Mac ‘n Cheeze

When I ask vegans what comfort food they miss the most, macaroni and cheese is by far the most common answer.  The trouble is, which macaroni and cheese are you missing?  The kind I grew up on (homemade, baked, heavy on the seriously sharp cheddar cheese) or the stuff my husband remembers (made in a pot on the stove out of that blue box with the orange, powdered “cheese”)?  And then there’s the “time willing to spend in the kitchen” question.  I am willing to spend a lot of time and I have a lot of cooking skills.  My husband…..not so much.

What I wanted to provide you with was two template versions of mac ‘n cheese – one for folks like me, and one for folks like my husband.  I wanted them both to be delicious in their own right, not just as some pathetic “second-best” kind of food.  ‘Cause we all know, vegan food rocks.  Some of it just rocks harder.

Those of you who have been vegan for awhile have probably had some vegan version of mac and cheese.  They vary in a lot.  There are a ton of recipes out there, and we tried a whole mess of them so you wouldn’t have to.  This has slowed down my weight loss efforts (oh, the sacrifices I make for you), but hasn’t entirely de-railed them.
(For those of you keeping score at home, that’s 22 lbs down so far….)  So, when a recipe calls for fat, I’ve tried to trim it to the minimum amount that still tastes great.  When I could slip in some whole grains without sacrificing flavor or texture, I have done so.  That’s my plan for all of these “homesick” recipes.  I’ll make notes about changes that I’ve made for health reasons and you can adjust the recipes according to your dietary needs and whether a food will be a regular or occasional part of your diet.

Most vegan cheese sauce recipes call for some kind of fat, some kind of thickener, and nutritional yeast.  Nutritional yeast, for those of you who are new to this sort of thing, is a cultured food grown on molasses specifically for use as a food supplement.  It is full of B-vitamins (Red Star Vegetarian Support formula has B-12) and tastes sorta cheesy and sorta nutty.  It will not affect people with Candida overgrowth.  Nutritional yeast is also not the same thing as brewer’s yeast, which has a very bitter flavor.

Another common ingredient in cheese sauces is lemon juice (for that cheesy tang).  David and I learned that the balance here is very fine between “Yum!  Cheesy!” and “Weird!  Lemony!”  Like salt, lemon juice is best used judiciously.  You can always add more, but the only way to get rid of it when you have too much is to let the dish sit in the fridge for a day or three.  (Likewise, if something tastes flat that was perfect yesterday, you can add a bit more lemon juice to ramp up the tang.)

One ingredient that I would steer clear of is miso.  I love miso in many things, but I tried using it in a couple of “cheese” sauce recipes, and it just tastes wrong to me.  Miso makes great pickled tofu (vegan feta), but its flavor is too assertive for a sauce.

Until recently, I was not a big fan of whole grain pastas, but in the past 3 or 4 years they have improved dramatically.  Scientists have also recently discovered that fiber is not the only thing about whole grains that make them very beneficial to your health.  They are also full of anti-oxidants that you don’t get elsewhere in your diet, so you should try them if you haven’t.  They work really well in baked dishes like this one and in lasagna.  If you try one brand and aren’t impressed, try another.  There are more and more available every day.  If you really can’t bear whole wheat pasta, Ronzoni (the grocery store brand) has come out with a high fiber pasta that has a very traditional texture.  You won’t get all the benefits of the whole grain, but it’s a big step up from white flour.

For the wheat-sensitive out there, I haven’t found the perfect gluten-free pasta yet, but there are some very acceptable options available.  If you have a favorite, let me know and I’ll try making a gluten-free mac and cheese.

For now, here are the two template recipes.  Try them out.  Feel free to play around with them to make them more like your  ideal comfort food.

Next month…..rice crispy treats!

Baked Macaroni and Cheeze
I’ve tried (almost) all the rest, and keep coming back to the classic.

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett, adapted from The New Farm Cookbook
Serves 4 as a main dish, 6 – 8 as a side
Preparation Time: 1 hour

3 1/2 cups (12 ounces) uncooked macaroni (white elbows or whole wheat penne)
1/2 cup Earth Balance margarine
1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups boiling water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
1 1/2 teaspoons garlic powder (or 2 cloves fresh garlic, minced)
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
pinch cayenne
1 cup nutritional yeast flakes
black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon minced parsley (optional)
paprika or fresh breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 F.  Spray a 9 X 13 in casserole dish with non-stick spray.  Set aside.

Cook the macaroni until al dente.  Drain.  Set aside in warm covered saucepan.

While macaroni cooks, melt the Earth Balance in a medium saucepan and stir in the flour.  Stir until flour is incorporated.  Whisk this mixture (called a roux) over medium heat until it is bubbly and thick.  Whisk in boiling water, salt, soy sauce, and spices.  Keep whisking to keep the sauce smooth.  Cook until sauce is thickened.  Whisk in nutritional yeast, pepper, and parsley (if using).

Mix two-thirds of the sauce with the cooked macaroni and spread into prepared pan.  Pour the rest of the sauce on top.  Sprinkle top with paprika.   Bake at 350 for 15-20 minutes.
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Notes: For a crustier top, sprinkle casserole with fresh breadcrumbs and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil.  Bake until top is crusty – about 25 minutes.

This recipe originally called for an additional 1/4 cup of oil to be whisked into the sauce with the nutritional yeast.  If fat is not a concern for you, you can add it back.  It makes the casserole a little richer.

To increase the protein content and make the dish a bit more “posh”, substitute 2 cups of unsweetened soymilk for an equal amount of boiling water in the sauce.

You can add up to 1/2 lb of thawed, frozen, chopped spinach to the sauce before mixing it into the pasta for a “Macaroni Florentine”, or add other finely chopped vegetables (especially broccoli or cauliflower) as you like.  If you want the veggies soft, you can par-boil them along with the pasta during its last few minutes of cooking.

Stovetop Mac ‘n Cheeze
Recipe by Lisa Bennett
Serves 4 regular folks or 2 hungry teenagers.
Preparation Time: 20 minutes

2 cups uncooked pasta (white elbow noodles or whole wheat rotini)
1 recipe Tangy Chedda Sauce (see below)

Cook pasta according to package directions.  Don’t overcook!  It should be cooked all the way through, but still chewy.  You will have about 4 cups.  Drain and mix with Tangy Chedda Sauce.  Put back on the stove over medium heat.  Gently warm, stirring constantly, until heated through.  Devour.

Tangy Chedda Sauce

Recipe By Lisa Bennett, adapted from Joanne Stepaniak, The Uncheese Cookbook
Makes about 2 cups
Preparation Time: 10 minutes

1 cup water
1/2 cup pimento pieces or canned, roasted red pepper, drained
1/4 cup raw cashew pieces
1/4 cup raw sesame seeds (see note)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
2-3 tablespoons lemon juice (see note)
2 teaspoons onion granules
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic granules (or 1 clove fresh garlic, minced)
1/4 teaspoon ground dill seed (optional)
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice (optional)

Place all ingredients in a blender.  Process for several minutes or until smooth and creamy.

This sauce is good cold with chips or raw veggies, or warmed and served over cooked veggies (especially broccoli, cauliflower, or baked potato).  Store leftover sauce in the refrigerator.
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Notes: If you prefer a smoother sauce, you can substitute 1/4 cup tahini for the sesame seeds.  The seeds are really good, though.

The original recipe called for 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  I found this too tart and distinctly lemony.  I would start with 2 tablespoons, and add more only if necessary, or when re-heating leftovers that have lost their “zing”.