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Wednesday, November 9, 2011
by Blob

A few years ago, Mrs. Cynical Optimist was diagnosed with a dairy allergy. At about the same time, I started working on my weight. These factors combined to promote a higher interest in cooking and cooking well. As time has gone by, we've discovered a number of tricks and ingredients which work well as substitutes, gradually returning some of our favorite dishes to meal time. It occurs to me that since these are works-in-progress, perhaps a record of what I did and might do differently could be useful. So, I present the first of a series: Dairy Free: Macaroni and Cheese.

Butter was easily solved: Earth balance makes a number of buttery, nicely-cooking dairy-free margarines.

Milk is a bit more complicated. We find soy milk to be good for drinking and with cereal (particularly in sweetened, vanilla flavor), but it has a tendency to break when cooking, making a watery separated mess. Canned coconut milk has become our cooking milk of choice. The light variety can be used in place of milk, and the higher fat in the standard variety can replace cream (to an extent).

Cheese. We've not found very much in the way of a good cheese substitute yet. Soy Kaas makes a decent mozzarella flavor, which we've used in pizza and pasta filling. Their cheddar is okay, but not nearly sharp enough. Unfortunately, I have to go way out my way to get Soy Kaas, so I often pick up Daiya shreds at the local megamart. Daiya melts well, but has even less of that cheesy punch than Soy Kaas.

Having found all the necessary pieces, however, I set out to make one of Mrs. Cynical Optimist's favorite (and much missed) dishes: Mac-n-cheese.

I began with Alton Brown's recipe, but here's my ingredient list.

  • 3 Tbsp Original Earth Balance
  • 3 Tbsp flour (I used (and highly recommend) Montana Sapphire)
  • 2-1/4 cups light coconut milk
  • 2 Tbsp Grey Poupon (less if you don't love mustard)
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 tub (4 oz) "Better Than Cream Cheese" (It's not, but it's not bad, either)
  • 2/3 bag (8 oz) Daiya cheddar style shreds
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • 1/3 bag (4 oz) Daiya cheddar
  • 3 Tbsp Earth Balance
  • 1 cup bread crumbs

In addition to the obvious substitutions, I omitted onion and bay leaf (because I didn't have them - a mistake I won't repeat), paprika (because I didn't think it would help without the onion and bay leaf). I replaced dry mustard with Grey Poupon because I love the way it tastes in grilled cheese, so I thought we'd try it here, too. I was surprised by how much milk the recipe called for. I happened to have an unopened can of coconut milk, and the remaining halfish-can from the weekend's cookery. That made around 2.25 cups, while Alton Brown's recipe called for 3 cups dairy milk. It seems to have been enough.

  1. Get your pasta water started
  2. Melt the Earth Balance in a saucepan, whisk in the flour, keep it moving over medium-low heat about 5 minutes, make a light roux
  3. Realize you should already have your coconut milk ready; hastily open can and retrieve leftovers from this weekend's pancakes from the fridge, while not burning your roux (This step may be optional)
  4. Stir in coconut milk and mustard, simmer for 10 minutes
  5. Add pasta to water
  6. Preheat oven to 350
  7. Temper the egg: whisk it slightly, and then slowly add hot milk/roux mixture to the egg while stirring to gradually bring up the egg temperature without scrambling
  8. Once warm-to-hot, stir egg mixture into the saucepan
  9. Stir in (Not Better Than) cream cheese and cheddaresque shreds
  10. Salt and pepper. More than you think you need, but taste, taste!
  11. I also added a bit of our fake grated parmesan, but I don't think it added much, nor would it be missed
  12. Drain pasta, fold into mixture, turn into casserole dish
  13. Top with remaining cheddarish shreds
  14. Melt remaining Earth Balance, stir in bread crumbs to coat
  15. Top casserole with buttered bread crumbs
  16. Turn oven to bake, put casserole in for 30 minutes
  17. Move close to top of the oven, turn on broiler to brown top for 3 minutes
  18. Wait five minutes (nuclear hot!), serve

The result was a concoction of surprising fidelity to the original, at least in terms of texture. Creamy and smooth, it felt like good mac and cheese. Unfortunately, it's lacking that sharpness real cheddar brings, and overall was just not cheesy enough. However, we both had seconds, and it was difficult to not have thirds. It definitely qualifies as comfort food.

I'm going to try this again, putting the onion and bay leaf from Mr. Brown's recipe back in, and using Soy Kaas cheddar and omitting the creamish cheeseish. I will report back on the result when it's done.

Brand names are included herein because these are the things I've found to work best from much trial-and-error. I've not been compensated in any way by the makers of these products.