Mac and cheese is one of America’s most beloved dishes. All varieties—gooey or baked, embellished or plain—are welcome. Noodles draped in melted cheese and dairy; it’s a simple scoop of carb heaven. But when you need a vegan option, where do you begin? Why, with the cheese sauce, of course. Think of it this way: most dry pastas are already vegan, so you’re halfway there. Use this cashew “cheese” sauce to take you the rest of the way.
The bulk of this recipe consists of soaked, softened cashews. The cashews become extremely tender after soaking and get blended with plant-based milk and spices, resulting in a thick, flavorful sauce. It’s pretty amazing how soaking cashews can result in a texture totally different than the crunchy roasted version. (Try adding them to soups and stews.) The fat content in cashews creates a rich texture, the drupe has a mild flavor that can easily be manipulated by spices, and our cheesiest non-cheese friend—nutritional yeast—rounds the whole thing out. A pinch of MSG creates a subtle nod to parmesan cheese, and all you need to do is add the macaroni.
How to make cashew “cheese” sauce
1. Soak the cashews
There’s the long way and the fast way, and both are effective. The long way is to add the raw cashews to a bowl and cover them with room temperature water. Leave them to soak for about four hours or overnight. The fast way is to dump the cashews in a bowl and then cover them with freshly boiled water. Let them soak for 30 to 45 minutes. The cashews will look swollen, pale, and some of them will split along the center. Other than those signs, I recommend you eat one. The cashew will be very soft, but still have some integrity.
2. Blend with the other ingredients
Drain the cashews and add them to a blender, along with the nutritional yeast, a clove of garlic, spices, salt, and MSG. Add half of the liquid measurement, and blend for about 30 seconds at high speed. Add the rest of the liquid measurement and blend again until smooth.
This sauce works best if you have a high-powered blender. I have a pretty good blender but it wasn’t enough to make the sauce as smooth as I wanted. I had to transfer the mixture to a deep bowl and use my immersion blender to smooth it out, which always works when I’m in a pinch. This cashew sauce is savory and satisfying, and the nutritional yeast does a great job delivering a cheese-like flavor. It will not have a stretchy cheese-pull to offer, but it is supremely creamy.
While you can use this sauce for topping vegetables, or swiping over eggs, I mixed a pound of elbow macaroni into my cashew sauce and poured it into a buttered casserole dish. Then, I generously topped it with panko crumbs (make sure to check the panko’s ingredients if you’re vegan) and spritzed the top with spray oil to aid in browning. You could also stir the bread crumbs with a teaspoon of oil if you don’t have a spray bottle. My mac went into a 400°F oven for 15 minutes to crisp on top and set throughout. This made for a clean-slicing casserole, but it lost its goo factor. If you want to keep it creamy, just broil it for a minute or two to brown the breadcrumbs.
Vegan mac and “cheese” recipe
1 ½ cup raw cashews
⅓ cup nutritional yeast
1 garlic clove, peeled
1 ¼ cup unsweetened oat milk (substitute other plant milks)
½ teaspoon turmeric
¼ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon mustard
1 ½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon MSG
1 pound of macaroni, boiled
1 cup of panko crumbs
Spray oil to coat the crumbs
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F, if baking. Butter a medium or large casserole dish.
2. Put the cashews in a bowl and cover them with just-boiled water. Soak them for 30 to 45 minutes.
3. Drain the cashews. Put them in a blender with the nutritional yeast, garlic, turmeric, paprika, onion powder, mustard, salt, and MSG. Add half of the oat milk. Blend the mixture on high speed until thick and smooth, about 30 seconds. Add the other half of the oat milk, and blend again until smooth. Mix the cashew sauce together with the cooked macaroni and add it to the buttered casserole dish.
3. Top the mac and cheese with panko crumbs and spray them with oil. Bake the mac for 15 minutes, or broil it for one or two minutes if you just want a crispy topping.