Macaroni and Cheese... that's vegan? Is it possible? Is it true?
Why, yes. Yes it is!
Now, don't get it twisted y'all. This didn't use to be the case. Vegan cheese has come a long, long way since I went vegan nearly 10 years ago. I've seen and tasted some pretty bad stuff out there, but I had to do it. You see, contrary to popular belief that vegans sit around all day trying to figure out how to deprive themselves of all things delicious in the world- we actually miss cheese. Like, we get it. We didn't stop eating it because it was delicious! We stopped eating it for many other reasons that I will not go into here. The point is that vegans are humans just like everyone else. We want cheese, too.We longingly watch the cooking shows where the celebrity chefs effortlessly plop sticks of butter into a saucepan while shredding blocks of beautiful artisanal cheeses, easily picked up from the local shop. Only a few years ago, us poor and desperate vegans would venture to make our very own version, only to become disappointed by finding grainy, mealy, and oddly colored vegan cheeses at the store. Some companies even make vegan cheese 'lookalikes' which contain animal by-products like whey and casein. These people are evil- evil I tell you!
Fortunately, the vegan cheese game is stronger than it's ever been. With products that are rich in flavor and creamy in texture- I am proud to say that vegan cheese is now a respectable ingredient to use at home. Don't believe me? Go check out the vegan cheese sections at Whole Foods or your local health food store for yourself. You'll be surprised to see an array of products ranging from your traditional slices, shreds, and spreads. There are even artisanal vegan cheese shops popping up all over the world! Ayyy!
But enough about that- let's get down to business: Macaroni and Cheese. The good stuff. The ultimate comfort food. The kind of dish that makes all your problems melt away while you stuff your face in a dark corner with ooey, gooey, cheesy goodness. Sadly, for vegans, this dish has become a distant memory. Instead of trying to use the disappointing vegan products we became accustomed to before the good ones hit the market, we had to take matters into our own hands by making a vegan version that, well, tasted vegan. You know the one... a ridiculous amount of nutritional yeast, onion powder, garlic powder, and vegan butter tossed with whole wheat pasta. Of course, this concept was only a starting point for us 'foodie vegans'. Soon after, vegan mac n' cheese became one of the most intricate and complicated recipes in the world, with an ingredient list boasting dozens of ingredients. Things like: lemon juice, tamari, miso, acidophilus, citric acid, modified tapioca starch, potato starch, truffle oil- and the list goes on! Vegans everywhere were desperate to create a sophisticated vegan mac n' cheese that would impress not only fellow vegans but omnivores as well.
As it turns out, we never did. No matter how hard we tried- no matter how many boiled potatoes and carrots we added or bright yellow turmeric we scooped in, the common standard American diet consumer would take one bite and say, "It's good. But it's not Mac N' Cheese." As it turns out, we vegans have completely lost our way. We have forgotten what true macaroni and cheese tastes like. We've been overcomplicating it for so long that we've spiraled down into the abyss of vegan mac n' cheese- a lonely universe filled with empty containers of nutritional yeast and flashing images of omnivores rolling their eyes.
Well not anymore! And here's the recipe to prove it. But first, let's break down the traditional version so you can see where I am coming from. A traditional mac and cheese calls for butter, cream or milk, a variety of store bought cheeses, and few spices here and there with maybe some breadcrumbs and a roux. It calls for easy, accessible, and everyday ingredients that come together very quickly in a simple dish. Therefore, I have created this 'Vegan Translation', as Isa Chandra would call it. This recipe is the closest thing I have had to traditional style Macaroni and Cheese since going vegan. Think country style. Think holiday celebration. Think childhood. Do note that I've shown this to my non-vegan friends and they said they could have easily been fooled. Ayyyy!
I teamed up with Follow Your Heart because they have some of the best cheese out there. I highly recommend using this brand to make this recipe. You can try subbing out other brands, but I can't guarantee that it will come out as good as this. You can usually find Follow Your Heart products at Whole Foods, co-ops, health food stores, and I've even seen it at regular grocery stores as well (this is the company responsible for Vegeniase). I would stick to the flavors of American, provolone, and smoked gouda as this combination works really perfectly. You can try subbing out the provolone for cheddar or pepper jack if you'd like. Instead of making a blonde roux, like traditional mac, I just added cornstarch which gives it a thicker and creamier texture, while also being gluten-free. Because I don't like most package plant-based milks (they always taste chemically and a bit stale to me), I just make my own in the blender with water and cashews. Instead of cooking the cheese sauce, I replaced this step by just adding the remaining ingredients to the blender with the milk and blending everything to form a thick, creamy cheese sauce. If you don't have a high-speed blender (and because the sauce is very thick) you may want to blend the cheese sauce in two batches and add them separately. If you are using a Vitamix or other high-speed blender, make sure to use the wand as much as needed to help it blend easily. I would say start slow and easy and then crank it up when it's ready. Ok, ENOUGH. Let's get to cookin'!
The Best Vegan Macaroni and Cheese
Serves 6 to 8, takes less than 1 hour, gluten free option (you can halve this recipe if you'd like)
1 (16 oz) pack desired macaroni noodles, plus water + salt to boil
1 cup raw cashews (soaked overnight if using a regular blender)
4 cups filtered water
¼ cup vegan butter
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon turmeric powder
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 pack American slices by Follow Your Heart, chopped
1 pack smoked gouda by Follow Your Heart, chopped
1 pack provolone slices by Follow Your Heart, chopped
Topping (totally optional and not necessary)
1 bag shredded pizza style shreds by Follow Your Heart
6 teaspoons vegan butter
1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Fill a large pot with water and a healthy sprinkling of sea salt. Bring to a boil and add the macaroni noodles. Boil for about 5 minutes, until they are al dente (remembering it’s ok if they are slightly firm because they will cook more in the oven, so you need to calm down). Drain with a colander and transfer to a 9” x 13” baking dish (this recipe will just fit in that!) or desired baking vessel (bonus points for using a large cast iron). Set aside.
3. In a high-speed blender, add the cashews and water and blend until smooth and creamy. This should take a minute or two. Add the chopped cheeses, butter, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, turmeric powder, and cornstarch. Start by blending on low and gradually turn up the speed, until you are left with a smooth and creamy sauce, scraping down the sides and moving everything around as needed (please work with your blender… it needs your help and sometimes it feels as though you think it’s invincible.) If using a smaller blender, divide the cashew milk in half and try making the sauce in two separate batches.
4. Pour the cheese sauce over the noodles in the baking dish. Mix well. Optional: sprinkle the shredded pizza style cheese on top. Then evenly dispersing the butter in small dollops on top.
5. Bake in the oven, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, until the edges are slightly golden and the cheese is thoroughly melted. Remove from the oven and stir with a large spoon. Let stand for 10 minutes. Serve immediately.
If bringing this to a party, you can make it in advance. Just wrap it up tightly and keep it in the fridge until you are ready to go. Bake this at the location and serve immediately. If you would like to freeze this you should bake it for about 10 to 15 minutes longer because, well, it's frozen.
An alternative to using a blender is by cooking the sauce on medium heat, stirring constantly, in a large saucepan or pot on the stovetop the sauce becomes smoother and creamy. If this is the case, you should mix the cornstarch with a little water before adding so it doesn't clump. If you can't make your own cashew milk, use a plain unflavored soy creamer or pea milk creamer. If you can't find creamers, use desired plant-based milk (the sauce will be slightly less creamy).
If using a regular blender you might want to soak your cashews overnight or for at least a few hours to make it easier for them to be blended up smoothly. I have a high-speed blender because I'm fancy, so I don't have to fret about this.
Please chop up the cheese slices so that the blender has a fair chance at blending everything until smooth. If your blender cannot handle this, then you might have to melt everything in a saucepan first and pour that over the noodles. I didn't have a problem with this. And before you ask, you must blend the cheeses up so that it melts effectively. The traditional recipe usually melts the sauce on the stovetop before adding to the noodles. My goal was to skip that step as to not dirty another pot. Use your best judgment.
If you do not serve this immediately, you will lose that velvety smooth texture and it will start to coagulate. This is totally ok and actually happens to regular macaroni and cheese. If you’d like to make it smooth again, you can add some more cashew cream or nondairy milk and heat it back up, mixing it well. But this is a pain. And it still won't look as good as it does when your first bake it. So just eat it immediately. You shouldn’t have a problem doing that.
If you don’t want to make a big batch, simply halve this recipe. :)