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Secret to great vegan mac and cheese isn’t vegan cheese – it’s a clever sauce

This recipe for vegan broccoli mac and cheese, adapted from the new book “Plant & Planet” by Goodful, brings nice touches to the standard vegan technique.  (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
This recipe for vegan broccoli mac and cheese, adapted from the new book “Plant & Planet” by Goodful, brings nice touches to the standard vegan technique. (Scott Suchman/For the Washington Post)
By Joe Yonan Washington Post

The best traditional mac and cheese recipes rely on more than just the cheese. They use a bechamel to create a cheese sauce that enrobes the pasta and keeps the dish wonderfully creamy. It follows, then, that the best vegan mac and cheese recipes rely on more than vegan cheese, too.

In fact, plenty of them don’t use any vegan cheese at all, instead enlisting cashews to create the sauce and other powerful ingredients (such as nutritional yeast, miso and mustard) to bring nutty, deep and sharp flavors to the party. Some recipes add tapioca or potato starch to approximate the stretchiness of cheese, vegan or not.

This recipe, which I adapted from the new book “Plant & Planet” (Rodale Books, 2021) by the folks at Goodful (part of BuzzFeed’s Tasty family), brings other nice touches to the standard vegan technique and might just raise the bar.

Here, you cook potato, carrot, garlic and onion in a skillet with water and the requisite cashews, then the whole thing gets pureed with the aforementioned flavor boosters to become the sauce. The potato brings that starchiness, the carrot a hint of color.

I added a couple of my own touches to the blender. When I first tested this recipe, the only nutritional yeast left in my pantry was one flavored with “nacho” spices, including cayenne pepper and smoked paprika, and I loved the result. So the next time, I tried adding plain “nooch,” plus the separate spices, and again loved the hint of heat and smokiness.

One warning about this recipe: It makes a lot, filling a deep 12-inch cast-iron skillet. If your household is small, feel free to eat whatever portion you’d like, refrigerate some for the following few lunches and/or freeze some for even longer.

But if you have a ravenous teenager in the house, like my husband and I do now that we welcomed a foster child, the quantity will be welcome. This 13-year-old ate about a quarter of the skillet within the first day – and polished it off the next.

Vegan Broccoli Mac and Cheese

This vegan mac and cheese is creamy, rich, satisfying and deeply flavored, while offering some nutritious elements, too. Raw cashews, a star in the vegan pantry, help give the sauce its silky texture, while potatoes add starch for a little sticky stretchiness and carrots offer color. Broccoli, cooked along with the pasta, adds more nourishment.

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 medium white or yellow onion, chopped

1 teaspoon fine salt, divided, plus more to taste

2 garlic cloves, grated or pressed

1 medium russet potato, scrubbed and cut into ½-inch cubes

1 medium carrot, scrubbed and cut into ¼-inch coins

1 cup raw cashews

2 cups water, plus more as needed

5 tablespoons nutritional yeast

1 tablespoon white miso

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

¼ teaspoon cayenne

1 large head broccoli (1½ pounds)

1 pound elbow macaroni

¾ cup panko or unseasoned breadcrumbs

¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Position a rack in the center of an oven and preheat to 450 degrees.

In a 12-inch cast-iron or other ovenproof skillet over medium heat, heat the oil until it shimmers. Add the onion and ½ teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the potato, carrot, cashews and water, increase the heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, until the potatoes and carrots are very soft, 10 to 15 minutes. (Add hot water as needed to keep the vegetables just barely covered.) Remove from the heat and let cool for a few minutes.

Carefully pour the vegetables and liquid into a blender. Add the nutritional yeast, miso, mustard, smoked paprika, cayenne and ¼ teaspoon of the salt. Blend on high until the sauce is very smooth, 1 to 2 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While the water is heating, cut the broccoli stem from the head and use a vegetable peeler to peel the stem’s tough outer layer. Cut the stem in half lengthwise and then into ¼-inch half moons. Cut the head into bite-size florets.

Once the water is boiling, add the pasta and cook until 2 minutes shy of al dente according to the package directions, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the broccoli and cook for the remaining 2 minutes, or until the broccoli is bright green and the pasta is al dente.

Drain the pasta and broccoli and return to the pot. Pour in the sauce and stir to fully coat. Return the mixture to the cast-iron skillet and smooth into an even layer.

In a small bowl, toss the panko with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of the salt and the pepper. Sprinkle over the mac and cheese. Bake for 10 to 20 minutes, or until the panko is lightly browned and the sauce starts to bubble. Serve hot.

Yield: 8 to 12 servings

Make ahead: Assemble and refrigerate for up to 3 days before baking.

Storage notes: Refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 3 months.

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