Earlier this month we were asked to do a stint as judges of a contest — one we did not immediately feel well-qualified for: The Best Vegan Mac & Cheese Showdown. At first we gently protested to the contest’s mastermind, the gracious Chica Vegan , that we’re not exactly proponents of vegan cheese since we find most taste like the Nutra-Sweet equivalent of shredded yellow cheese, and we know too well how real mac & cheese should taste. “But that’s exactly why you’d make good judges,” she insisted. That’s how we ended up licking cashew cream off our digits and picking Daiya strings out of our beards.
At the showdown, we quizzed the five restaurants on their particular recipe; we took a cup of each into a nearby photo booth to record our uncensored thoughts and opinions; and ultimately voted for a concoction of handmade pasta smothered in a homemade cashew cheese sauce and topped with slivers of fried onions. While not quite our idea of what mac & cheese should be, it was the best tasting, and better conceived, dish of the five. Most were good; none was perfect.
Vegan Mac & Cheese became our white whale. And we were Ahab, in a Hollywood photo booth. Frankly, we were surprised that the majority of the recipes were gluten-free, as if faking cheese weren’t hard enough they’d tackle pasta too? We thought too many of them used store-bought vegan cheese products. And to our horror, not a single entry was baked… for our full frontal, impartial photo booth observations, listen here:
Our brief appointment to this food tribunal got us thinking about what makes the truly best mac & cheese. Our first philosophical conclusion is that, yes, it can exist in a vegan form. Our reasoning: Kraft’s Mac & Cheese is barely real, and certainly easier to mimic than, say, a tomme of raw sheep’s milk cheese. With that tenet outta the way, we turned to the deeper question: what’s the platonic ideal of Mac-And? You see, we believe that Mac & Cheese by nature is a casserole, it should be al dente pasta tossed with sauce and baked with a crust. Stove-top mac? Pffff, whatever. Having catered off-site events with mac & cheese, we can confidently say it travels well and holds up to both time and temperature. We also believe that mac & cheese should involve nothing that takes away from the two namesake ingredients. It should be properly salted and thoroughly gooey.
With these principles in mind, we give you the ultimate vegan mac & cheese recipe: quality noodles that are partially toasted before boiling to add a nutty Parmesan flavor; tossed with a thickened almond-milk cream sauce loaded with nutritional yeast, an umami jigger of shittake juice and a ton of salt and pepper; topped with a Panko-herb crust that bakes until golden brown. We tried regular breadcrumbs and found them lacking. We also tried coconut milk and loved the texture but found the taste to be a little too Thai. And while traditional macaroni pasta works A-OK, we used a pasta called strozzapreti, which uniqely mimics Kraft while adding goo-friendly nooks and crannies.
Perfect Vegan Mac & Cheese
2 tablespoons vegan margarine
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup almond milk
1/2 cup nutritional yeast (big flakes)
1/4 cup beer (Witte or Hefe)
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoon fresh cracked black pepper
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
2 shittake mushrooms
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
1/3 cup Panko breadcrumbs (check ingredients, some aren’t vegan)
1/4 cup crispy fried shallots (store-bought)
1 tablespoons vegan margarine
1 teaspoon parsley
2 teaspoons thyme
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups dried pasta
1 small shallow casserole dish
1. Cook the pasta. Set a pot of salted water on high, on the back burner. Divide your dry pasta into two 1 cup piles. Toast one pile for a couple minutes in a saute pan over medium-high heat, tossing frequently, until the dry pasta starts to brown. Remove from heat. Once the water is boiling, add both the toasted and un-toasted and cook until al dente. Strain and sit.
2. Make your umami jigger by finly chopping your shittake mushrooms and setting a saute pan on high heat, coat it with a tablespoon of oil and add the shrooms. Cook like this for a few minutes, stirring occasionally, and then douse with soy sauce, water and vinegar. Let it cook for another minute, then remove from heat and let sit.
3. Create “cheese” sauce. In a medium sauce pan, melt margarine on medium heat and add the flour. At first, the flour will just soak up the fat and look like (vegan) cookie dough crumbles. Keep cooking it until it melts back down and starts to brown a little, stirring with a spatula to move it around. Then slowly add about a quarter of the almond milk and whisk. This should result in a thick paste. Wait 30 seconds and then repeat until it’s all whisked in and slightly looser. Then add the beer, which will thin it out more. Now add half your nutritional yeast and stir, then the second half followed by the umami jigger. Whisk again. Taste and season with salt, pepper and white pepper. Sauce is done, set aside.
4. Prepare your crust. Mince your herbs and set a saute pan on high heat. Add your margarine and once melted toss in the herbs and remove from heat. In a bowl, toss the Panko with herb oil and salt.
5. Assemble your mac & cheese while you pre-heat oven to 400. Toss your strained pasta in a large mixing bowl and add cheese sauce, tossing to coat. (It should be heavily covered). Lightly grease your casserole dish with margarine or oil, add spoon the macaroni in it. Top with your crust. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until the crust starts to brown. Let cool for 5 minutes for eating.
Beverage: Drake’s Hefe
Soundtrack: Primal Scream’s cover of “Some Velvet Morning”