Friday, August 7, 2009

DF6: "Cheez"-A-Roni and Gee Whiz "Cheez" Spread

Since I finally had a chance to get to WF, I was finally able to try some of the vegan "cheez" recipes I've been looking at this week. Mrs. Jelly Belly, this is for you! GirliChef, you too! :) The two recipes I prepared are from a book by Jo Stepaniak called The Ultimate UnCheese Cookbook: Delicious Dairy-Free Cheeses and Classic Uncheese Dishes

I've already told you I'm not a huge fan of "substitute" or "imitation" foods. A food should taste good enough to be enjoyed for its own sake, not as just a pale imitation of something else. So when I saw the title of the book, this caseophile was extremely skeptical. As I have also said, I don't care HOW nutritious something is, if it doesn't taste good, I'm not eating it. The book is full of recipes with cutesy names like "Gee Whiz" (spread) and "Betta Feta," another thing which frankly, alarmed me. Stepaniak uses the term "uncheese" to refer to all of her homemade dairy-free cheese substitutes.

I have tasted several commercially available vegan "cheez" products and so far have not found one I consider fit for human consumption. However, as Stepaniak points out, when you make your own "uncheeses" you have control over the ingredients and since they do not need to have a long shelf-life, you can create much better-tasting and less expensive vegan "cheez" at home.

There is an extremely useful review on Amazon by Lisa Fowler that gives the real 411 on this book and convinced me it was worth a try. This review also gave me a realistic idea of what to expect from the recipes in the book.

Three ingredients that are frequently used in vegan cooking to impart a cheese-y flavor and/or texture to recipes are nutritional yeast, nut butters, and pureed beans. From my years of vegetarian cooking, I am familiar with nutritional yeast, and I happen to love it. It is the magic ingredient in two of my all-time favorite vegetarian dishes, Chicken-Fried Tofu with "Chicken" Gravy and a delicious Peanut Sauce that I serve over broccoli, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes, occasionally tossing in some Thai-flavored baked tofu for good measure. I have not made either of these dishes recently because DC has a thing about tofu. Nutritional yeast adds a wonderful savory, almost chicken-y flavor to foods. It is also reminiscent of parmesan cheese. Tofu, both firm and silken, is another often-used ingredients to mimic cheese.

Nutritional yeast is intended for use as a food, and should not be confused with the bitter and uber-disgusting Brewers' Yeast, a by-product of the brewski industry that is intended for use as a supplement (i.e, like a vitamin pill). Brewers' Yeast is supposed to be very good for you, but I have tried it and all I can say is: Be afraid. Be very afraid. And run the other way, fast.

Nutritional yeast comes in powder or flakes. Get the flakes-- they are better for cooking. I actually have never seen the powder, but you'll have to reduce the amounts in every recipe if you use the powder.

Here's my container of nutritional yeast, sometimes referred to as "nooch."

Lisa Fowler's review imparts this very useful information about the recipes in Stepaniak's book:
"Recipes that are made up only of plain flour, nutritional yeast, and seasonings generally do not taste like cheese; they taste more like savory gravy. On a similar note, bean-based recipes are going to taste more like hummus than like cheese. That's not necessarily a bad thing if you're prepared for it, of course." Thank you, Lisa! While we may end up enjoying such recipes for what they are, we will not expect them to ring our cheese chimes.

Armed with Lisa's review, recommendations, tips and tricks, I decided my debut vegan cheese dish would be the "Cheez"-A-Roni. According to Lisa, "It's very rich and creamy, guaranteed to subdue any macaroni and cheese craving." Well, ok then! Checking over the recipe, I discovered it was first necessary to make an uncheese product for use in the dish: the Gee Whiz "cheez" spread. Well, Lisa had raved about that one, so I felt safe proceeding.

But just to be on the safe side, I picked up some salmon filets (0ne of DC's big favorites) to serve alongside the Roni in case it was disgusting. I mean, after a person has been deprived of cheese for several years, who knows? an old sneaker might taste like cheese to them, so a review can only take you so far.

A Note About Allergies:
A nice thing about the book is that it includes info about what common allergens (like gluten and nuts) the recipes contain or don't contain in a handy little box on the lower left corner of each recipe page. You must read the ingredient list carefully, however. For example, with the recipe below, if you choose to use the tahini, then it's nut-free, but if you use the cashew butter, it contains nuts, but no tahini. Likewise for gluten-- you have to make it gluten free by using gluten-free flours, pastas, and other substitutes. Nutritional yeast does not contain gluten. Here is what she says about gluten in the introduction: "Recipes that do not contain gluten or include gluten-free options will be marked gluten free in the box. Ingredients that commonly contain gluten (such as vanilla extract) will not be marked as such. You will need to use an appropriate gluten-free brand for these types of ingredients."
Likewise for soy, tree nuts, and corn. Yeast-free recipes will be marked as such, but may contain fermented ingredients such as vinegar or miso. These ingredients are noted beneath the allergen-free box.

Stepaniak also includes nutritional data for each recipe.

First, I'll share the recipes. Then I'll give you my review (and I am a pretty harsh critic of "health food")

AND the results of the acid test:

Did DC (health-food hater par excellence) think the Cheez-A-Roni tasted like cheese?

Gee Whiz Spread (Stepaniak's recipe)
Makes 2 c.
Free of: gluten, soy, nuts, corn Contains: sesame tahini

Before eating, be sure to refrigerate several hours. It may not be very palatable straight out of the food processor, so don't even taste it until it's had a chance to chill.

2 c. drained cooked or 1 15-16 oz. can white beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 c. roasted red peppers (seeded and peeled)
6-8 T nutritional yeast flakes
*juice of 1/2 fresh lemon

2-3 T cashew butter or sesame tahini
1/2 t. prepared yellow mustard (the ball-park stuff)
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. garlic powder
1/4 t. onion powder

Place all ingredients in a food processor and process until completely smooth and evenly colored (this may take several minutes). Stop processor and scrape down sides of bowl as necessary during processing. Chill thoroughly before serving. Keeps 5-7 days refrigerated.

Aged cheddar variation: add 1-2 t. light or chickpea miso (Lisa Fowler recommends this one).

Nutritional data per 1/4 c:
127 cal.
6 g protein
6 g fat
14 g carb
38 mg calcium
283 mg sodium

Makes 8 c.
Free of : Gluten (if using gluten-free pasta), Soy, nut, corn Contains: sesame tahini

1 recipe Gee Whiz spread
2 T. olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
1 t. crushed garlic
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes, undrained
2-3 T. nutritional yeast flakes
Salt to taste
1/4-1/8 t. pepper
Large pinch cayenne (optional)
12 oz. (3 c.) dry macaroni or other tube pasta, such as penne

Prepare Gee Whiz spread as directed and set aside. Heat oil in very large saucepan over medium-high heat. When hot, add onion and saute until tender, deep brown, and caramelized (adjust heat as necessary so onion doesn't burn)'

Stir in garlic and cook for 1 minute longer. Add undrained tomatoes and stir. Then stir in the prepared Gee-Whiz spread, nutritional yeast flakes, salt, pepper, and cayenne and mix well. Simmer gently, stirring often, for about 10-15 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain well. Stir hot pasta into simmering sauce and combine gently but thoroughly.

Tip: As this dish cools, or if there are leftovers stored in the fridge, the pasta will absorb most of the moisture from the sauce. If you want to make the mixture more saucy, add a little tomato juice, plain nondairy milk, water, sherry, or 1-2 chopped fresh tomatoes when you reheat it.

Nutritional data, per serving:
334 cal.
16 g. protein
7 g. fat
55 g carb
99 mg calcium
311 mg sodium

DC's Plate:

Up close and personal:

I feel triumphant! DC ate every bit of his broccoli and said it tasted so good with the sauce on it, he would even eat it as a snack!

DomesticMuse's Reviews

Gee-Whiz Spread
This was a snap to prepare! I just made the regular recipe, not the aged cheddar variation. I chose to use the cashew butter rather than the tahini, as Lisa Fowler's review said you can't go wrong with the combo of cashew + roasted red pepper. I also significantly reduced the amount of fresh lemon juice contained in the original recipe. **The amount given in the recipe above is what I used. Stepaniak calls for 3 T. of lemon juice, but Lisa's review said in her opinion, ALL the recipes contain way too much lemon, which can lead to taste failure. Also, since the flavors need time to blend in the fridge before eating, I prepared this several hours before I planned to make the Roni recipe. With some fear and trepidation, I tasted a tiny amount of the spread before adding it to the Roni, and I must say, it was pretty darn tasty. It would be delicious on crackers or pita bread or as a dip. Wonderful!

Below are my ratings in several categories for "cheesy-ness" and taste.

1 star: Bad. 2 stars: Good. 3 Stars: Fantastic!

Color: 3 stars.
It was certainly very orange and cheddary-colored from the red peppers. Attractive.
Texture: 3 stars. It was smooth, creamy, and appealing, like a dairy spread would be.
Cheese Flavor: 3 stars: while there definitely was a bit of a hummus flavor from the beans, the overall impression was cheesy.
Taste: 3 stars: Just plain delicious!! It was incredibly rich-tasting, and savory. I would certainly eat it by itself, with great enjoyment.
Overall: 3 stars: Fantastic! A winner! I would bring this dish to a party with crackers and crudites.
DC-O-Meter: He didn't get to taste the spread by itself.

This would have been a very quick dish to prepare if it had not taken 25 minutes to caramelize the onions as instructed. It ended up taking close to 50 minutes to prepare. I used fusilli for the pasta, as it was on sale at WF for $1.29 per box. (Woo-Hoo!) I want to try this recipe without caramelizing the onions to see if that really adds enough flavor to the finished dish to justify the extra time and attention needed to caramelize.

I did not tell DC the pasta was dairy-free until after he had eaten it. We both thought it was terrific!! I served it with roasted salmon filets with Num-Num sauce and steamed broccoli with lemonaise sauce. It was a great combination of flavors!

The Cheez-A-Roni was fabulous, absolutely delicious. It was rich and creamy like real mac and cheese, but without the heaviness. I was pleasantly surprised by this.

Did it taste like Mac and Cheese? Yes and no. It was certainly evocative of "the real thing" in both taste and texture, but it has its own wonderful flavor, too. If I were craving Mac and Cheese, this would certainly do the trick. I loved it, since I nearly always serve my Mac and Cheese with with heated canned tomatoes on top of it, and that's very much what this dish tasted like.

I would not hesitate to serve this to company. It's certainly substantial enough to serve as a main course. For us, it (and real mac and cheese) works better as a side dish with a big hit of animal protein, both because of my blood sugar issues and DC's disdain of vegetarian cuisine. (He feels deprived without "meat" of some kind.) I also want to comment on the nutritional data for this dish. It's obviously much healthier than "the real thing," being lower in fat and rich with fiber and nutrients from the beans. However, Stepaniak just says the data is "per serving," without saying what a "serving" is. I assume the recipe is intended to yield 8 servings, since it makes 8 cups, making a serving 1 cup. But that is just my assumption.
Bottom line: Fabulous! A total success. I am loving every bit of the leftovers.

Color: 3 stars. very appealing, a rich reddish-orange sauce. Much redder than real mac and cheese. Very pretty on the plate.
Texture: 3 stars. The sauce was rich, thick, and creamy without being heavy or greasy. No complaints.
Cheese Flavor: 3 stars: Definitely cheesy.
Taste: 3 stars: Heavenly!! Fabulous! All the flavor of real mac and cheese plus an extra hit of savory wonderfulness. I would not serve this just as a "substitute" for mac and cheese, but as a delicious dish in its own right.
Overall: 3 stars: Fabulous! I would not hesitate to serve this to company, vegetarian or not.
DC-O-Meter: Two thumbs up! Definitely tasted like cheese. He loved it.

So, our first foray into vegan cheese dishes was a total slam-dunk! Mrs. Jelly Belly, you must try this! We thought it was dee-licious. Maybe you could even fool Mr. Jelly Belly into thinking it was a pasta and dairy cheese dish. (I don't know though, he might object to the tomatoes.)


  1. hmmm. hmmm. okay, I suppose. I kept a thoroughly open mind while reading this. And I must say, it does sound pretty tasty...but now I must go bite into a hunk of cheese to make up for these impure thoughts. :P

  2. Hi Karen- Looks like you found a gem of a cookbook. Your dish looks really delicious and I will enjoy reading your future reviews on it all. Hope you are doing well.

  3. I typically have an issue with "fake" foods too though I have had some soy cheeses that are really good. There is a pizza place in Berkeley CA that has the best soy cheese pizza & I once made a vegan shepherds' pie that was pretty darn good. I'm with you its all about knowing what you are getting into & what to expect in a way


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