Yes, this is TOTALLY your Grandma’s creamy mac & cheese. Cause if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. No weird spices or super fancy cheese or herbs or whatever in here. Lately, I’ve been really drawn to classic comfort food recipes (must be the holidays!) and how we can make them just as amazing as they were when Grandma made them but without the processed ingredients, mysterious canned goods, Crisco, Velveeta, and the like. And ladies & gentlemen, look no further for your classic, creamy mac & cheese fantasy complete with a cheese pull: it is here. It’s sophisticated without being fancy, classic without any processed ingredients. And a show-stealing move-the-heck over green bean casserole Thanksgiving side.
Isn’t mac & cheese bad for you?
I wanted to perfect this because it’s a southern classic, an heirloom recipe if you will. Would I make this for dinner every night? No. Because then my body would hate me. BUT would I make this for a feast or gathering like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or any celebratory potluck? Damn straight I would.
Because here’s the deal about how I eat: I eat a 90% plant-based diet. I do not wear any proud labels. I simply make my choices and then put them in my mouth. I stay away from dairy and refined carbs (yep, that’s basically all this recipe consists of!) most of the year, but I do so with the knowledge that I do not have to live until my dying day never tasting the, dare I say, orgasmic pleasure that is simply a bowl of gooey, super creamy mac & cheese. There is room, a little room, in my life (and stomach!) for that too.
Easy as box mac & cheese?
And since Thanksgiving is around the corner I set out on a mission to master my favorite comfort food, and you might wanna call BS on this but I SWEAR aside from a bout of vigorous whisking it’s seriously not that much harder than box mac & cheese. If you don’t bake it and just put it straight in the bowl I’d say it’s a serious contender for copy cat Kraft mac and cheese. But without orange mystery additive-laden powder! Huzzah.
So, I promise you my next recipe won’t be a pile of carbs and cheese, but if I can’t live in a world where I can occasionally have a delicious pile of carbs and cheese then count me as politely declining the invitation to that world. I adore plant-based recipes and food, they are the core of my cooking and my lifestyle. BUT I am no saint.
So here you go, totally your Grandma’s mac & cheese. It’s got gluten. It’s got dairy. And it’s mothercheesin eyes rolling back in your head delicious. You’re welcome.
BUT because I couldn’t leave my vegans & gluten-free family out….I’ve done my gosh darnedest to curate a list of the best vegan, gluten-free mac and cheeses tips out there, so here are some ideas if you aren’t willing to take the plunge into hedonism with me:
Gluten-Free Vegan Creamy Mac & Cheese Cheat Sheet
(And if you aren’t gluten-free just use flour and real pasta! And if you aren’t vegan but need to avoid gluten just replace the flour with GF flour and the pasta with GF pasta and proceed with the recipe!)
Step 1: Vegan Béchamel – using the exact same ratio for the béchamel in the recipe below replace butter with vegan butter and milk with unflavored, unsweetened almond milk, and flour with gluten-free flour
Step 2: Whisk “Cheese” into it. If it were me I’d go for a mix of vegan “Chao cheese” slices because they’re so creamy, ¼ cup plus more to taste of nutritional yeast, and Daiya shredded cheddar. You could try other vegan cheeses but I cannot testify to their meltability. Note: you will need to whisk like you mean it to get it to be smooth. But you can. Make sure the heat isn’t too high and never add too much “cheese” at a time.
Note: You could also make your own dreamy cashew cheese-based sauce of which there are myriad recipes on the internet and just pour that over your noodles! Wish I could share mine but it’s coming in my cookbook next October!
Step 3: Boil your fave GF noodles, toss ‘em in and voila vegan stovetop mac! If you want to bake it you could top it with some more vegan parm or maybe some torn slices of chao or vegan mozz and broil. Again, I’ve never tried that because honestly when I’m eating plant-based I’m just eating salads, bowls, soups, and smoothies and not even trying to mimic this stuff, but I know the commitment can be real AND the craving can be real SO…I hope that helps those of you who for health or personal reasons cannot indulge in the recipe I’m sharing today!
Tips For Avoiding a Grainy Cheese Sauce
(that I learned the hard way)
Okay, remember how I said this is almost as easy as out of box? This is where the “almost” comes into play. If you don’t take great care to:
- Make sure your roux is golden brown before adding the milk.
- Use whole, full-fat milk. This is going to help the sauce emulsify. You need the fat.
- Always freshly grate your cheese. Even organic pre-shredded cheeses contain an “anti-caking” agent that can lead to graininess.
- Avoid super-aged cheeses, they don’t melt as well.
- Add the cheese VERY slowly, very small amounts at a time, whisking constantly until they are totally incorporated before adding the next.
- Add the cheese on VERY low heat, meaning the mixture definitely should not be bubbling. (I sometimes pull the pan off the heat if I think it’s getting too warm.)
If you do not do those things you will end up with a sad clown grainy sauce that tastes delicious, but you know, is grainy. And that’s not what we’re after here. One tip I’ve heard is if you’ve ended up with a grainy sauce, put the sauce (while quite hot!) carefully into a blender and give it a spin to see if that helps. I’ve never tried this, but I read it on the internet, so you know. Take it with a grain of salt. But never a grain of sauce!
Properly cooked roux! Golden brown.
- 1 lb noodles of your choice (we’ve used “trumpets” here but plain mac is fine!), cooked al dente in salted water according to the time on the box
- 2 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 2 cups of whole milk (do not use skim here!), room temperature
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Pinch of cayenne
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- Dash or two of vinegar based hot sauce like Louisiana or Franks
- 1 teaspoon dijon mustard
- 1/4 pound gruyere, freshly grated
- 1/4 pound gouda, freshly grated
- 1/2 pound white cheddar, freshly grated
- 8-12 oz fresh mozzeralla, thinly sliced about ⅛-¼” thick (enough to cover baking dish)
- Heat your oven to broil.
- In a large sauce pan melt the butter over low or medium low. As soon as the butter is melted vigorously whisk in the flour until it forms a paste and there are no lumps. Let this bubble and cook, pushing it around with the whisk occasionally until it is a toasty golden brown that smells like pie crust. Remember, it should be brown, not golden, but not burnt.
- On low, slowly whisk in the milk to form a creamy sauce. If you add the milk too fast, clumps might form. If this happens, whisk like a mad person. It should come together.
- Whisk in the salt, nutmeg, cayenne, hot sauce, and mustard.
- Now, slowly and with great patience and much vigorous whisking on LOW heat add the cheese. Do not add more cheese until the last addition is incorporated. If at any point it looks disturbingly thick, you can add a tiny splash of milk and whisk that in, but you shouldn’t need too if the heat is low enough. If your mixture starts to show signs of bubbling, take it off the heat and keep whisking. Moving it back and forth from the burner as needed while you incorporate the cheeses, should take about 20-30 minutes for a full recipe.
- Once all the cheese is incorporated and whisked to creamy perfection taste the sauce to ensure it isn’t grainy. If it is, whisk away some more over low heat and taste again. If it’s creamy to your liking remove it from the heat and gently stir in the noodles to completely coat.
- Transfer the noodles and every last bit of cheese sauce (a silicone spatula is good for this) to a 13×9″ casserole or other decent sized baking dish, top with mozzarella to cover and broil about 5-6 minutes on the top rack just until the cheese is bubbling with beautiful brown spots. Serve immediately.
You can easily halve or quarter this recipe!!