Piles of pasta drenched in a cheesy, creamy and silky smooth white sauce, smothered in a herby sunflower-seed crumble topping. This vegan macaroni cheese is the perfect pick-me-up for dark nights and post-holiday blues, and can be easily scaled up to feed a family or allow for leftovers. Comfort food at it’s finest!
It’s the New Year, and traditionally, we are expected to feel guilty for over-indulging during the holidays, and eager to embark on futile fad diets and expensive and under-utilized gym memberships. However, given that being laden with guilt and self-recrimination is a deeply unhealthy way to start the year, added to the fact that the year just gone has been a shocker, I think that what we all deserve is a bit of comfort food. And what could be more comforting than a creamy, stodgy, warming and utterly delicious macaroni cheese?
There is huge variation in vegan mac ‘n’ cheese recipes, utilizing everything from vegan cheese, butternut squash, nuts, white beans, potatoes and cauliflower to recreate that creamy, unctuous sauce. There are ‘healthy’ versions, incredibly rich versions, gluten-free and grain-free versions and everything in between, but the version I present to you today is the pinnacle of my years of vegan macaroni experiments. It has a silky smooth cheesy sauce that is as flavoursome as any dairy counterpart, and a herby sunflower-seed crumble topping (adapted from the topping for a very good butternut based mac ‘n’ cheese recipe from the My New Roots blog) for some extra tasty texture.
I’ve also suggested some variations below so you can customize and make this dish your own, and if you have any other suggestions you can write a comment – I’d love to hear your ideas!
How to make the ultimate vegan macaroni cheese
A few hours before you start cooking, you’ll need to soak some cashews in water. They need at least 4 hours in cold water, or 1 hour in just-boiled water. If you forget, which happens to me more often than I care to admit, then you can boil them in plenty of water for 15 minutes.
The sauce is essentially a basic white sauce – butter, flour and milk – except that the butter is vegan, and the milk is made from whizzing the cashews with water, and flavoured with various condiments to give a beautiful cheesy flavour that’s salty, savoury, and tangy, not at all dissimilar to cheddar. A high-speed blender is helpful to get your milk as smooth as possible, but a regular blender or food processor will do the job.
Put the soaked cashews in your blender jug with the water and seasonings. Nutritional yeast is the key here, which sounds rather unappealing but provides a distinctly cheesy flavour, and is a staple in most vegan pantries. Some tang and umami is provided by dijon mustard and white miso paste, which you can get in larger supermarkets or oriental supermarkets (you can also leave it out and add a bit more salt). I like to use a combination of lemon juice and apple cider vinegar to give some acidity, as I find using both prevents either flavour from being too dominant, but you could use one or the other. Finally, a little salt and pepper, and everything is whizzed until completely smooth.
Then in a saucepan on a medium-low heat, add the vegan butter. I use Naturli Vegan Block, which is hands down the best butter substitute and is available from Sainsbury’s and some health food shops in the UK, but any vegan spread will do. Once melted add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until you have a thick paste. Cook for a minute or two, before adding the cashew milk little by little, ensuring you mix everything thoroughly between each addition to avoid lumps. You can whisk with a balloon whisk to help get a smooth sauce once the mixture is a little runnier, or if worst comes to the worst and any lumps persist, strain it through a sieve. Once all the milk is added, bring to the boil then immediately remove from the heat. Your sauce should be lovely and thick, but easily pourable, and you can stir in a little more water if it needs loosening up.
To make the topping, you’ll first need to toast the sunflower seeds. You can do this in a large frying pan on the hob, but the easiest way is to spread them in a single layer on a baking tray and put them in a hot oven for 6–7 minutes. You’ll need the oven on for baking your macaroni cheese anyway and you can get on with the cheesy sauce while they’re toasting away. Once they are starting to brown a little, remove from the oven and transfer to a plate or tray to cool.
Once the sunflower seeds are cool to touch, transfer to a food processor with the remaining ingredients; vegan butter or spread, nutritional yeast, salt, garlic granules (or 1/2 clove garlic), and dried thyme. Whizz until you have texture similar to crumble.
Finally, the pasta. As you can see from the photos I did not use actual macaroni, but I am of the (perhaps controversial) opinion that any tube-based pasta is acceptable, so use what you have. I had some rigatoni in the cupboard, and penne also works well. Put a large pan of generously salted water on to boil while you’re making the sauce, and once it’s boiling ferociously, add the dried pasta and cook for about two thirds of the time recommended on the packet. This will prevent that pasta from completely overcooking while it bakes in the oven. You can forego the crispy baked topping entirely and eat the pasta and sauce straight away, in which case cook the pasta for the full amount of time.
Drain the pasta and give it a quick rinse under the cold tap, then transfer to an oven-proof dish. Pour over the cheesy sauce and stir everything together, then scatter the crumble topping over everything so you have a fairly even layer. Bake for 25 minutes to allow the crumble to crisp a little and for the pasta to bake through.
Variations and extras
There are plenty of ways you can customize your macaroni cheese but here are a few of my favourites:
- Sliced tomatoes: There is something really delightful about the fresh sweetness of tomatoes against the rich and creamy pasta. I like to slice a couple of fresh tomatoes and layer them on top of the pasta, underneath the crumble topping.
- Roasted butternut squash: Try roasting chunks of butternut squash with some olive oil and thyme, until they are caramelizing and starting to char at the edges, while you’re making the cheesy sauce. Stir them into the pasta and sauce before baking.
- Fried leeks: Leeks are one of my favourite vegetables and go beautifully with macaroni cheese. Finely slice them and fry in a large pan in some vegan butter and a little salt and pepper, over a medium–low, until they are soft and starting to brown a little, then stir into the pasta and sauce.
- Breadcrumb topping: If you don’t fancy the crumble topping (although I’d recommend giving it a go – it is delicious!) then you can make a simpler version with 100g breadcrumbs and 50g grated vegan cheese.
Whether you keep things simple or try any of the above, your macaroni cheese is best devoured straight from the oven and with lashings of tomato ketchup (this is personal opinion but is correct).
Please let me know if you give this recipe a try! I really appreciate any feedback – you can comment below, rate the recipe using the stars at the top of this post, or tag me on Instagram or Twitter @greedybearbakes.
Ultimate Vegan Macaroni Cheese
Piles of pasta drenched in a cheesy, creamy and silky smooth white sauce, smothered in a herby sunflower-seed crumble topping.
For the pasta and sauce:
- 60g cashews (soaked for 4 hours, or 1 hour in boiling water)
- 2½–3 tbsp nutritional yeast (I use Marigold brand)
- ¼ tsp dijon mustard
- ¼ tsp white miso paste (optional*)
- ¼ tsp fine salt, heaped
- ¼ tsp apple cider vinegar**
- ½ tsp lemon juice**
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 300ml water
- 20g vegan butter (I use Naturli Vegan Block but vegan spread will do)
- 20g plain flour
- 175g dried pasta (e.g. macaroni, penne, rigatoni)
For the topping:
- 100g sunflower seeds
- 1 tbsp vegan butter
- ¼ tsp garlic granules (or ½ clove garlic, crushed)
- ¼ tsp dried thyme (or mixed herbs)
- 1 tbsp nutritional yeast
- pinch salt
- Pre-heat the oven to 180C fan and put a large pan of well-salted water on to boil. Measure out 100g sunflower seeds and spread in a single layer on a baking tray, and measure 175g grams pasta into a bowl.
- Drain the soaked cashews, and add to a high-speed blender or food processor, along with 2½ tbsp nutritional yeast, ¼ tsp dijon mustard, ¼ tsp white miso paste (if using), a generous ¼ tsp of fine salt, ¼ cider vinegar, ½ tsp lemon juice, a few grinds of pepper, and 300ml water. Blitz until completely smooth.
- Once the oven is at temperature, toast the sunflower seeds for 6–7 minutes, until starting to brown a little, then remove and spread on a plate to cool. When the large pan of water is boiling, add the pasta and cook for two thirds of the cooking time specified, then drain and refresh with a little cold water.
- Add 20g vegan butter to a small saucepan on a medium–low heat. Once melted, stir in 20g flour and cook for a minute or so, before adding the cashew milk little by little, stirring the mixture until it’s completely smooth after each addition. Once the cashew milk is used up, bring the sauce to the boil and remove from the heat. Taste and add a little more salt if necessary, or a little more vinegar for tanginess, or nutritional yeast for cheesiness.
- Tip the cooled sunflower seeds into a food processor along with the remaining topping ingredients (1 tbsp vegan butter, 1 tbsp nutritional yeast, ¼ tsp garlic granules, ¼ tsp dried thyme, pinch of salt). Blitz to a crumble.
- In an ovenproof dish, mix together the pasta and cheesy sauce, and scatter over the crumble topping. Bake for 25 minutes in the oven, and serve immediately.
*If you leave the white miso paste out, add a pinch more salt.
**Instead of using both lemon juice and apple cider vinegar, you could use ¾–1 tsp lemon juice or ½ tsp apple cider vinegar, however I find that using both means neither flavour dominates so you just have a nice tanginess to the sauce.