At any summer BBQ, office potluck, Super Bowl party, or Thanksgiving dinner, the dish always scraped clean is the one that held macaroni and cheese. I have my standard stovetop and my go-to baked cheesy mac recipes down to a science, but when it comes to serving friends and family who live the vegan life, I have always come up short.
Over the years my sister and aunt have embraced vegetarianism to different degrees and for varying lengths of time. As a result, we have served tofurkey alongside turducken, and vegan gravy and stuffed acorn squash are now always part of my family's holiday menu. This year I am building on our ultimate vegan cashew cream to make a vegan macaroni and cheese that is smooth, creamy, and cheesy.
Vegan Macaroni & Cheese: Watch the Video
What Makes This the Ultimate Vegan Mac and Cheese
With no roux to fuss with and no cheese to separate into unsightly curds, making vegan mac and cheese is easier than any other homemade version I've tried. If you can use your microwave and blender, then you can whip up a vegetable-packed vegan "cheese" sauce any night of the week.
Replicating the taste of cheese is no small task, but close your eyes and imagine the sharp, buttery, earthy, and even acidic flavors you find in each creamy bite of cheese. Now swap in steamed sweet potatoes — which are more vegetal than sweet — and cashews and coconut milk for creamy heft. Fresh lemon juice and Dijon add a savory and acidic bite, and the nutritional yeast is the missing piece of the puzzle, adding that richness that takes this sauce from creamy puréed vegetables to vegan cheese sauce.
Raw cashews and nutritional yeast may sound exotic, but do not drive all over town to specialty shops — you can usually find them on the shelves of your regular grocery store.
For Your Information
- Soak 3 ounces of raw cashews overnight. Softened cashews blend into a smooth and creamy texture while providing an underlying heft to the sauce.
- You'll need 1 cup of full-fat canned coconut milk. Coconut milk from a carton tends to be thin, and with no butter or cream in sight, this sauce needs the velvety texture you can only find in the can.
- Pick up a lemon, sweet potato, carrots, and nutritional yeast from the grocery store. You are likely to have the rest of the ingredients on hand already.
Three Key Ingredients for Vegan Mac and Cheese
- Pasta: Elbow-shaped noodles are the classic for mac and cheese, although small shells and cavatappi or corkscrew pastas are also good choices for this vegan variation. Check the ingredient list to ensure whatever shape you choose is egg-free.
- Nutritional yeast: The keys to this cheese sauce are cashews, nutritional yeast, Dijon mustard, and all things orange. Soaking and blending cashews gives the sauce an incredibly smooth and creamy texture. Nutritional yeast, or "nooch," is made from sugar cane and beet molasses; it does not have the same leavening abilities as active yeast, so it cannot be substituted in your favorite bread or pizza dough recipes. Nutritional yeast is sold in both flake and powder form, and this is what delivers the umami-rich, cheesy flavor to the sauce.
- Sweet potato: Sweet potatoes are the foundation of this cheese-less sauce. Steam the orange tubers for a starchy, buttery flavor, then add a touch of Dijon mustard to cut the vegetal sweetness and add a little something savory to the sauce. We're using a combination of sweet potatoes, carrot, and turmeric to give this vegan macaroni and cheese a pleasing yellow-orange hue.
How to Serve Vegan Mac and Cheese
Once the cashews have soaked, it takes mere minutes to spin this sauce together, taking less time and fewer dishes than a classic macaroni and cheese. For that alone, this is not only a dish for special occasions, but it's also ideal for last-minute weeknight dinners.
How To Make the Ultimate Vegan Mac and Cheese
What You Need
1/2 cup (3 ounces) raw cashews
12 ounces dry elbow macaroni noodles, cooked
1 1/2 cups (7 ounces) diced sweet potato
1/2 cup (2 ounces) diced carrot
1 cup canned full-fat coconut milk
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon turmeric, optional
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Measuring cups and spoons
- Soak the cashews overnight. Soak the cashews, uncovered, in 2 cups of water for 10 to 12 hours or until the cashews break apart when squeezed between two fingers.
- Cook the pasta. Cook pasta according to package directions. Set aside.
- Steam the sweet potato and carrots in the microwave. Combine sweet potato, carrot, and 1/4 cup of water in a microwave-safe bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, making sure the wrap does not touch the vegetables. Microwave on HIGH for about 6 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender. Transfer the sweet potatoes, carrot, and steaming liquid to a blender.
- Make the cashew sauce. Drain the cashews and discard the soaking water. Add the drained cashews to the sweet-potato carrot mixture in the blender, along with the coconut milk, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, Dijon mustard, salt, onion powder, smoked paprika, black pepper, turmeric (if using), garlic powder, and nutmeg. Blend on high speed for about 3 minutes, or until completely smooth. Stop the blender, scrape down the sides and blend again for 1 minute.
- Coat the pasta with the sauce and serve. Toss the cheese sauce and cooked pasta together until the noodles are coated, and serve.
- Storage: Store vegan cheese sauce in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. The noodles may soak up some of the sauce upon storage. Stir in additional coconut milk to return the sauce to its original creamy consistency.
- For creamier sauce: If you prefer a thinner sauce, blend in up to 1/2 cup more coconut milk to desired consistency.