli starts to languish.
A Better Broccoli-Cheese Casserole
2 pounds broccoli crowns, cut into florets
4 large eggs
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 can (12 ounces) evaporated milk
Ground black pepper
4 ounces (1 generous cup) extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1 tablespoon butter, melted
12 saltine crackers, crumbled
Place broccoli, 1/2 cup water, and sprinkling of salt in a large skillet; cover, turn burner on high, and cook until water has almost, but not completely, evaporated and broccoli is bright green and tender-crisp, about 5 minutes. Turn onto doubled paper toweling to cool. (Can be covered and refrigerated a couple of days ahead.)
About 45 minutes before serving adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Whisk flour into eggs until smooth and then whisk in milk, along with a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. Place broccoli in a single layer in a 9-inch casserole or a baking dish of similar size—I used a gratin pan. Sprinkle with half the cheese, then pour the egg mixture over the broccoli. Top with remaining cheese. Mix butter and crackers and then sprinkle over casserole. Bake until custard is set and crackers are golden brown, about 30 minutes. Serve.