Who says mac and “cheese” actually needs cheese?
As a total and complete cheese lover, I would have once told you with absolute certainty that I could not live without cheese. It’s melty, ooey-gooey, and oh-so comforting, especially when combined with macaroni. Mac and cheese is basically comfort food defined, and it made a regular appearance on the dinner menu during most of our childhoods. Which brings us to vegan mac and cheese: It can’t be possible, right? How can you make a recipe that doesn’t use one of the two ingredients in its namesake?
As it turns out, cashews are amazing. They’re one of the more expensive nuts, sure, but they’ve become the go-to ingredient for many vegan recipes. We’ve used it to make Plant-Based Cashew Flatbread and Dairy-Free Parmesan. In this recipe, pureeing cashews with hot water and a handful of well-chosen spices turns it into a cashew queso that’s perfect for plant-based recipes. It’s certainly made me a convert; I’m pretty sure I could live without cheese so long as I have cashews in the pantry!
How Do You Use Cashew Cheese?
This incredible cashew queso not only makes the best vegan mac and cheese, but it can also be used for a variety of other recipes. The recipe we use below is thin enough to use as a sauce for pasta, or as a cheese sauce drizzle for dishes like enchiladas or nachos. You can also use it to smother vegetables, a helpful way to get picky eaters to eat their greens (it tastes particularly good on roasted broccoli).
If you reduce the water by half, only using 1/2 cup, this vegan cashew queso becomes much thicker. Serve it as a dip with chips or a vegetable platter, or slather it on your morning bagel. We also love using it instead of mayonnaise on sandwiches and wraps.
You can make this cashew cheese recipe your own by altering the spice profile as well. We use nutritional yeast, chipotle chili powder, smoked paprika, salt, garlic powder, and ground cumin to give the “cheese” a smoky, spicy, cheesy flavor. You can easily make it spicier by adding cayenne powder or Sriracha, or skip all the seasonings and use your own. Green spices like Italian seasoning work well, as do fresh herbs like parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. We recommend continuing to use the nutritional yeast (the spice that gives the cheese its “cheesy” flavor), but other than that, the possibilities are endless!
How long is cashew cheese good for? It lasts about three to four days in the refrigerator. If you happened to make too much, toss it to the freezer, where it’s good for up to six months. Defrost it in the fridge overnight and run it through the blender before using it to remove any lumps.
Choosing the Right Pasta for Vegan Mac and Cheese
The classic pasta shape for this dish is macaroni (hence, the name “mac” and cheese). That said, you definitely don’t have to use elbow macaroni if you don’t want to. A wide variety of shapes works well in this dish: conchiglie (or shells), orecchiette, fusilli, farfalle (or bow ties), gemelli, or cavatappi, just to name a few. Any pasta shape that has a hole through it or contains ridges will grab onto the sauce, making it ideal for saucy dishes like mac and cheese.
Then, you’ll need to consider the ingredients used in the pasta. Some store-bought pasta is made with eggs, which are off-limits for vegan and plant-based diets. Look at the ingredients list to make sure the pasta is made with flour (or semolina) and water only.
Finally, look for whole-grain pasta whenever possible. Whole grains contain complex carbohydrates, which are digested more slowly by our bodies. That means you’ll get a lasting source of energy that will keep you feeling fuller for longer. Whole-grain pasta is usually higher in fiber, too, making it a win-win for this dish.
- 1 cup water hot
- 1 cup cashews raw
- 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- 1 teaspoon chipotle chili powder
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Mac and Cheese
- 8 ounces whole-grain macaroni elbows or other shell shape, packaged, egg-free
- 1 head of broccoli cut into bite-sized florets
- kosher salt and black pepper to taste
To make the cashew queso, combine the ingredients in a blender. Blend until smooth, adding additional water as needed to create sauce thin enough to coat the pasta. If you accidentally add too much water and the sauce becomes too thin, add additional cashews.
Mac and Cheese
To make the mac and cheese, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the macaroni according to the package directions. Add the broccoli during the last two minutes of cook time.
When the macaroni is tender, drain and discard the cooking water. Return the pasta and broccoli florets to the pot and stir in the cashew queso.
Season with salt and pepper, to taste, and serve immediately.
SmartPoints (Freestyle): 13
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