When the organizers of a vegan macaroni-and-cheese contest in Baltimore in February sent instructions to contestants, they suggested bringing enough samples to feed a crowd of 500 people. Instead, “we stopped counting at 1,000,” said Rissa Miller, who helps organize social events for a group called Baltimore Vegan Drinks. “Nobody expected that many people to show up.”
One of the Baltimore Vegan Mac ’n’ Cheese Smackdown’s other organizers, Brenda Sanders from PEP Foods, was also floored by the droves who showed up to sample vegan cheesy goodness from 31 home cooks and professional chefs, yet she acknowledges the allure. “Who can resist mac ’n’ cheese?” she says. “We picked it as the theme for the event because we knew it would attract a crowd.”
Indeed, macaroni and cheese is one of those dishes often cited by the newly vegan as one they particularly miss, especially when vegan offerings on restaurant menus tend toward hummus wraps and black bean burgers — not what most Americans would classify as comfort food.
When Miller became vegan 21 years ago, “the idea of eating a vegan version of mac and cheese didn’t even occur to me,” she says. “There was no Daiya vegan cheese yet, and cashew cream wasn’t even fashionable.”
The recent proliferation of commercially available vegan cheeses from companies such as Daiya, Treeline and Miyoko’s Kitchen has opened up a new world of possibility for those who eschew dairy products, inspiring a host of home cooks to try their hands at recreating cheesy childhood memories. Even a popular BuzzFeed recipe video has gotten in on the act, whizzing boiled carrots, onions and potatoes in a blender with raw cashews to create a creamy cheese-like sauce.
“For some bizarre reason, many vegans are obsessed with mac and cheese, and apparently I am no exception,” says Jeanie Ciskowski of Accokeek, Md., who ended up winning the People’s Choice award at the Baltimore event for her entry called Flying Pig Labs Mac ’n’ Cheese, which combined her own handmade cheddar-style cashew cheese with commercially available vegan cheeses.
When Ciskowski decided to enter, she expected that she would sample the other entries and try to pry the winning recipe from its creator. Instead, she found her own concoction at the top of the heap. “I had no idea how much fun I’d have being on my feet half the day, feeding an endless line of mac-and-cheese-crazed vegans,” she says.
Not only vegans, actually. The organizers say the crowd included plenty of people who regularly eat dairy, yet are still interested in plant-based cuisine. “People were so amazed that these mac-and-cheese products were vegan, that there was no dairy in them at all,” says Miller.
It’s a trend that Chloe Coscarelli, co-founder and executive chef of By Chloe, a vegan restaurant in New York City’s Greenwich Village that opened less than a year ago, has incorporated into her own brand, focusing on plant-based food that appeals to the masses, like her wildly popular Sweet Potato Mac ’n’ Cheese.
“We spent two years testing recipes for the By Chloe menu,” says Coscarelli, “and the mac and cheese was a huge part of that. If someone’s initial response during recipe testing was ‘It tastes good for being vegan,’ then it was back to the drawing board.”
Coscarelli’s own take on a plant-based mac and cheese — or what some jokingly call “mac and trees” — puts the emphasis firmly on the plants themselves, using mashed sweet potatoes mixed with almond milk to create a slightly sweet sauce reminiscent of the commercial boxed products often found on the plates of both toddlers and college students. It’s the addition of crispy, salted shiitake bacon that takes the dish to the next level, in Coscarelli’s estimation, along with the almond “parmesan,” made from ground, toasted almonds. “Like many dishes,” she says, “the key to extraordinary mac and cheese is all about the layering of flavor and texture.”
At Annie’s Homegrown, co-founders Annie Withey and Andrew Martin began the company in 1989 specifically to create healthful, dairy-based boxed macaroni-and-cheese products but received requests for many years for a vegan version, which was introduced in 2015.
As with Coscarelli’s recipe, Annie’s Organic Vegan Shells & Creamy Sauce incorporates sweet potato, combining it with pumpkin to get the flavor and color they wanted. “When it came to our vegan product development process, we decided to take a new veggie-forward approach,” says Christina McCalla, brand manager for Annie’s Macaroni and Cheese. “That’s why we chose pumpkin and sweet potato powders as the first ingredients after organic pasta.”
Seeing a creamy sauce as the key to success, Annie’s looked for combinations that would provide the buttery mouth feel that could help a vegan version to compete — or at least peacefully coexist — with traditional dairy-based options.
While it’s true that flavor is a major element when it comes to creating a plant-based macaroni and cheese, texture is often the make-or-break factor for anyone with a strong food memory about cheese, like District resident Erin Longbottom, who switched from a vegetarian diet to a vegan one two years ago. Her Vegan Chili Mac recipe, which took second place at the Baltimore smackdown event, definitely highlights texture. Longbottom adapted some vegan cheese recipes that she found online into a concoction akin to nacho cheese sauce.
“I had two things in mind when I went with this recipe,” she says. “One, I wanted it to be from scratch. Two, all my favorite mac-and-cheese dishes involve gooey, stretchy cheese, so I wanted my entry to be like that.”
The result, once a spicy homemade chili is added to the mix, is like late-night, dorm-room drunk food, with a little less fat-laden guilt.
The success of the Baltimore Vegan Mac ’n’ Cheese Smackdown has galvanized the organizers to start seeking out a larger space for next year.
“What an awesome problem to have, to actually outgrow the space in the first year,” Miller says.
In the meantime, she and the other organizers have been sharing their experience with the producers of a similar competition coming up in Philadelphia in May, the Philly MAC-Down, and have also fielded questions from people in other cities, including the District, about how to organize such an event.
Meanwhile, at 10 months and counting until the next smackdown, Ciskowski and Longbottom have plenty of time to work on new recipes, should they each decide to enter again. Longbottom, whose competitive zeal was sparked when she placed third at the D.C. State Fair in 2015 for her vegan ice cream, is thinking about making her own aged cheese, while Ciskowski is already testing how well bulk batches of her cashew cheese will freeze. That could provide plenty of fodder for a homemade sauce — certainly enough for at least a thousand hungry diners.
Hartke is a District-based food writer and editor. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Chloe Coscarelli’s title. She is co-founder and executive chef of By Chloe in New York City. It also incorrectly described her recipe, which uses almond milk, not coconut cream.