Hard pucks of florescent yellow plastic; waxy, limp shreds that are more likely to burst into flame than melt in the oven; odd imports that carry a price tag equivalent to edible gold. It’s hard to believe that only a scant few years ago, this was the array of options for the pitiful vegan craving a taste of something cheesy. We’ve come a long way, baby, and we’re not done yet. Achieving mainstream acceptance of a meltable, palatable vegan alternative seemed like the climax of the story, the best that anyone eschewing dairy could ever hope for, but now Miyoko Schinner has gone and raised the bar once more.
In many ways, Artisan Vegan Cheese reads like the sequel to The Uncheese Book. Recipes are largely nut and agar based, but where it diverges drastically is in technique. Probiotics are added to the mix in the form of either vegan yogurt or rejuvelac, both of which have their own recipes for making at home for the avid cook. Cheeses are aged, just like in traditional processes with dairy milk, which allows for development of those tangy, funky flavors that simply can’t be replicated by any simple ingredient addition.
Miyoko makes it clear from the onset that this book is not about instant gratification. Though plenty of recipes included can be whipped up and eaten right away, the real crème de la crème, if you will, are the aged cheeses. Fermentation and drying times vary from three days to three weeks, depending on your diligence and patience.
While waiting for my millet-based Rejuvelac (page 6) to ferment, I dove right into the simpler recipes, enticed by the promise of Rich and Creamy Alfredo Sauce (page 62.) It wasn’t so much the idea of smothering noodles in the creamy condiment that caught my attention, but the suggestion of using it to top a pizza that Miyoko mentions in the intro. Such a brilliant idea was impossible to ignore, and so I blended up that sauce in record time, slapping it on freshly risen dough, and gilded the lily with delicate squash blossoms picked earlier that day. Nice and thick, the Alfredo sat perfectly in place from baking to eating, all while remaining creamy throughout. Although mild in flavor, the subtle touch of white wine added unexpected complexity to the mix, and allowed my additional herbs and toppings to really shine.
Now with a big batch of yeasty, sour rejuvelac on hand, I steeled myself for the real heart of the matter; the aged cheeses. Making the Smoked Provolone (page 51) was an absolute must, turning out to be my favorite pick of the litter. To give you a hint of how impressed I was, my tasting notes for this amber-orange wheel lead with “shockingly delicious, a total game-changer.” Sure, it seemed promising, but how could it differ so greatly than other cheeses I had made before? Tasting is believing my friends, because nothing else comes close. Unlike so many curd copycats before, the flavor is not of vinegar, not mustard, not nooch, but simply cheese. A firm rind had formed after air-drying on the counter for four days, while the interior remained soft yet slice-able. The smoky flavor made me think more of a gouda than a provolone, but specifics aside, even my omnivorous mom agreed that it tasted like something that a cow would produce, not a cashew.
Next up was Air-Dried Emmentaler (page 32), a cheese similar to Swiss but without the tunnel-like holes. Softer than anticipated, even after aging a full three days, only the sharpest knife in my drawer would facilitate clean cuts. Vaguely gummy, the texture was not ideal, but the tangy, distinctive flavor made up for it. Funky but still delicate enough to play nicely with any sort of pairing, sweet or savory, it’s a highly versatile option.
One of the few remaining “holy grails” of vegan food has got to be convincing dairy-free Brie (page 12)… but no more. Skeptically but optimistically adding the entire cup of refined coconut oil called for, it seemed impossible that anything edible, let alone delicious, would come of this crazy experiment. Oh, how happily wrong I was. After sitting out to warm for 30 minutes before removing a wedge, the texture won’t be runny like traditional Brie, but it does become lusciously spreadable and creamy. To me, it tasted like cream cheese with some extra funk, but I’ve never actually had Brie in the first place. Again seeking confirmation from my mom, she proclaimed it “very Brie-like, aside from the texture,” emboldening me to serve it at a strictly omnivore dinner party. Almost the entire wheel went missing well before the main meal was served.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Risotto Fritters (page 76), otherwise known as arancini, due to the surprisingly loose consistency of the rice even after cooling. A messy struggle with sticky hands ensued, but all the hassle was worthwhile when my Emmentaler-stuffed appetizers came out of the oven. Opting to simplify and bypass the hot oil, these rice balls were just as tasty bake as they would have been fried. A light tomato undertone, with frequent pops of herbaceous basil throughout offsets the creamy cheese inside. Plain old marinara would have been just fine, rather than the somewhat forgettable roasted pepper sauce, since these are flavorful enough to hold their own.
Suddenly the refrigerator cheese drawer was overburdened with non-dairy delights, calling for drastic measures of reduction. Seeking out the richest, gooiest recipe to pack in as much cheese as possible, the time was finally right to try making aligot. Like mashed potatoes but with equal parts spuds and cheese, this side dish is actually stretchy when made properly. Incredibly, overwhelmingly buttery, it was delicious indulgence, but a bit much for me. After enjoying one portion of full-frontal aligot, the rest of the batch was mixed with a good dose of veggies and thinned out to make an incredible potato soup.
With recipe from Artisan Vegan Cheese in hand, vegans no longer need to offer their cheesy creations to others accompanied by a disclaimer, or a campy title like “cheez.” Leave the excuses back in the 20th century and join in on the future of cruelty-free cuisine; this is simply vegan cheese, no subtitles or purposeful misspellings, and it’s damn good.