An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


More Mac and Cheese, Please

Like countless other American children, I had an unshakable affinity for mac and cheese even before I could properly pronounce the words to request it. Elbows, twists, ambiguous character shapes that would better be described as pasta amoeba; they were all greeted with enthusiasm, as long as they came from that magical blue box. I had never even heard of such a thing as baked macaroni and cheese until I hit high school, and by then it was much too late to swap allegiances. Soft noodles slowly drowning in a pool of neon yellow cheese sauce were the only thing for me, and no bread crumbs, vegetables, or fancy seasonings need apply.

Happily, my palate has considerably improved since my formative years, allowing me to discover the joys of homemade mac, spruced up with a brave new world of different flavors. That said, the love of that ubiquitous blue box will always be embedded deep within my psyche, drawing comparisons to each new mac and cheese contender, for better or worse. Now that there are genuinely cheesy vegan options appearing in every aisle of the supermarket, there’s a new blue box on the market, seeking to dethrone the old mac monarch.

Earth Balance first made waves when it unleashed vegan cheddar and white cheddar mac and cheese options about a year ago. Casting aside all preconceived notions of how a classic mac should be constructed, they’ve fearlessly unleashed a revised box that is not only dairy-free, but also gluten-free. Even I have to say that this is a pretty risky move, considering past hits and misses for non-allergenic noodles alone.

The cooking procedure is identical to every past mac I’ve known and loved; boil the pasta until tender, drain, mix with “cheese” powder, “milk”, and “butter”, and shovel into your mouth as fast as you can. Okay, that last part isn’t specifically written into the instructions, but just like any other cheesy macaroni mixture, this one doesn’t sit around well, and reheats rather miserably.

However, when hot and fresh, the rich, subtly starchy sauce has an undeniably cheesy, savory flavor. The initial flavor is somewhat delicate, but builds with subsequent bites. Though the dense, toothsome noodles are impressive for gluten-free pasta, they still clearly lack the distinctive springy texture granted by traditional wheat flour. As a certified gluten-lover, I probably wouldn’t pick these over the original, but they’re easily one of the better options for those already accustomed to celiac options.

As my omnivorous sister could attest, they certainly wouldn’t fool someone who’s more familiar with the old fashioned blue box, but even she admitted that they were “not bad.” High praise from someone who balks at the sight of anything remotely green on her dinner plate. Overall, Earth Balance has created an impressive offering for an instant, out-of-the-box dinner that can accommodate eaters of all stripes.


Miyoko’s Kitchen, Part Two: Cutting the Cheese

Before embarking on a cheese-tasting journey, one must will themselves to forget everything previously assumed about the essential experience of vegan cheese. Erase those early memories of eating yellow-colored wax back in the early 90’s, concocting funky wallpaper paste in home kitchens during fits of DIY determination, and even the reasonably melted shreds smothering dairy-free pizzas today. Even as a cheese-lover in a previous life, the flavors contained in these small, simple packages are a step up from anything I had enjoyed as a child. With or without that frame of reference, I’ll spoil the suspense right here; anyone with taste buds would be impressed by these offerings.

As mentioned briefly in part one, the whole line of Miyoko’s Kitchen cheeses are cashew-based, seasoned, inoculated, and aged in different ways to create a whole rainbow of flavors. Most wheels are firm, sliceable numbers ideal for fancy cheese platters (or midnight snacking, if your late night cravings are so decadent,) while a solid handful of spreadable options round out the savory portfolio.

Kicking this cheese party off right, I went straight for the High Aged English Sharp Farmhouse first. Posed as Miyoko’s take on the ubiquitous cheddar cheese, this is a lightly tanned, dense, and firm round of cashew goodness. Although there are certain bites that are reminiscent of nutritional yeast, the overall impact is distinctly cheddar-like, landing very close to the promised target. Pleasantly sharp indeed, a subtle vinegary, acidic aftertaste follows each taste, rounding out this nutty study in umami.

The High Sierra Rustic Alpine proved to be a more mild cheese, leading with the salty twang of white miso. Very agreeable and easily paired with just about anything, its neutral base makes it particularly nice with sweeter, fruity accompaniments. If there was ever a “dessert cheese,” this attractive option would fit the bill perfectly. When all was said and done, I came back to this flavor to find that it was the simple, basic, and straight-forward option of the full lineup.

Thoroughly encrusted in herbs, not a spare millimeter of naked rind can be seen peering out from the Country Style Herbes De Provence. Redolent of rosemary and thyme and rounded out with notes of sage, oregano, and lavender, this is one heady bouquet of earthy flavors. Every bite is slightly different thanks to the random distribution of seasonings, but each one guarantees an incredibly well-balanced blend of herbaceous, subtly floral tastes. A very sophisticated offering that speaks for itself, it may very well be best paired with nothing more than a glass of dry red wine.

One of my personal top picks and something of a sleeper hit, Fresh Loire Valley in a Fig Leaf certainly made for a stunning presentation. Wrapped in a tender fresh fig leaf, it’s sure to steal the spotlight at any party. Featuring a very fruity, floral aroma, the complex interplay between the savory, creamy cheese and fresh fig leaf is amazing, elevating vegan cheese to a whole new level. If you could only pick one option to show off to all your friends, this is the wheel that I’d pull out to impress eaters of all stripes, omnivorous or not.

Aged English Smoked Farmhouse is described as a substitute for smoked cheddar, but to my palate, it was a dead ringer for smoked Gouda, a beloved cheesy snack from my childhood. The rich, smoked aroma is the real deal; nothing like the shallow flavor of liquid smoke, the pungent savory perfume is seriously strong without being overpowering. Salty, punchy, and bold, I found it impossible to resist as simple, unadorned slices. Shamefully, I must admit that I horded this delicious umami bomb all to myself, unwilling to share even a sliver.

The Mt. Vesuvius Black Ash is a truly unique, innovative wheel that has no equal. A distinctive inky black rind, dark as night, gives way to a creamy beige interior. The taste of ash is surprisingly subtle, considering its striking appearance, lending a faintly bitter and smoky edge to this miso-flavored cheese. Definitely a conversation starter and impressive centerpiece, it’s also one of the harder slicing options to add some textural variety to a well-rounded cheese board.

Turning my attention temporarily to the softer, spreadable options, the pale reddish-orange color gives away the flavor concealed within the Double Cream Sundried Tomato Garlic at first glance. Smoky tomato flavor leaps forth immediately; assertive, with a bold acidic piquancy and subtle peppery notes, even though no pepper is listed in the ingredients. Strong enough to hold its own as a solo topping or sauce, Miyoko’s suggestion of tossing it with pasta is right on point. It needs only a vehicle for enjoyment, nothing else.

Double Cream Chive boasts a strong onion flavor, sharp and assertive, that will play second fiddle to no one. Slather a wedge onto anything, be it a cracker or a rubber tire, and it will dominate the palate. Its flavors blossom on your tongue, becoming more pungent as it warms and melts, revealing buttery, grassy notes almost as an afterthought. A soft, rich wheel with real character, it’s best paired with simple crackers to allow those distinctive flavors to to shine without competition.

Faced with such an embarrassment of riches, the only reasonable thing I could think to do with my treasure was to take it into the kitchen, creating a seriously indulgent and perfectly cheesy dish for the holidays. Brussels sprouts, already enjoying a renaissance in the food world, are made even more irresistible with the addition of Miyoko’s dangerously delicious French Style Winter Truffle Cheese. Very soft, super funky, earthy, and slightly grassy, the buttery notes make it ideal for recipe enhancement. Almost too rich to eat by itself, the truffle essence still shines after light cooking, adding that addictively savory taste to everything it touches.

Shatteringly crisp fried leeks, peppery almonds, and the sweet and sour syrup of balsamic glaze truly gild the lily here, each one used sparingly to allow the creamy gratins to shine. A dish designed for special occasions, the essence of black truffle truly takes it over the top. That said, the basic preparation is so simple that it could easily be paired down as an everyday side. I can imagine that your garden-variety vegan cream cheese could suffice in a pinch… But don’t expect the same deeply satisfying, almost overwhelmingly umami impact as the original.

SPECIAL OFFER! For a limited time, Miyoko is offering BitterSweet readers a rare discount on her unique, cheesy wares. Enter the code “Hannah2015” at checkout for $5 off your order, only until April 1st. Trust me, this deal is no joke, and you’d be crazy not to take advantage of it.

Truffled Brussels Sprouts Gratins

1/2 Cup (4 Ounces) Plain Mashed Potatoes
2 Ounces (About 1/3 of a Wheel) Miyoko’s Kitchen French Style Winter Truffle Cheese
3/4 Pound Brussels Sprouts, Blanched and Halved
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1 – 2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Roughly Chopped
1 Tablespoon White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Arrowroot Powder
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Grains of Paradise or Black Pepper

Toppings, To Serve (Optional):

Frizzled Leeks
Salt and Pepper Sliced Almonds
Balsamic Glaze

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease 6 small ramekins; set aside.

While still warm, mash the potatoes with the truffle cheese, mixing well so that the cheese melts in smoothly, but not so well that you create wallpaper paste (it will become progressively stickier as you stir, so take it easy!) Fold in the blanched brussels sprouts, followed by the oil, scallions, parsley, miso, and arrowroot, making sure that all of the ingredients are thoroughly incorporated. Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk while continuing to stir, and finally season to taste with grains of paradise or black pepper.

Equally distribute the mixture between your prepared ramekins and bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until lightly browned on top. They should still jiggle slightly when tapped, much like a cheesecake, as they will continue to set as they cool. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before topping with leeks, almonds, and balsamic glaze as desired and serving hot. The gratins can be made ahead of time and will keep nicely in the fridge, tightly covered and unadorned, for up to 4 days.

Makes 6 Servings

Printable Recipe


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!


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.


No Matter How You Slice It

Timing is everything when it comes to food reviews. Trends are as unpredictable as the weather, turning the latest and greatest innovations into old-hat just a month down the road. This unstoppable phenomenon has never been more clear to me as I flip through old files, discovering half-baked reviews from products first sampled almost a year ago (!) now. Where did the time go, and more importantly, why didn’t I share this gem sooner?

Daiya is practically a household name a this point, a pivotal player in the vegan cheese game. No other dairy-free shreds have achieved mainstream approval, nor prevalence, quite like their white and orange strands, initially making a splash back in 2009 as the very first meltable option. Not content to just ride the wave of this immense success, they’ve continued to innovate ever since that great success, unleashing cheesy goodness throughout countless other prepared foods. Their latest offering to cheese-loving dairy detractors shines just as brilliantly: Slices, imitating the flavors of cheddar, swiss, and provolone.

Provolone-Style slices were the only variety I could get my hungry mouth around at the time, but considering their culinary potential, the other two are worth seeking out for a second round. These are not fine cheeses you’d want to eat cold, plain, or otherwise uncooked. Surprisingly fragile and prone to crumbling straight from the package, the flavor doesn’t impress right off the bat. Borderline bland, with a subtle sweetness, these slices are definitely not meant for topping crackers. Where they really come to life is under a hot broiler, melted down to gooey, creamy, and yes, stretchy sheets. Mild but with a pronounced tang and satisfying salty accent, they’re appropriately rich, imparting an addictive sort of decadent fattiness upon any dish. Though it didn’t seem like a winner at first, I found myself increasingly taken with this simple cheesy pleasure. In fact, my tasting notes conclude with the declaration that the provolone option is the “holy grail of vegan cheese.” Overenthusiastic hyperbole aside, these are darned good slices.

But of course, I would never recommend eating them outside of a hot dish, which is why I heartily endorse the equally savory, slightly indulgent cheesesteak sandwich pictured above. Soy curls soaked in umami-packed mushroom broth make up the “meat” of the matter, tossed with lightly charred onions and roasted peppers, all smothered under a blanket of that prize-worthy provolone cheese. Altogether, it’s the kind of dish you could use to convert meat-lovers, cheese-lovers, and generally picky omnivores alike. So go ahead, give in to your cravings because now it’s effortless to keep them vegan!

Vegan Cheesesteak

1 1/2 Cups (About 2.8 – 3 Ounces) Dry Soy Curls
1 1/2 Cups Mushroom Broth

4 Teaspoons Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Thinly Sliced
1 Red Bell Pepper, Roasted and Thinly Sliced
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/4 Teaspoon Freshly Ground Pepper
1 Tablespoon All-Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Reserved Mushroom Broth
1 Tablespoon Reduced-Sodium Soy Sauce

3 Hoagie Rolls, Split and Toasted
9 Slices Provolone-Style Daiya Cheese

Begin by placing the dry soy curls in a large bowl and covering them with warm mushroom broth. Let them soak for about 15 – 20 minutes, until the soy curls are fully re-hydrated and tender. Pour off but reserve any excess liquid.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced onion and saute, stirring often, until aromatic browned around the edges. Add the bell pepper, oregano and pepper and continue cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are wilted and soft; about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, sprinkle the vegetables with flour and stir to coat. Gently pour in 1/4 cup of the reserved broth along with the soy sauce, bringing the mixture up to a simmer. After another two minutes, remove the pan from the heat.

To assemble your sandwiches, divide the soy curl filling between your three toasted rolls and lay three provolone slices on top of each. Run them all under the broiler for about 2 – 3 minutes, until the cheese is perfectly melted and gooey all over. Dig in immediately!

Makes 3 Sandwiches

Printable Recipe


Puff Piece

When Earth Balance, a company once known only for producing vegan buttery spreads, announced that it was expanding its product line into the unlikely realm of snack food, it was impossible not to be curious. How would expertise in spreadable condiments (and now non-dairy milks) translate to munchable morsels? Hunting down these new offerings has been hit and miss, so I’m thankful that company representatives kindly stepped in and sent me a complete collection.

What really caught my attention and appetite were the Vegan Aged White Cheddar Flavor Puffs. Above all else, this sounded like (and later proved to be) a snack worth seeking out. To my knowledge the only other vegan puffs on the market are Tings, which don’t compare to this new cheesy doodle. While Tings taste like nutritional yeast, the Earth Balance Puffs, taste like… Wait for it… Cheese! Yes indeed, subtle nutty, tangy, savory, and funky notes combine to create something startlingly delicious, and undeniably cheesy. Though they may look like large, furry cashews, their flavor is enough to prompt proclamations of “I can’t believe it’s vegan!” from eaters young and old. Bearing a much denser, more substantial crunch than the classic doodle, they’re more filling than the averaged puffed junk food, but it’s still dangerously effortless to plow through an entire bag in one sitting. Just the right amount of salt keeps you reaching for one more, and as a bonus, there will be no tell-tale dayglow orange “cheez” fingers afterward.

After such a positive initial experience, I was clamoring to tear into the next bag in the set: Vegan Buttery Flavor Popcorn. First impressions were not as positive, as opening the bag released a plume of artificial “butter” scent. Off-putting and chemical in nature, it could be compared generously to Molly McButter. Mercifully, that aroma doesn’t carry through to the flavor. The crisp, fresh kernels are in stark contrast to traditional movie theater popcorn, typically a greasy lard bucket with a bit of popcorn on the side. No slick fingers here, but a distinctly buttery flavor can be found throughout. Applied with finesse, it doesn’t beat you over the head with “BUTTER!”, and bears the perfect hit of salt on each tender kernel. I should never have doubted that Earth Balance, forefathers of all things buttery and vegan, would nail this flavor with ease.

As for the Vegan Aged White Cheddar Flavor Popcorn, just imagine that same crisp, corny base coated in the previously described cheesy powder. The harmonious blend produces my favorite snack of them all, which I would consider the ultimate movie munch. Quite frankly, I can’t imagine who wouldn’t enjoy this, and if it were possible, I wouldn’t want to meet them.

Finally, taking a sharp departure from the previous light and fluffy nibbles, P.B. Popps stands out from the crowd in both flavor and appearance. Described as “popcorn cuddled in peanut butter and a bustle of oats,” I’m not sure my own tasting notes can really compare to that statement. Employing round mushroom kernels as opposed to the butterfly popcorn kernels in the previous savory offerings, each dense sphere is a veritable peanut butter bomb. The somewhat soft, creamy exterior gives way to a solid crunch, with whole roasted peanuts and oats intermingling throughout. Reminiscent of decadent granola clusters, the popcorn loses its characteristic corny flavor underneath the heavy coating, acting more as a vehicle for the sweet and salty nut butter. Peanut butter lovers will surely adore the stuff, but I’m not quite sure it has a place in my own snack food lineup.

While the buttery and peanut-y popcorn offerings are perfectly worthy of a midday snack attack, it’s the cheese flavors that mark a big leap forward for vegankind. It’s a brave new world out there, and the food is only getting better (and cheesier.)


Breakfast for Dinner

How can it be that I’ve gone about my life for 24 years, blissfully ignorant of the glorious celebration that is National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Month? That’s 24 wasted Aprils, 24 missed opportunities to indulge in this childhood pleasure. No- Make that only 23 chances to indulge in melted cheesy goodness between two pieces of toasted bread, because this is the year that I start making up for lost time.

The time to start small with the standard assemblage has passed; I’m plunging in with gusto. Ditching the standard white or wheat bread, the party gets started with two fluffy pancakes on either end. Ever so lightly sweetened, they provide the perfect counterpoint to the salty, savory ingredients that they flank. After cooking and cooling, the pancakes go back into the frying pan, this time topped with a heaping handful of Mexican Style Shreds, so graciously provided by Go Veggie! (formerly known as Galaxy). Once melted to a magnificently gooey consistency, one pancake is topped with a hefty serving of the eggiest, creamiest tofu scramble I know, while the other is garnished with thinly sliced ripe tomato. Grilled until warmed through, the two halves come together to create one monster of a sandwich, better than a mere grilled cheese and yet one that carries the same comforting nostalgia. Break out the fork and knife for this one, because it’s messy, it’s sloppy, and oh so satisfying.

Oh April, if only I knew of your cheesy charms sooner. If this is just the start, this will be a good month, indeed.


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