When the organizers of a vegan macaroni-and-cheese contest in Baltimore in February sent instructions to contestants, they suggested bringing enough samples to feed a crowd of 500 people. Instead, “we stopped counting at 1,000,” said Rissa Miller, who helps organize social events for a group called Baltimore Vegan Drinks. “Nobody expected that many people to show up.”
One of the Baltimore Vegan Mac ’n’ Cheese Smackdown’s other organizers, Brenda Sanders from PEP Foods, was also floored by the droves who showed up to sample vegan cheesy goodness from 31 home cooks and professional chefs, yet she acknowledges the allure. “Who can resist mac ’n’ cheese?” she said. “We picked it as the theme for the event because we knew it would attract a crowd.”
Indeed, macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes often cited by the newly vegan as one they particularly miss, especially when vegan offerings on restaurant menus tend toward hummus wraps and black bean burgers – not what most Americans would classify as comfort food.
When Miller became vegan 21 years ago, “the idea of eating a vegan version of mac and cheese didn’t even occur to me,” she said. “There was no Daiya vegan cheese yet, and cashew cream wasn’t even fashionable.”
The recent proliferation of commercially available vegan cheeses from companies such as Daiya, Treeline and Miyoko’s Kitchen has opened up a new world of possibility for those who eschew dairy products, inspiring a host of home cooks to try their hands at re-creating cheesy childhood memories. Even a popular BuzzFeed recipe video has gotten in on the act, whizzing boiled carrots, onions and potatoes in a blender with raw cashews to create a creamy, cheeselike sauce.
“For some bizarre reason, many vegans are obsessed with mac and cheese, and apparently I am no exception,” said Jeanie Ciskowski of Accokeek, Maryland, who ended up winning the People’s Choice award at the Baltimore event for her entry called Flying Pig Labs Mac ’n’ Cheese, which combined her own handmade cheddar-style cashew cheese with commercially available vegan cheeses.
When Ciskowski decided to enter, she expected that she would sample the other entries and try to pry the winning recipe from its creator. Instead, she found her own concoction at the top of the heap. “I had no idea how much fun I’d have being on my feet half the day, feeding an endless line of mac-and-cheese-crazed vegans,” she said.
Not only vegans, actually. The organizers say the crowd included plenty of people who regularly eat dairy, yet are still interested in plant-based cuisine. “People were so amazed that these mac-and-cheese products were vegan, that there was no dairy in them at all,” said Miller.
It’s a trend that Chloe Coscarelli, co-founder and executive chef of By Chloe, a vegan restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village that opened less than a year ago, has incorporated into her own brand, focusing on plant-based food that appeals to the masses, such as her wildly popular Sweet Potato Mac ’n’ Cheese.
“We spent two years testing recipes for the By Chloe menu,” said Coscarelli, “and the mac and cheese was a huge part of that. If someone’s initial response during recipe testing was ‘It tastes good for being vegan,’ then it was back to the drawing board.”
Coscarelli’s own take on a plant-based mac and cheese – or what some jokingly call “mac and trees” – puts the emphasis firmly on the plants themselves, using mashed sweet potatoes mixed with almond milk to create a slightly sweet sauce reminiscent of the commercial boxed products often found on the plates of both toddlers and college students. The addition of crispy, salted shiitake “bacon” takes the dish to the next level, in Coscarelli’s estimation, along with the almond “Parmesan,” made from ground, toasted almonds. “Like many dishes,” she said, “the key to extraordinary mac and cheese is all about the layering of flavor and texture.”
At Annie’s Homegrown, co-founders Annie Withey and Andrew Martin began the company in 1989 specifically to create healthful, dairy-based boxed macaroni-and-cheese products but received requests for many years for a vegan version, which was introduced in 2015.
As with Coscarelli’s recipe, Annie’s Organic Vegan Shells & Creamy Sauce incorporates sweet potato, combining it with pumpkin to get the flavor and color they wanted. “When it came to our vegan product development process, we decided to take a new veggie-forward approach,” said Christina McCalla, brand manager for Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. “That’s why we chose pumpkin and sweet potato powders as the first ingredients after organic pasta.”
Seeing a creamy sauce as the key to success, Annie’s looked for combinations that would provide the buttery mouth feel that could help a vegan version compete – or at least peacefully coexist – with traditional dairy-based options.
Although it’s true that flavor is a major element when it comes to creating a plant-based macaroni and cheese, texture is often the make-or-break factor for anyone with a strong food memory about cheese, like District resident Erin Longbottom, who switched from a vegetarian diet to a vegan one to two years ago. Her Vegan Chili Mac recipe, which took second place at the Baltimore smackdown event, definitely highlights texture. Longbottom adapted some vegan cheese recipes that she found online into a concoction akin to nacho cheese sauce.
“I had two things in mind when I went with this recipe,” she said. “One, I wanted it to be from scratch. Two, all my favorite mac-and-cheese dishes involve gooey, stretchy cheese, so I wanted my entry to be like that.”
The result, once a spicy homemade chili is added to the mix, is like late-night, dorm-room drunk food, with a little less fat-laden guilt.
The success of the Baltimore Vegan Mac ’n’ Cheese Smackdown has galvanized the organizers to start seeking out a larger space for next year.
“What an awesome problem to have, to actually outgrow the space in the first year,” Miller said.
In the meantime, she and the other organizers have been sharing their experience with the producers of a similar competition coming up in Philadelphia in May, the Philly MAC-Down, and have also fielded questions from people in other cities, including the District, about how to organize such an event.
Meanwhile, at 10 months and counting until the next smackdown, Ciskowski and Longbottom have time to work on new recipes, should they each decide to enter again. Longbottom, whose competitive zeal was sparked when she placed third at the D.C. State Fair in 2015 for her vegan ice cream, is thinking about making her own aged cheese, while Ciskowski is already testing how well bulk batches of her cashew cheese will freeze. That could provide plenty of fodder for a homemade sauce – certainly enough for at least 1,000 hungry diners.
Servings: 14 (makes 14 cups)
Notes: This recipe, an entry in the 2016 Vegan Mac ’n’ Cheese Smackdown in Baltimore, relies on a super-gooey cheese sauce that satisfies those who like both nachos and macaroni and cheese.
Full-fat coconut milk will work here, but because it is a little more oily and has a more pronounced coconut flavor than low-fat coconut milk, the latter is preferable.
Nutritional yeast is used to enhance the flavor and boost the nutrition in vegetarian and vegan dishes. It tastes a little cheesy and is available at health food stores and at Whole Foods Markets.
MAKE AHEAD: The raw cashews need to be soaked for 8 hours or boiled for 10 minutes.
½ cup raw cashews
1 cup warm tap water
1 cup warmed low-fat coconut milk (see headnote)
1/3 cup tapioca starch
1/3 cup nutritional yeast (see headnote)
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon white or brown miso paste
2 teaspoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon granulated garlic powder
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more as needed
¼ teaspoon ground turmeric
1 pound dried macaroni, just-cooked or reheated (8 cups)
3 cups of your favorite vegan chili, warmed
Soften the cashews either by covering them in water in a bowl and soaking them for 8 hours (at room temperature) or by cooking them in a pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Drain.
Transfer the cashews to a blender along with the warm tap water, warm coconut milk, tapioca starch, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, miso, maple syrup, onion and garlic powders, the teaspoon of kosher salt and the ground turmeric. Puree for several minutes on high speed, until smooth.
Pour that blended mixture into a medium saucepan; cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, for 5 to 10 minutes or until it thickens into a sauce. Note: The sauce goes from thickened to a gooey mass of cheese rather quickly, so remove from the heat promptly.
Combine the sauce with the hot macaroni until evenly coated, then mix in the vegan chili until well incorporated. Taste, and add salt as needed.
Serve right away.
Nutrition information per serving (without chili): 180 calories, 6 g protein, 31 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 200 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 2 g sugar.
Adapted from a recipe by Washington, D.C. resident Erin Longbottom.
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: This recipe includes two optional toppings – the crunch of toasted and salted ground almonds, and crisped shiitake mushrooms.
MAKE AHEAD: The almond Parmesan topping can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 month.
For the optional almond Parmesan topping:
½ cup sliced almonds
½ teaspoon kosher salt
For the optional shiitake bacon topping:
3¾ ounces (about 2 cups) shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and thinly sliced (about ¼-inch thick)
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ teaspoon sea salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the mac ’n’ cheese:
2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more for the pasta cooking water
1 pound dried elbow macaroni or similar pasta shape, such as cavatappi
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup flour
1 cup cooked, peeled and mashed sweet potato (about 1 medium peeled sweet potato)
3½ cups unsweetened almond or soy milk
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon low-sodium soy sauce
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
2 to 3 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
For the optional almond Parmesan topping:
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Spread the sliced almonds on the baking sheet. Toast in the oven for about 5 minutes or until lightly golden brown. Immediately transfer to a food processor and add the salt; process until finely ground. The yield is about ½ cup, enough for about 15 servings.
For the optional shiitake bacon topping:
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Toss the mushrooms with the oil, sea salt and pepper on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast for about 30 minutes or until browned and crisp, using a spatula to turn them once or twice, as needed. The yield is about 1/3 cup, enough for 4 to 6 servings.
For the mac ’n’ cheese:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and then the macaroni; cook according to the package directions, then rinse with cold water and drain.
Whisk together the oil and flour in a medium saucepan over medium heat; cook for 3 to 5 minutes, then whisk in the mashed sweet potato, almond or soy milk, the 2 teaspoons of sea salt, the garlic, mustard, soy sauce and lime juice. Once the mixture starts to bubble, reduce the heat to low; cook until the sauce thickens, whisking as needed so it’s mostly smooth (but don’t worry if some sweet potato pulp remains). Add the sauce and rosemary (to taste) to the pasta, and toss to coat.
Taste, and adjust the seasoning as needed. Divide among individual bowls; if using one or both, top each portion with a tablespoon of the almond Parmesan and several pieces of the shiitake bacon. Serve warm.
Nutrition information Per serving (based on 6, using almond milk): 450 calories, 12 g protein, 77 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 850 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar.
Adapted from Chloe Coscarelli, chef-restaurateur at By Chloe in New York.