BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Behind the Scenes at Miyoko’s Cheese Factory

Never underestimate the power of one industrious nut… And all of the cashews that she employs, too! All jokes aside, vegan author, entrepreneur, and luminary Miyoko Schinner has a genuinely tenacious work ethic, working tirelessly to bring her creative visions to life. There are plenty of dreamers with bold ideas that never see the light of day, but Ms. Schinner wouldn’t back down in the face of impossible odds, launching the only cheese factory of its kind in the San Francisco bay area. Nut cheeses of all colors and stripes are now emerging on the market, but I can’t find a single competitor that painstakingly ages their offerings for weeks, or even months, after inoculating them with genuine cheese-making strains of bacteria. One could no doubt take this opportunity to tout the nutritional benefits sure to come from those healthy microorganisms, but for the connoisseur, these ingredients are simply the key to authentic funky flavors that are found nowhere else.

Luck (and Miyoko’s unending good graces and generosity) were on my side one cool fall afternoon, when I happened to find myself in town for a flash-in-the-pan photo shoot. With only a day’s notice, I found myself with the rare chance to peek behind the curtain in Miyoko’s Kitchen to see the cashews in action.

If you’ve ever made nut cheese at home, you already know how much raw material it takes to churn out one creamy wheel; multiply that by about 10,000, and you might have some idea of the scale of this operation. Huge, 25-pound bags of cashews are soaked and chewed up every day of production. To put it in perspective these things are the size and weight of a typical adult Beagle, requiring nearly as much love and attention, to boot. Unlike the options in her ground-breaking cookbook, these young rounds are not set with agar to expedite the process. After churning through an industrial-sized turbine of a blender and cooling down, the average cheese is aged for four weeks, tucked away on cozy refrigerated trays until the batch is fully ripened.

Initially struggling to keep up with demand, each prized wheel was as rare and rigorously guarded as solid bricks of gold. Spreading the wealth near and far, Miyoko’s cheeses are now readily available in most bay area Whole Foods and specialty markets, expanding outward across the country at a rapid pace. Roughly 5,000 pounds of glorious cashew cheese leave those factory doors every month, so it shouldn’t be long before they hit store shelves near you. In the meantime, you can order directly from the source, and yes, Miyoko can ship these creamy beauties all the way to Australia, too! For orders abroad, I would suggest you contact the cheese maven herself to secure personalized shipping info.

To be continued in Part Two. Next up is the good stuff, what you’ve no doubt been waiting for… The tasting notes, plus a perfectly cheesy recipe. Stay tuned!


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The Sun Also Rises

To anyone who still maintains that vegans are missing out on the greatest pleasure in life, commonly referred to as cheese, I challenge you to open you eyes- and mouth- to the latest wave of dairy-free innovations. Just take a gander at the luxurious spread above, and try telling me about the lack of options with a straight face. We’ve got the mainstream, meltable cheeses covered and now gourmet, artisan options seem to be the final frontier. Consider that great unknown territory officially conquered, claimed in the name of SunRAWise. An upstart based in Florida, these cashew-based cheeses don’t play it safe, boasting bold flavorings and the authentic funky, fermented flavor that only hand-crafted, aged cheeses can categorically boast. Crumbly but moist texture, each compact round can be sliced or finely grated, to be served as a main attraction to pair with wine or compliment almost any dish.

I thought that the Spiru-lean was a dead ringer for blue cheese, but was surprised to see that SunRAWise also offers a wholly separate Vegan Blue Vein option, supposedly lighter in spirulina content, perhaps for those more sensitively to the very subtly grassy flavor of the blue-green algae. If given the choice, opt for the full-flavored deal. Make no mistake, I am not a fan of spirulina, and I absolutely loved each beautifully marbled wedge. Bearing a unique twang and gentle acidity while still maintaining an agreeably mild, umami flavor, it truly bears an uncanny resemblance to the genuine article. This is what has been missing on the marketplace for far too long, and if only the company could expand and increase distribution, it would surely take off like wild fire.

Brightly colored with turmeric, the sunny yellow Rosemary cheese bears equally luminous flavors to match its striking appearance. Although I’m a bit puzzled why this particular round would be tinted to quite such a florescent hue, looks aren’t everything; the real beauty is in its earthy, pine-tinged bite. Easy to enjoy but most difficult of the three to pair, rosemary is such a distinct flavor that it needs to remain the center of attention. Many common accompaniments proved discordant when invited to the party, so I ended up munching on this one mostly out of hand, in thick, savory slices. Oh, such a terrible sacrifice that was [not]!

Brazenly named Smoke and Spicy, this red-flecked, peppered cheese sounded like the perfect accent to brighten up some simple eggless mini quiches. Warm but balanced spice defines this variety, introducing surprising pops of heat when you least expect it, thanks to the abundant crushed red pepper flakes found throughout the round. The promise of smoke goes unfulfilled, too mild to be heard above the loud spicy baritone. That said, I still wouldn’t dream of suggesting a formula change, since those smoky notes undoubtedly contribute to the overall complexity that make this such an addictive option.

A cheese flavored with Italian Herbs is simply begging to be paired with a classic pasta dish, and so I obliged, with a simple serving of spaghetti and meatless meatballs to catch a shower of finely grated cashew cheese. That simple addition took this omnipresent entree to the next culinary level, leading with herbaceous notes of oregano. Beyond that first bite, the typically aggressive and potentially clashing herbs are so harmoniously blended, it’s difficult to pick out any individual players. That may not sound like a compliment, but considering how difficult it can be to get such strong tastes to play nicely, it shows true finesse in fabrication. That sort of complimentary flavor profile is one that can only be achieved with patience, as the aging process allows disparate notes to slowly meld and mellow together. This cheese gives me hope that many things really do get better with age!

These are not your garden-variety cashew cheeses, far more mature, complex, and consciously crafted than any other option I’ve enjoyed thus far. As a healthy sort of decadence, they’re the perfect treat to save for a special occasion. Invite a few savory wedges from SunRAWise to your next big celebration, and they’ll likely become the guests of honor.


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Fool-Proof

If ever there was one homemade holiday gift that I would recommend above the rest, it would undoubtedly be some form of nut brittle. Barring allergies, I have yet to meet a soul who didn’t enjoy the salty-sweet dichotomy of roasted nuts and crunchy homemade candy. Versatile to a fault, every year could bring a new variety of brittle, between the numerous choices of nuts and additional flavorful accompaniments. Best of all, it’s so simple, it’s one of the few edible treats I might venture to call “fool-proof.” Easy enough to be made in the microwave, for crying out loud, even the mostly kitchen incompetent should be able to master this rewarding recipe.

Classic but a bit played out, quiet flavors like plain old peanut brittle don’t quite light my fire anymore. Flaming Hot Peanut Brittle, though, sure adds a bit of excitement to a deceptively homely candy. Pistachio Chai Brittle remains one of my favorite variations, a beautiful hue of green that fits in so nicely with a Christmas color scheme.

This year, I’m pushing the boundaries between sweet and savory food just a little bit further. Curry strikes me as the perfect ingredient to add some interest into this simple candy, especially when paired with equally exotic coconut and cashews. A welcome change of pace that reminds me of tropical climates, far from the chilly winds that blow right outside, it’s a sweet little escape that is sure to disappear almost as quickly as it’s made.

Curried Cashew and Coconut Brittle

1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Light Corn Syrup or Agave Nectar
1/4 Cup Water
1/4 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1 1/2 Cups Roasted or Toasted Cashew Pieces
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Coconut Flakes
1 1/4 Teaspoons Madras Curry Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

In a large saucepan, combine sugar, corn syrup, and water. Cook over medium heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil; blend in butter. Swirl the pan ocassionally rather than stirring, to prevent the sugar from boiling over. Cook until the syrup hits 300 – 310 degrees (the hard crack stage) according to a candy thermometer.

Meanwhile, lay out a silpat on a baking sheet nearby. Combine the cashews, coconut, curry powder, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl, and have at the ready.

Once the hot sugar syrup hits the proper temperature, immediately turn off the heat and very quickly stir in the dry ingredients. Add the vanilla extract last, and mix thoroughly to incorporate. Without pausing, scrape the hot candy out of the pan and onto your prepared baking sheet, pressing it out with a spatula to achieve a flat, thin shape as needed.

Let cool completely before breaking into pieces and either eating right away, or storing in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Makes About 1 Pound of Brittle

Printable Recipe

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