As promised in my Blue Box Blues post, I’ve taken on the selfless task of trying different mac ‘n’ cheese recipes. I recruited two macaroni and cheese aficionados to serve as taste testers (my husband and his best friend), and thought about some important criteria.
Mac ‘N’ Cheese Showdown Criteria:
The foundation of any good recipe is good ingredients. And the foundation of the most practical recipes is having ingredients on hand. As I tried the recipes, I considered if I usually had each ingredient in the house. For anything that wasn’t always stocked in my kitchen, I considered how easy it was to find at a store.
Let’s face it. Mac ‘N’ Cheese from a box is one of the easiest meals to make. Even kids can do it! So finding something almost as easy was a priority. Needing to re-read instructions multiple times is no fun, and I also didn’t want anything that made a big mess or used multiple pots. Nobody likes clean up!
Look and mouth feel
We eat with our eyes first, and when people have such strong preconceived notions of how something should look and taste, I want the mac ‘n’ cheese to fit the description, even before we truly taste it.
Most importantly, is taste! Even if something is easy and looks orange-y yellow, it’s still only part way to being great mac ‘n’ cheese.
Each criteria was considered by the taste testers, and I’ve summed up the feedback in the most straightforward way we know how to communicate these days. Emojis.
First up, was Sweet Potato Mac ‘N’ Cheese from Chloe Coscarelli. My parents are big fans of Chloe, and probably own all of her cookbooks. A few years ago, knowing that cheese was the last thing keeping me from being 100% vegan, my dad sent me this recipe. I remember enjoying it, but I couldn’t remember any details on how hard it was to make, so this was as good as a first time through all over again.
Here are the ingredients straight from Chloe’s website, with my notes in red:
1 pound elbow macaroni (or gluten-free pasta) Medium Shells were the shape of choice for the taste test.
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup all-purpose flour (or gluten-free all-purpose flour) We went “full gluten” for the taste test. I haven’t tried the GF variation.
1 cup mashed cooked peeled sweet potato, about 1 medium peeled red sweet potato In anticipation of the mac ‘n’ cheese showdown, we had sweet potatoes the night prior, and I saved 1 cup for this recipe. Without this ingredient already cooked from the night before, it would have added more time and equipment.
3 ½ cups almond or soy milk We only had unsweetened coconut milk in the house. Soy may have been a bit creamier, and almond would have given me hives.
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon soy sauce I used Bragg’s Liquid Aminos
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 to 3 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary I totally forgot this.
Making the potato for a previous dinner, and having it cooked and mashed already, definitely made prep easier. My college, or post-college, kitchen probably wouldn’t have had all the right ingredients, but now we always have lime juice, Dijon mustard, etc. on hand. I really liked that I only needed one pot for the cheese sauce, but I was a little nervous that it didn’t seem thick enough. It took a while to thicken (and I added an extra tablespoon of flour to nudge it along) but eventually it really started to stick to the noodles. I think Chloe’s website photo looks better than my results, but it tasted great! Because all the interesting ingredients blend together nicely and make this magical sauce, I would definitely say this is kid-friendly as well. It was super creamy and smooth. I had cooked Maybe it was more kid-friendly because I forgot the rosemary; but the taste testers approved!
Look and mouth feel:
Next, we had Sunflower Mac from Isa Chandra Moskowitz. My dad once snail mailed me a photocopy of this recipe from Isa Does It, and then I even bought the cookbook (on sale because the jacket was ripped!) and I am ashamed to admit I hadn’t tried the recipe yet. Coincidentally, I recently set up the Seattle Vegan Cookbook Club, and the group voted on cooking from Isa Does It for our first meet up, so I will have plenty more to share on this book in a few weeks, but I digress.
Isa mentions that this Sunflower Mac recipe was created with one of her favorite (tree-nut-free) taste testers in mind, so my heart skipped a beat when it seemed someone felt my frustration with so many vegan cheeses being cashew-based. Instead of nuts, Isa uses seeds. Sunflower seeds!
Here are the ingredients straight from Isa’s website, with my notes in red:
1 cup unroasted sunflower seed kernels, soaked (see directions) We usually only have roasted sunflower seeds in the house for salads and sauteed greens. I found the unroasted ones in the bulk section of my favorite (and pricier) grocery store. These shouldn’t be hard to find at most stores though.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 cups vegetable broth
2 tablespoons organic cornstarch
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons tomato paste Now I have a can of tomato paste with 2 tablespoons missing. I need to find a way to use that up!
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Sweet paprika for sprinkling I totally forgot this final touch (just like the last recipe!)
Soaking the sunflower seeds was a long process, and it actually made me put off my grand plans for the Mac ‘N’ Cheese Showdown because I didn’t read ahead. The recipe says you can soak the seeds for at least two hours, or overnight. I figured the longer, the better in trying to achieve the creamiest consistency, and soaked them almost 24 hours. Aside from the unroasted seeds, everything else was already in the kitchen, so that made it pretty easy to get prepped. This recipe was more chopping, and required a sauté pan and a blender. Not only did this make the process take longer; it also created more dishes to clean. As for look, feel, and taste, the Sunflower Mac didn’t have as brilliant a color as the Sweet Potato Mac, so right from the beginning of the taste test, I got feedback that it seemed just like a creamy pasta salad dish (not specifically Mac ‘N’ Cheese). Next, the texture was gritty. I know many of the greatest chefs swear by Vitamix blenders, but we were enchanted by the Ninja – because we could have the same base/motor for the food processor AND blender, and it also came with the single serving blender bottles. I still think this is a great blender, but it doesn’t pulverize everything to the same dust-size particles of the Vitamix. Maybe this is why the sauce had a gritty feel. One taste tester thought it had more of a ricotta consistency, and thought this sauce would be great in lasagna. I can’t disagree with that! I will try that sometime in the future. Overall, this was okay. There is room for improvement (admittedly on my end of things, but maybe a few tweaks to the recipe would be good too).
Look and mouth feel:
Edit 8/12/17: A few weeks after the mac ‘n’ cheese showdown, we had a Seattle Vegan Cookbook Club event, and I had signed up for the Sunflower Mac (before I had made it before). This first experience helped me do better the second time around! While I thought I blended the sunflowers for plenty long, I wasn’t messing around for the second attempt. I blended the sunflower seeds with just 1 cup of broth for 3 minutes (1 min x 3, with a short rest in the middle). Eventually, I added the rest of the broth, and then blended again. Then, I think I let the sauce simmer on the stove a bit more before added the noodles, so maybe that helped as well. Either way, this version was better! It still used quite a few kitchen tools (read: required a lot of clean up) but I was happy with the result. An updated assessment of this recipe is as follows:
Look and mouth feel:
I still have to test Miyoko’s homemade powdered cheese mix. Subscribe to email updates from the blog, or follow @fullbellyhappyheart on Facebook so more mac and cheese can grace your newsfeed!