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Yes, this dish looks drab. Blame it on the cauliflower. l really, really wanted to like the broccoli version that I'd baked three times—my love for broccoli cheese soup is what made me want to make this recipe in the first place—but the broccoli kept turning to mush. In the end I found that cauliflower held up much better and still tasted great.
Most casseroles require a little bit of prep before it all goes into the pan to bake, though I did what I could do to streamline the steps. I started off by breaking it down into sections: cheese sauce, veggies, chicken, pasta. The challenge was to keep it simple and still have everything perfectly cooked once the pan emerged from the oven.
This was the easy part. I used a simple flour-thickened sauce much like one that you'd use for a macaroni and cheese. The flavor of an all-cheddar sauce was too flat, so I dug out my favorite mac and cheese recipe from Martha, which calls for a combo of sharp cheddar and Gruyère—bingo!
Tucking raw chicken into a casserole has always seemed like too much of a risk. The last thing you want is a chunk of undercooked chicken making it onto your guest's plate. But if you cook your chicken before baking, you often end up with tough and chewy meat. To solve this I used dark meat, which I find can stand a beating much, much better than lean chicken breast. I quickly sautéed bite-sized pieces of skinless, boneless thigh meat just until it was almost cooked through (under 3 minutes). The residual heat from this plus the extra 30 minutes in the oven was enough to cook the chicken through without overcooking it. The chicken is tender and delicious.
Precook or not? I really didn't want to be boiling up and draining hot pasta before assembling the casserole, so I experimented with placing raw pasta into the casserole (and adding extra sauce for the pasta to soak up). This worked too well. Thin noodles baked up gummy and wavy egg noodles baked up soft. Surprisingly, the trick was to use no-boil lasagna noodles. Broken up into shards and simply tucked into the casserole, this was super easy, and it cooked up with a firm bite. But why the difference in texture? Either the ingredients or the process in which no-boil pasta is made may cause the texture to be different from regular pasta. Barilla uses eggs, which strengthens the dough, and other brands pre-cook and dehydrate their noodles. (I used Ronzoni, which worked perfectly).
I love broccoli in everything, but whether I quick sautéed 'em, quick microwaved 'em, or stuck 'em in raw, I ended up with mushy, army green florets in my casserole. Yes, less baking may have solved this, but I was also coordinating with the pasta. Sturdier cauliflower worked as a great replacement. Though the color may be muted, cauliflower couldn't have complemented the cheddar-Gruyère sauce any better.
Top it off with a crispy panko and Parmesan crumb topping and you've got a hearty casserole to be reckoned with.