One of the fun things about vegan “mac and cheese” is that because it’s already such a departure from the original dish, you can put lots of different spins on it with different base ingredients in the sauce. Today I have a dairy-free cauliflower mac and cheese with a base of creamy pureed cauliflower and cashew. The cauliflower makes this somehow both rich and light at the same time; and the recipe is pretty easy to make!
Note: when I was typing up this recipe I searched for ‘cauliflower mac and cheese’ and learned for the first time that people are making grain-free mac and cheese with pieces of cauliflower instead of pasta. I’ve seen cauliflower used for all kinds of interesting things but that one seems like maybe a stretch? So, I apologize if that’s what you were looking for. This is a vegan cauliflower mac and cheese with actual pasta and a sauce made from cauliflower puree. If you want to take the dairy-free cauliflower sauce and use it as a topping for even more cauliflower, well, I won’t stop you… 🙁
This plant-based mac comes via the America’s Test Kitchen Vegan for Everybody cookbook. I got a copy for Christmas and there are a lot of solid recipes in it. Clearly a lot of research and testing went into the book, and I think the result is a really great collection of recipes! I made the quiche recipe for a non-vegan crowd and it was very well-received, living up to the cookbook’s name.
I thought the vegan cauliflower mac and cheese recipe in the book was really thoughtfully-constructed too, but even given this, I couldn’t resist messing around with the recipe a little bit. I made a few changes, namely:
- Reduced the fat content (I scaled down both the oil and the cashews).
- Reduced the quantity of nutritional yeast.
- Added miso (it’s my number one ingredient for creating cheezy flavor).
- Tweaked other flavors here and there.
I’m happy I could make things just a liiiitle more nutritionally balanced while equally delicious! This could also easily be made with whole grain, gluten-free or legume-based pasta to meet any health or dietary needs that you have, since unlike with my one pot pastas, the pasta composition isn’t very important to the texture of the dish.
This is your periodic reminder that cauliflower mac and cheese, or any vegan mac & cheese for that matter, does not taste exactly the same as the “real thing”. The texture is creamy and a little bit melt-in-your-mouth, and there is a balanced, slightly tangy savory flavor, but no it is not the exact same flavor as dairy cheese. I think the important part, though, is that it’s just really umami and delicious.
I tested this recipe with almond milk and my favorite plain soy milk and I think they are equally here. The soy milk version is slightly creamier and also a little bit higher in protein. I could see rice milk being good too if you reduced the amount a little bit. I don’t think I’d recommend other varieties of non-dairy milk aside from those to the uninitiated, but if you have a favorite, go ahead and use it!
(Oh, and whatever you do, don’t use coconut milk. A strong coconut flavor in vegan mac and cheese is well… just please don’t do it. Be sure to use refined coconut oil for this same reason).
Vegan Cauliflower Mac and Cheese
Tender pasta is topped with creamy, silky-smooth dairy-free cauliflower sauce to make a delectable vegan mac and cheese. (This recipe requires a blender.)
- 1/4 cup refined coconut oil
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 2 tsp ground mustard
- 1/4 tsp ground turmeric (optional, for color)
- 1/2 tbsp tomato paste
- 2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
- 1 tsp salt
- 3 and 1/2 cups plain, unsweetened almond milk
- 3 tbsp white or yellow miso
- 3 and 1/2 cups raw cauliflower florets (12 oz.) (approximately 1/2 inch florets)
- 3/4 cup raw cashews chopped
- 1 pound elbow macaroni or other pasta of choice (I almost always use whole wheat)
- 1/2 tbsp distilled white vinegar
- hemp parmesan (optional, for serving)
Heat the oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the nutritional yeast, mustard, turmeric, tomato paste, garlic, and salt. Stir and cook for about 45 seconds, or until fragrant. Add the almond milk, scraping the bottom of the pan as you stir it in. Bring to a steady simmer.
Add the miso, cauliflower, and cashews to the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and partially cover the pan. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is fork-tender, about 20 minutes.
Add the mixture to your blender (working in batches if needed; I divide this in half to use in my Ninja) and blend until completely smooth. If you don't have a high-powered blender this may take a few minutes to break down the cashews. Stop to scrape down the sides as needed. Set aside when done.
Meanwhile, cook your pasta in a pot of generously-salted water. Cook until al dente, according to package instructions. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta cooking water, then drain the pasta (but do not rinse it), leaving it in the strainer.
Add the pureed cauliflower mac and cheese sauce to the pot, and turn the heat to medium low. Cook, stirring frequently, until gently simmering. Stir in the cooked pasta, the white vinegar, and a splash of the pasta water. Continue to cook until the sauce is slightly thickened onto the pasta. Add more of the pasta water to thin out the sauce as needed.
Season to taste with additional salt and pepper and serve immediately. The leftovers from this vegan mac and cheese taste good, but it's definitely far better when fresh! I find that the leftovers just need a little additional salt and vinegar or hot sauce added because the pasta absorbs a little bit of the flavor when it sits.
SOY-FREE: Use chickpea miso.
GRAIN-FREE: Chickpea-based or lentil-based pastas are sometimes available in my area or online. If you use them, don't add any reserved pasta water to the sauce.
NUT-FREE or NO CASHEWS: This might work with sunflower seeds instead of the cashews. Use 1/2 cup. There will be a mild sunflower flavor. I have not yet tested this substitution. Use soy milk instead of the almond milk. If you don't need nut-free, macadamia nuts work instead of cashews too.
Suggestions for more variations:
- If you desire a baked version, rinse the pasta before mixing it with the reserved pasta liquid and sauce, and then put the whole vegan mac and cheese dish in the oven at 350 topped with breadcrumbs and oil until crispy.
- Folks who are a fan of potato carrot cheese are encouraged to add potatoes and carrots to this in place of some of the cashews to make a lower fat vegan mac.
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.