I’m not sure that a post regarding vegan mac’n’cheese needs much introduction. Anyone exposed to the warm comfort of a hot bowl of cheesy, crumb-crusted baked pasta in their pre-vegan days has probably experienced the deep-soul cravings for a cruelty-free version. Years ago, when the earliest vegan cheeses were naught but tough, strangely-waxy, petroleum-flavored squares, this seemed like an impossible feat. Luckily, much pioneering research has been done on this front, and so the struggle for a rich mac ‘n’ cheese is limited to how much energy you have to look up a recipe and cook it.
There are a variety of ways to achieve the creamy sauce of legends, depending on the difficulty level you are willing to choose. The most inventive dishes use a variety of cooked, pureed veggies – usually a mix of potato, carrot, and onion, but also butternut squash, and pumpkin. There’s also sauces made with beer, raw nuts and sunflower seeds. And then of course, there’s the add-ins – roasted red peppers and haberneros, for example. You can also make a simple sauce with a roux and nutritional yeast. If you’re looking for something with a little less effort, you can pull together a sauce with melted vegan cheese. And if you’re completely knackered, then you can turn to one of these vegan mac-in-the-box kits.
For tonight’s challenge, I decided to face-off three separate mac’n’cheese recipes of varying difficulty. Here are the contenders:
- Level 1 (“easy”): Easy effort uses mainly pre-packaged/pre-measured ingredients, requires minimal input from the pantry, and is usually a one-pot, low-mess affair. For this I chose the Earth Balance mac-in-the-box. I’m gonna confess – I found these at Whole Foods for the first time this week. I *had* to try it, because never in my vegan life have I had access to convenience mac’n’cheese, and my not-so-secret mission in life is to find vegan foods to replace the non-vegan foods that my kids love.
- Level 2 (“medium”): Medium effort may involve some convenience items, requires more input from the pantry and thus more measurements, and will probably dirty up at least 2 pots/pans. This goes to the Daiya-based Creamy Macaroni and Cheese. I have never actually made a vegan mac using vegan cheese, which is an item I use sparingly. This version came highly recommended in a Facebook post, and I figured VeganMofo is as good a time as any to try it.
- Level 3 (“Hard”): I use the term “hard” loosely here – basically, it’s a meal that will involve several trips to the pantry search for spices that you know should be *right there*, requires chopping and measuring of several ingredients and possibly use of dangerous implements, and will likely dirty up at least 3 pots and a kitchen appliance (ask someone else to cover the dishes). For this I went for the vegetable-based Super Creamy Mac n Cheese from Vegan Yumminess. This has a base of potatoes, carrots, and onions, but I was intrigued by the use of coconut milk (and honestly, this looked like the healthiest option!).
About 25 minutes in with three hot pots on the stove and reaching for the oven temperature while grabbing the blender off the top of the fridge and stirring the melting Daiya while trying to answer a question yelled from another room, I began to question why I thought this was a good idea.
So what were the results? Besides a table packed with cheesy goodness, I asked all the members of my crew for their impressions.
Level 1 – Earth Balance Mac: This has a good, cheddary flavor and was probably the “cheesiest” of the group (way to go, EB, you impressed the omnis!), and it was also the favorite of the youngest. However, with its thinner macaroni noodles and sauce, the adults felt it paled in comparison to the other dishes. Still, completely, totally edible, and definitely a great quick meal or side! The kids finished up the entire portion. Preparation was a breeze – while Levels 2 and 3 were in the oven, I poured out the contents of the Earth Balance box. This works just like the old stuff, so I simply had to add a few tablespoons of vegan butter and soymilk to the cooked mac, along with the packaged powdered mix.
Level 2 – Daiya Creamy Mac ‘N’ Cheese: This is the creamiest of the three, as well as the oiliest and perhaps the heaviest. See how it sticks to the side of the dish? Everyone remarked that it had a good flavor, and it was the preferred favorite of one diner. I detected a faint fake-cheesiness aftertaste, but it wasn’t intrusive, and no one else at the table complained of this. However, it’s also the only dish where we have leftovers. Preparation wise, this was easy to pull together in just two pots. One for the mac, and another in which I mixed vegan butter, pepper, and nutritional yeast along with soy milk and Daiya. I found the large amount of Daiya daunting – 3 cups is more than a single bag, and Daiya isn’t cheap! It was simultaneously fascinating and disturbing to watch the Daiya melt in the same lumpy way that cheddar does. Once the sauce was smooth, it was simply a task of pouring it over the macaroni before popping it in the oven. Super-easy, super-tasty!
Level 3 – VeganYumminess Super Creamy Mac n Cheese: This was the preferred favorite by most. This recipe is based on chopped and boiled potatoes, carrots, and onion mixed with coconut milk, cashews, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and spices. Though it came out a bit pale and less creamy than the Daiya mix, it had a lighter, brighter taste that appealed to everyone. The adults and kids finished up the entire portion. Preparation wise, the small amount of vegetables came together quickly, and I began throwing everything else in the blender while the noodles cooked and I started on Level 2 preparation. I was worried the cashews wouldn’t grind smoothly because I don’t have a high-speed blender, but using the cooking water apparently softened those babies right up! This came together beautifully; the slowest prep point was peeling the potatoes and carrot. My favorite part was when I opened my can of coconut milk to find a thick layer of cream on top. Mmmmm.Totally worth the effort!
If I had to pick my favorite to make again (and I would pick one!), or recommend one for you to try, it would probably be Level 3. Even with the extra work, it seems to offer the best flavor, texture, and nutrition of the bunch. Of course, given all the options out there for mac n’ cheese, it’s surely not the last recipe we’ll try!
However, it was hard to pick a clear winner in this stand-off, since everyone declared that *everything* was delicious and gravitated towards their own personal tastes. But that’s okay, because it’s a win-win situation when there’s plenty of vegan mac to go around!