Neon orange. Yellow #5 and Yellow #6. Sounds familiar? No, those are not Crayola colours. Those are the colorants responsible for the famous mac and cheese bright and artificial orange colour.
It's now well known that food dyes may have potential health effects on kids like increasing hyperactivity symptoms or allergic-type reactions. Well well... did you know Kraft Foods just announced that their iconic blue box original mac and cheese will be made without artificial preservatives or synthetic colours starting January 2016. Even if the famous mac and cheese won't glow in the dark anymore, I believed it will still remain very high in sodium and saturated fats... and not a very nutritious meal for kids. I would lie if I'd tell you I've never eaten it. I remember being a young teenager (home alone for the first time!) and running to the closest grocery to buy a box of Kraft's mac and cheese. I would eat the entire pan by myself in seconds! I also remember when I was a resident in college. I had no access at all to a kitchen on my room... not even in the whole building. My cooking equipment was basically a two ring camping stove that I had installed next to my huge computer screen (which is not a good idea btw... There was cooking fat all over the whole thing!). Needless to say that these days weren't the best of my life in terms of cooking and healthy eating.
My kids never actually tasted Mr. Kraft's version of a macaroni! Not that they wouldn't like to. They would probably jump on it, especially when the marketing companies top the boxes with attractive cartoons. Luckily for my kids, they can still have orange noodles without compromising their health!
To find the best vegan mac & cheese on earth... and the one that would taste and look the most like the original, I did a vegan mac and cheese battle! There's so many recipes out there... I probably tried twenty different sauces! And I actually bought a blue box just to compare the taste and make sure my final version was the closest texture and flavour-wise as possible! No kidding! This is serious stuff ;) Not that I particularly have an obsession with mac and cheese , but I think it's a great meal to prepare when I'm running out of time or when I feel lazy (!).
In the ring (from left to right on the picture above), those were my three finalists :
- Potato carrot "mac & cheese" sauce
- Cauliflower "mac & cheese" sauce
- Carrot, cashews & roasted red bell pepper "mac & cheese" sauce
Our family played a little "eyes closed" tasting game to decide which sauce was our favourite. All three were good, but everyone voted for the carrot, cashews and roasted red bell pepper "cheese" sauce. It has a completely smooth and creamy, rich, unctuous, and a deeply satisfying mac and cheese taste.
Apart from being more nutritive, this vegan mac and cheese is also very easy and fast to do! If you soaked your cashews the night before and have leftover cooked carrots, all you have to do is to throw the ingredients in your blender, cook your pasta and mix the sauce in (and it takes almost the same amount of time than preparing the boxed mac and cheese!). And no artificial dyes in my version! The colour comes from red bell peppers and carrots. as for the cheese, I replaced it with cashews and nutritional yeast.
Nutritional yeast? I use it a lot in my recipes because it's probably the only good source of vitamin B12 you can get in a plant-based diet, especially if you don't eat a lot of processed "fake meat" (which are artificially enriched in B12). Nutritional yeast is a yeast that is grown on molasses, that is fermented and then deactivated. You can buy it as yellow flakes or powder in natural stores. At first, you may need to get use to its unique flavour. It has a cheesy "umami" taste, which makes it a great substitute for cheese in vegan recipes. Note that nutritional yeast is not the same as baking yeast, brewer’s yeast or dry active yeast! If you can't find nutritional yeast, you can still do this recipe, though it will maybe taste slightly different. If you're not following a vegan diet or lactose intolerant, you can also substitute the yeast with grated parmesan or your favourite cheese.
This pasta dish is very good as is, but it's also fun to add toppings. It gives an extra interesting crunchiness and taste!
Here are my favourite ways to enjoy my mac and cheese :
- With sautéed "garlic and chilli" broccolinis or greens like kale or swiss chard.
- With a crumble (like this pecan, thyme & breadcrumbs crumble).
- With green peas and coconut bacon (probably my favourite way!).
A few words on coconut bacon : it is made with coconut instead of bacon (obviously!). The special ingredient that makes it taste kind of smokey like bacon is liquid smoke. This substance is produced by collecting real wood chips smoke collected through a tube coming out of a combustion chamber. The condensation drops are then collected. Liquid smoke is frequently used in vegan recipes like coconut bacon. Ok... it may not be the type of bacon you want to serve at a brunch to your "meat lover uncle", but it's a good way to give that smokey twist you need in certain plant-based recipes. I especially like to use coconut bacon on my vegan Cesar salad, in a BLT sandwich or in this case, sprinkled over my vegan mac & cheese!
Also, it's good to know that this carrot-cashew "cheezy" sauce is great as a "Cheeze-whiz" substitute... go ahead and drizzle it on your favourite all-dressed nachos recipe!
THE BEST VEGAN MAC & CHEESE :
Yield : 4-6 servings
- 450g small pasta - See note
- 1 cup raw cashews, soaked overnight - see note for a nut-free version
- 1 cups peeled and chopped organic carrots, pre-cooked
- 1 roasted red bell pepper (jarred or homemade)
- 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup unsweetened almond milk (or other milk you prefer) - See note
- 2 tablespoo ns nutritional yeast
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons vegan butter or organic butter
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 1 1⁄4 to 1 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1⁄2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1⁄4 cayenne powder (optional)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground smoked paprika
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- Freshly ground black pepper (to taste)
- Toppings in this version : blanched peas, minced green onions, chilli flakes and coconut bacon (I use this recipe from Fettle vegan)
- Cook your pasta as indicated on the package.
- In the meantime, add all the ingredients in a food processor or high speed blender and blend until smooth and creamy (don't be afraid to let your machine turn for a few minutes! The creamier the better!).
- Add the sauce over your drained pasta and serve with your favourite toppings. Correct the seasonings to taste. Add extra almond milk if you want.
In my opinion, this mac and cheese is at its best when the sauce is added to smaller kinds of pasta (like macaroni or small pasta shells). It's still very good with other type of pastas, but the ratio sauce:pasta may not be optimal.
If you're looking for a nut free recipe, you can substitute the cashews with 1 cup of soaked sunflower seeds.
As for the almond milk, we prefer our mac and cheese more liquid like the original one, so I had 3/4 cup of almond milk ans even more, depending on the pasta type we use. If you like yours more thicker and creamier, start with 1/2 cup and then add more to taste.