A Full-On Southern Supper Plate | VeganMoFo 2019 Day Fourteen

I have recently (i.e., within the last year) come to a startling realization: I do not care for super spicy foods. I say “startling” because I have long used my seeming tolerance for spiciness as a marker of some kind of courage and as something that sets me apart from my wimpy Midwestern friends who pale at the sight of sriracha. I grew up on spicy foods thanks to my dad’s predilection for them, and for quite a while I think I confused “able to eat” with “enjoy.”

No longer! I’ve recently realized that I just don’t enjoy super spicy foods. I don’t enjoy having to keep a tissue on hand to wipe my streaming nose. I don’t enjoy not tasting the rest of what’s on my plate. I simply don’t appreciate spice for spice’s sake anymore, and frankly, I don’t think I have a particularly high tolerance for it either. Heat can be great when combined with other bold flavors, but you have to be able to taste those flavors!

I mention this because tonight’s dinner included quite a spicy element. I had an after-work happy hour, meaning I arrived home a bit later than usual. Steven had dinner in the oven, and the timer dinged almost literally the moment I stepped through the door. What bliss! He’d made a big ol’ pan of mac and cheese and some BBQ tofu, using a homemade, sriracha-based BBQ sauce. I added a simple side salad for some greenery and had myself a nice big plate of food.

So, that BBQ tofu. It packed quite a kick. I kept eating pieces and feeling the burn until I realized something incredibly obvious: If I ate it at the same time as a forkful of mac and cheese, it was not nearly as painful, and it added a nice kick to the pasta.

I mean. This is not rocket science. But as a person who likes order and clearly delineated lines (in pretty much every aspect of life), I do not typically mix two types of food on a fork. I like one thing at a time, so I can taste it individually. (On Thanksgiving, I have to purposefully remind myself to put some mashed potato and stuffing into my mouth at the same time.) Yet clearly there is a benefit to mixing things up, to using a more neutral element to temper a stronger one. Even if I have to consciously remind myself to do it, it’s worth it. That BBQ tofu — so painful, so tissue-requiring on its own — became deliciously palatable when paired with the creamy neutrality of the mac and cheese.

(There’s a metaphor in here about balance, I’m sure. Feel free to read whatever you’d like into this revelation.)

And about the mac and cheese. Steven used this much-heralded VegWeb recipe, reducing the oil (!!!) and adding some shredded Violife parm for good measure. It was nice and creamy and a good reminder that sometimes old-school vegan recipes are worth keeping around, even when newfangled fancy products seem so much flashier.

Quite a satisfying meal overall, and doubly so because I didn’t make any of it! It reminded me of the platters at NuVegan Café, a local chain serving up Southern-style vegan classics. You typically order a main and two sides, and I can never resist their mac and cheese. So filling and so scrumptious.

Now I’m debating making dessert, possibly one of the stone fruit crumbles or cobblers that have been my go-to this summer. But do I really want to turn on the oven again? More to the point, do I really want to get up from the couch?! I predict a “no” on both counts.

Recipe Showdown: Mac & Cheese

Orange rectangular banner that says "Vegan MoFo" and "Vegan Month of Food 2011."

A few weeks ago, I pitted three brownie recipes against one another in a battle for the title of Best Brownie. Joanna Vaught’s aptly named All-Time Very Best Vegan Brownie recipe handily defeated its foes, what with its fudgy, rich results. But what if you’re (gasp!) not in the mood for chocolate? What if you want something more savory, something carb-laden and creamy? What if you’re craving… mac & cheese?

Fear not! My second recipe showdown puts three rock-star mac & cheese (henceforth known as M&C) recipes to the test. First, my criteria – I think a stand-out M&C recipe must be…

  • Creamy. I want creamy, smooth sauce that perfectly coats my noodles. Too little sauce results in dry noodles, while too much sauce is more like cheese soup with pasta.
  • Neutral-flavored. Now, I don’t mean “bland;” I just mean that I don’t want to taste vegetables or potatoes in my sauce – I want it to have a unique flavor all its own. I know that a vegan M&C won’t taste like dairy cheese, but I don’t want it to have a recognizable flavor that is distinctly not cheesy.
  • Not incredibly heavy. This is where I might differ from many of you, and this is why I can’t do Daiya-based M&C. Basically, my body doesn’t tolerate fatty foods well, and I don’t want to feel sick and stomach-pained after eating a bowl of M&C. However, I still want my M&C to satisfy my comfort food cravings, to fill the creamy, cheesy pasta-shaped void in my tummy.

A tall order? You bet. But I tried the three recipes that people suggested as their favorites and that hold spots of reverence in vegan circles, so I had high hopes. Let’s see what I discovered!

First, I tried arguably the most popular and well-praised recipe that exists today:

VegNews’ Vegan Macaroni and Cheese

VegNews calls this “[t]he best mac ‘n’ cheese on the planet. End of story.” The reviews on the recipe are off-the-wall enthusiastic, and I’ve seen countless bloggers fall at the proverbial feet of this recipe, singing its praises and calling it the best thing they’ve ever tasted. But could it live up to the hype? I was willing to give it a chance, but I was skeptical.

Close-up of a glass casserole dish full of mac & cheese. The corner has a bit scooped out, and you can see it in the background on a plate.

The oft-praised VegWeb M&C!

PROS:

  • Pretty creamy.
  • Includes veggies, so you can trick yourself into thinking it’s slightly healthy.
  • No nutritional yeast. (This isn’t necessarily a pro for me, but I think NY-free recipes are crucial – not everybody loves the yellow yeast! It’s an acquired taste for many.)

CONS:

  • Breadcrumbs overwhelmed the top layer.
  • The Dijon mustard was too noticeable.
  • I felt heavy and a little sickish afterwards. :(

OVERALL GRADE: B

I hope I don’t lose friends over this one, but I was a little underwhelmed with this recipe. The recipe only calls for 1/4 t of Dijon mustard, but for some reason it was all I could taste. It definitely didn’t meet the “neutral taste” requirement, which is really my main beef with it – that and the stomach-ache it gave me. That said, the flavor wasn’t bad, and it was definitely creamy enough to satisfy the M&C need. It was S’s first taste of a non-dairy cheese sauce, and although he never would’ve been fooled into thinking it was real cheese, he also said it was tasty and that he’d make it again. It was a little labor-intensive for an average weeknight, though.

Next, I tried…

VeganYumYum’s Mac & Cheese

This recipe holds a special place in my heart – I used a variation of it the first time I ever made vegan M&C. Nostalgia! I’d never made it without modification, however, so I followed the recipe to a T[ablespoon… ha ha ha] this time around.

Close-up of a small bowl of macaroni and cheese with a glass of almond milk in the background.

This is an unattractive picture. I'm sorry.

PROS:

  • Despite the 1/3 C of Earth Balance (!!!), it didn’t taste overly heavy to me.
  • The sauce actually has a unique, enjoyable flavor.
  • Appropriately “gooey” texture.

CONS:

  • Post-baking, it seemed to lose some flavor.
  • 1/3 C of EB. :(
  • Makes way more than 2-3 servings. This mightn’t be a con for others, but I had lots of leftovers, and I wasn’t planning for them.

OVERALL GRADE: B-

That grade is for the dish as a whole. S described it as “bland,” although his portion was microwaved and a few days old. Straight out of the saucepan, the cheesy sauce tasted really, really good to me – it had a unique flavor that totally fit my “neutral flavor” criterion. But baked? It just tasted… bland. I don’t understand what happened! If I were grading the sauce alone, it’d definitely get a higher grade, but the dish as a whole just doesn’t merit it, alas.

The third contender was…

The New Farm Mac & Cheese (the Get Sconed! version)

This M&C is legendary. It has a storied history with roots in the out-of-print New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook. The original recipe is floating around the web somewhere, but once I heard that it contained ample amounts of both margarine and oil, my nerves failed me and I sought out a slightly less heart-attack-inducing variety. Jess’s version fit the bill, with its much-reduced fat content (which is not to say that this is a low-fat recipe!). I followed Jess’s recipe, although I didn’t make it gluten-free, and I didn’t add any of the optional add-ins.

Baked mac & cheese in a green square dish with a plate of M&C in the background.

This picture is even uglier than the previous one.

PROS:

  • Very, very creamy – totally satisfied that creamy-pasta urge.
  • Neutral flavor, pretty typical to any nutritional yeast-based sauce.
  • Coated the pasta nicely.
  • BONUS: According to S: “Congeals just like cheese when cold.” Ha!

CONS:

  • The neutral flavor very nearly crossed the line into bland territory.
  • Contains both margarine and oil. Blurgh.
  • The minced garlic bits were a little odd and detracted from the texture.

OVERALL: B+

S said that this one had “a cheese-like tanginess that permeate[d] more than the others.” Incidentally, this recipe contains the most nutritional yeast compared to the other two. Hmm! He didn’t know that, because he wasn’t with me when I made the second two recipes. I’m not sure I’d call it tangy, but maybe that’s because what he called tangy just tastes like nutritional yeast to me. Generally, though, this one filled the M&C void most strongly for me. Initially I thought it was a little boring, but it really grew on me – straight out of the oven, it was incredibly creamy. I have to begrudgingly admit that the oil might be the secret ingredient for maximum creaminess.

So, coming in a hair above the others, Jess’s version of the New Farm Mac & Cheese won this showdown. Ultimately, though, my ultimate mac & cheese might be a combination of the VeganYumYum and the New Farm varieties. I think that the tomato paste in the VYY recipe really adds a unique flavor to the cheese, while the olive oil in the NF recipe makes the sauce incredibly creamy. I think I’m going to experiment on a hybrid recipe! :)

I would be remiss in posting about this showdown if I didn’t mention The Noochy Noodle, a blog devoted solely to tasting and reviewing vegan mac & cheese. Whether it comes from a box or from a fancy-pants vegan restaurant, Kristen is dedicated to reviewing all the vegan M&C she can find. It puts this tiny little showdown to shame, really. I highly recommend you check out The Noochy Noodle for all your vegan mac & cheese needs!

What’s your favorite mac & cheese recipe? How many have you tried?

Note: This is a scheduled post, because I’m currently in Italy. Apologies for any weirdness with auto-publishing!

Obligatory Brownie-Baking

A little over a year ago, I tried a brownie recipe that yielded deliciously unhealthy brownies that tasted amazing hot out of the pan, fairly disappointing when cooled, but fantastic straight out of the freezer. Apparently September is the month in which I crave brownies, because yesterday the Chocolate Craving Fairy smacked me on the head with her Chocowand and sprinkled Cocoa Fairy Dust on me, and I had no choice but to bake brownies. No choice.

This time around, I selected this highly rated VegWeb recipe to fulfill my chocolate cravings. Of course, I couldn’t leave well enough alone; I used coconut oil instead of canola oil, whole wheat pastry flour instead of all-purpose flour, and I added a dash of cinnamon to the batter. I also slightly (maybe?) overcooked them – usually I undercook my baked goods, and in an effort to not remove my brownies from the oven prematurely, I think I instead left them in there a tad too long. Oy.

Photo of three thin, fudgy-looking brownies stacked on a small white plate with decorative brown edges.

Brownie nomz.

They look okay, though, right? And for the most part, they are. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that these brownies boast the coveted thin, crunchy top layer that, to me, is the hallmark of a true brownie. No sham of a cake square masquerading as a brownie has that crunchy top! And these are definitely more fudgy than cakey, which is probably my number one requirement in a brownie. They also taste deliciously chocolaty, possibly due to another substitution I nearly forgot – Dutch-processed cocoa for half of the cocoa amount called for in this recipe.

But they’re not perfect. This might be my own fault; the substitutions and the brownies’ extended stay at the Oven Express Inn & Suites might’ve rendered them less than delicious. Their edges are far too crunchy, and the coconut oil lends a very faint coconut flavor that seems slightly out of place and really just detracts from the chocolate. (The Chocolate Craving Fairy just pelted me with cocoa beans for that one.) Judging from the comments on the VegWeb recipe, these should have been freaking amazing. So maybe I should give this recipe another shot. In fact, I think I’ll make the search for a perfect brownie part of my Vegan MoFo 2011 plans. Oh yes, folks, MoFo is back this year, and I’ve got a Google Doc overflowing with ideas. October is going to be bangin’ – stay tuned for recipe comparisons, veganized childhood favorites, and a pre-MoFo giveaway!

Are you participating in MoFo this year? Do you have a theme? And do you have an awesome brownie recipe I should try?

Sunday is Bread Day

The inaugural vegan bloggers’ conference, Vida Vegan Con, took place this weekend in Vegan Mecca, AKA Portland, Oregon. Vegan bloggers ate, drank, socialized, attended panels, and basically celebrated everything vegan. It was three days of awesomeness, and everybody who attended seemed to absolutely love it.

I didn’t go.

I bought a ticket way back when they first went on sale, optimistically thinking I’d attend. But when summer began, I started thinking seriously about the conference and travel logistics. Eventually, I decided to not attend, for quite a few reasons, but mostly because I’m planning a trip to Italy in October and I couldn’t quite justify this trip, too. At the end of the day, spending a week in Florence with my best friend, who’s currently living there while finishing up an MA in art history, wins out over almost any other travel plan. Still, I was a bit bummed out over it, knowing I’d probably regret my choice when August rolled around. I sold my ticket, and waited for the envy to set in. And it did; I felt left out and envious when I saw people counting down on their blogs and planning meetups and drooling over doughnuts.

So this weekend, when I knew the more hardcore VVC bloggers would make time to blog after each day’s events, I ignored my Google Reader, wanting to avoid the all-too-appealing temptation of poring over VVC posts and beating myself up for not attending.

It wasn’t hard to do, though, because I had a really lovely weekend with my man, playing with shelter dogs and spending time with friends and reorganizing bookshelves. I also worked on an embroidery project and tried my hand at weekly meal planning (more on that later) and read books.

And I baked bread.

Sunday is bread day.

This was by no means my first experience with yeasted bread, but it was the first time I baked bread for bread’s sake, instead of making something fancier to accompany a specific meal. This is a simple wheat bread, an unassuming, unpretentious loaf that satisfies my most basic desire to consume carbohydrates. Equally tasty when toasted or eaten straight-up after slicing, it’s versatile in its simplicity.

And it was a joy to make. Because I wasn’t doing anything fancy with it and was baking purely for my own pleasure, I didn’t feel pressured to make it perfect. Instead, I enjoyed the simple process of mixing yeast and water and molasses, watching it bubble and foam, and then adding flour and oil and salt and kneading away. Instead of worrying about the consistency of the dough and fretting over flour, I simply pounded, molded, and stretched it, adding spoonfuls of flour until the dough just felt right. I savored the hour or two the dough spent in the loaf pan as it slowly ballooned to twice its size. And when it was puffy and ready to bake, I put it in the oven and left it there, instead of nervously peeking at it every ten minutes. When it seemed done, I used the old “tap the bottom of the pan” method to gauge its completion and trusted my judgment.

And, despite my laissez-faire attitude to its creation, the bread came out near-perfect. And, really, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a centuries-old technique produces reliable, reproducible results, should I? :)

Do you have a go-to bread recipe? Please share!