Wholly Macaroni

I couldn’t shake the question out of my head. It ran loops around my brain, echoing off the walls of my skull. Surely, there were more important matters to consider, but no. All I could think about was cheese. Mac and cheese, to be precise. It suddenly struck me that many years had passed since I revisited my previous gold standard for Stove Top-Style Macaroni and Cheese, and wondered if it would still hold up to scrutiny.

Considering the great strides that dairy-free foods have made since then, the bar had been raised to lofty heights I could have never imagined back in the day, toiling over the stove with little more than memories of the blue box to light my path. Yes, indeed, it was still good stuff… But it could certainly be better.

A few tiny tweaks make a world of difference. It’s all about incorporating the subtle umami nuances and sharp bite that a good aged cheddar might impart, but nothing earth-shaking that would come as a wild departure from the norm. Just a bit more finesse, some higher-quality ingredients, and a better understanding of the alchemical changes that flavors undergo with varying temperature and time.

Toeing the line between healthy and indulgent, the new and improved sauce introduces a handful of red lentils for body and viscosity, with the side benefit of adding extra protein and fiber into the mix. At the same time, a fearless dose of vegan butter creates that inimitable velvety texture also known as kokumi, enhancing and amplifying flavors, much like salt. Nutritional yeast is essential, of course, but joining it in savory harmony is a dash of miso, lending a greater depth of umami flavor in every cheesy, creamy bite.

Yes, it’s a bit more involved than tearing open a packet of dried dairy-derived mystery powder, but there’s no going back once you taste the difference.

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Mac Off!

Remember that time I judged the Texas Mac Off? What do you mean, I never blogged about it? Well, pull up a chair and have a seat, because I have quite a cheesy tale to tell.

Slung low in the sky, the midday sun fought to burn through the haze and humidity typical of a Texan summer. Undaunted, a dozen brave souls set hot plates and chafing dish heaters ablaze, igniting molten vats of gooey orange sauce, thick with ambition. The stakes were high, with competitors vying for cheese-covered fame, glory, but most importantly, the golden noodle trophy.

Over 300 hungry souls came to get their mac on, to taste and test oodles of noodles. Gluten-free, vegetable-based, whole wheat, and classic white pastas all vied for the title, each one smothered in equally diverse mixtures of spicy, savory, crunchy, gooey toppings. For the casual bystander, this was merely a celebration of the classic childhood treat, but for me, Jessica Morris, and Rolando Garza, my fellow judges, this was serious business.

Personal preferences aside, just how do you evaluate the proper degree of sauciness? Just what constitutes the perfect cheesy flavor? How important is it to stick with the classic preparation, or should more points be assigned to innovations that depart from the expected orange essentials?

By the time the 12th, and then 13th rich, creamy cup was delivered, my head was spinning. Yes, they’re all good, but which ones are great? Which single entry was the best? Coming to an agreeable consensus just among the three of us was fraught with disagreement, dissenting opinions strongly argued as we huddled over cheese-smeared papers smudged with undecipherable ink stains. Luckily, it was a close call at the top, and any of the dominant macs would have been fully welcomed on my dinner plate again.

Innovation won out over classic comfort in the end. First place went to Megan Gross with her blazing Buffalo Cauliflower Mac N Cheeze. Just one point separated this spicy blend from my person favorite, which ultimately came in second; the previous year’s winner, as it turned out, Megan Bee with her Classic Mac and cheeze with a cheezy crumb topping.

It was simply the platonic ideal of the art form in my eyes. Tender yet toothsome pasta tubes, generously sauced without becoming soupy, decadent, slightly salty, savory, and oh so cheesy. Crunchy cheese-infused breadcrumbs sealed the dish in a toasty, slightly nutty blanket, perfectly balancing out textures and flavors. If it hadn’t been pushing 100 degrees in the sun, I could have eaten that whole chafing pan of noodle goodness myself.

Easily the most creative, avant-garde edible was actually a dish not entered for consideration. Mac and cheese ice cream scooped out by Austin’s favorite vegan parlor, Sweet Ritual, blew out all the stops for what one might expect from the average mac. Mercifully sweet rather than full-on savory, this inspired frozen creation laced umami notes through nutritional yeast-spiked breadcrumbs, mingling amidst a smooth base glowing with a heavy turmeric glow. Fearless foodies clamored for a spoonful, curious, shocked, and ultimately delighted.

As with any good, spirited competition, there were clearly no losers in this crowd. Everyone went home in a fully contented, if slightly sweaty state of cheesed-out bliss. Think vegans can’t get their mac on? You should really go to the next Texas Mac Off and taste for yourself.

Poppycock

Delicious, nutritious, and an illicit narcotic? Poppy seeds are an excellent source of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and several essential minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc, to say nothing of the morphine residue that may remaining after harvesting from opium poppies.

Yes, opium which is also an excellent source of heroin, morphine, and codeine. While it’s true that an “overdose” may genuinely make you fail a drug test, the seeds themselves contain none of the potent drug. No need to lock your spice rack at night or keep a surveillance camera on your baking supplies; while a junkie might be sorely disappointed, I’d say that the flavor they offer is still powerfully addictive.

Nut and seed blends are gaining traction in the non-dairy aisle, but no one seems to appreciate the power of the poppy seed. This could be said across the board, however, as poor, misunderstood poppy seeds rarely get top billing in any dish. Every bit as capable of creating a creamy, dreamy, dairy-free drink, their subtle nutty flavor bears intoxicating nuances of both sweet and savory notes in every sip.

Toast them to enhance that elusive, rarely touted taste, or keep it simple with a more subtle, straightforward blitz. A mixture of oats and almonds lend a richness and body that could rival anything fresh off the farm.

If you can resist the urge to lift the entire blender right to your lips to gulp down the entire milky amalgamation as is, it happens to make a brilliant creamer for iced coffee, too. Don’t say I didn’t warn you when poppy seed lattes become the next big trend in a month… It really is an addictive drink.

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Now Schmear This

Turn any day into a special occasion with little bite-sized cheesecakes, every bit as rich and luscious as a thick slice but quicker, easier, and ideal for a more intimate gathering. In fact, with these beauties on tap, I wouldn’t hesitate to throw a party for one.

I was lucky enough to snag an early sample of Treeline’s new cream cheese and it was love at first schmear. The cashew-based spread is very creamy and smooth, with a finish that tastes clean, buttery, and definitely rich. The flavor is on point; mild, delicately nuanced, both subtly savory and sweet at once. Easily one of the best options on the market so far, no matter your dietary preferences.

It’s not a dead-ringer for dairy, but quite possibly even better. Beyond slathering it on bagels and toast, it works perfectly in recipes. In fact, it excels in baking since there aren’t any additives, stabilizers or gums. Nothing but pure creamy indulgence here in these mini cheesecakes, from crust to cream topping.

Even if you can’t track down the brand, don’t sleep on these tried-and-true classic treats. Get the recipe details over at GoDairyFree.org and celebrate the everyday, any day.

 

 

 

Head in the Clouds

Foam is just one important feature that sets espresso drinks apart from one another, but Starbucks has turned it into the feature, filling half of each plastic cup with the stuff for their new Cloud Macchiato. Literally translated as “stained coffee,” a standard caffè macchiato is much like a latte in basic composition, but wholly unique in assembly. Starting with a base of steamed milk, a shot of espresso marks the spot, and a layer of foam seals the deal. Since more is always better by the American Standard, we simply took that finale to all new heights, turning it into a veritable meringue island on a thimbleful of brown liquid.

Maddeningly, while a regular macchiato can be made vegan with any non-dairy milk, the cloud cannot. Whether served hot or over ice, with cinnamon or caramel, egg whites are the secret ingredient that give this frothy crown its loft.

Here’s the silver lining to this cloud: It’s really a snap to make at home.

Fluffy, ethereal spoonfuls of fine bubbles cloud chilled glasses thanks to everyone’s favorite bean brine. That’s right: Aquafaba strikes again! Lightly beaten before reaching soft peaks, it holds its shape admirably without casting an overtly beany fog over the beverage. Luxuriously velvety yet far lighter in texture than the more typical whipped cream, the results are arguably more satisfying than a slushy old frappuccino and considerably healthier, too.

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Ease into Easter

Watch out for seasonal whiplash. Ready or not, we’re hopping madly towards the first big family gathering since Christmas. If you’re still recovering from a brutal winter, far removed from the pastel-clad merriment of egg hunts, parades, and garden parties, fear not. There’s still plenty of time to shake off any residual frost and turn out a stunning dessert.

Inspired by the brilliant fresh flavor of real berries baked into Voortman Raspberry Wafers, these light and crispy creme-filled cookies have kept me sane in the dark days of barren farmers markets and middling fresh fruit options. Now, paired with the tender ruby gems themselves, those sweet sticks become the building blocks of even greater tastes.

Swapping bland, spongy ladyfingers for these new treats from Voortman injects new life into an Italian staple. Stacking bright, vibrant layers of flavor with the greatest of ease, anyone can assemble this masterpiece in minutes.

Be it an elegant brunch or low-key gathering with friends, it’s hard to beat this invigorating combination of rich, tangy cream cut by a touch of citrus zest, lightly spiked and softened wafers, and whole fresh raspberries. Bundle up the whole pan to go and take it away on breezy springtime picnics, since it’s surprisingly stable at room temperature too.

Served immediately, the cookies will remain crunchy for a resoundingly satisfying bite, but hold up brilliantly to delayed gratification. After a day or overnight, you’ll enjoy a more tender forkful from top to bottom, easy to slice, serve, and fully embrace with an open mouth. Go ahead, prep well in advance, so you can be ready whenever your party springs to life.

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