I’m officially obsessed with fall. Sipping mulled cider, baking apple and pumpkin everything, eating heaping bowls of my favorite Panera macaroni and cheese—that’s what I love about this time of year.
My new non-dairy lifestyle, however, does not mesh with yummy, cheesy, buttery comfort food. Luckily, my culinary curiosity is strong, and I set out to turn traditional comfort food upside down by creating a vegan dish full of creamy, rich flavors that even non-vegans would want to gobble down. A lot of ingredient tweaking led me to this unbelievably good, incredibly tasty recipe for vegan mac and cheese.
Vegan mac and cheese? You’re probably wondering how this is even possible—”vegan” and “cheese” don’t exactly go hand in hand. Yet this amazing recipe has managed to deliver a creamy, rich, satisfying bowl of cheesy pasta. No animal products, no off-tasting cheese alternatives, just an utterly delicious sauce coating every nook and cranny of al dente shell-shaped pasta. A wonderfully brilliant combination of vegan ingredients that come together to closely resemble a cheesy sauce; a heaping of cashews, full-fat coconut milk, umami-loaded nutritional yeast, and some sneaky spoonfuls of baby food blended until velvety and creamy.
Purely amazing vegan comfort food—that’s what I’m trying to say. You’ll just have to try it to believe it.
Before we start, a few things: If you’re gluten-free, swap out the regular pasta this recipe calls for and use a gluten-free macaroni pasta. Also, I recommend using a hi-speed blender (Like Vitamix or Blendtec) to make the sauce quickly—blend in a Vitamix for up to 3 minutes to add thickness and to warm up the sauce. Alternately, a food processor will blend this sauce to the right consistency. Now let’s get cooking!
(Oh, and afterward, stick around for some extra information on the recipe…and even more vegan comfort food.)
Panera Copycat Recipe: Healthy Vegan Mac and Cheese
- 16 oz medium pasta shells
- 2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 4 oz baby food carrots
- 4 oz baby food sweet potatoes
- 3 Tbsp. nutritional yeast
- 1½ cups coconut milk (full fat)
- 2–3 large cloves garlic
- 1/4 yellow onion, peeled and diced
- ¾ cup raw cashews
- ½ lemon, freshly squeezed
- 1 tsp. salt
- ½ tsp. pepper
Cook pasta according to package directions. Strain and drizzle with olive oil. Return to pasta pot.
In a high-speed blender, combine carrots, sweet potatoes, nutritional yeast, coconut milk, garlic, onion, cashews, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Puree until thickened. Pour over hot pasta. Toss to coat.
If desired, heat on stovetop until piping hot. When it won’t burn your tongue, chow down.
If you’re new to the whole vegan thing, nutritional yeast may sound unappetizing. Trust me, it’s not! It has a nutty, cheesy flavor that’s similar to parmesan cheese, but without the dairy (I dare you to try it on popcorn—you will literally eat the whole bowl!).
Nutritional yeast, by the way, is a deactivated yeast grown on beets, then dried. I know this sounds totally weird, but it’s actually beneficial to your body. Nutritional yeast is rich in vitamin B12, which is critical for production of red blood cells and for producing myelin, the protective insulation surrounding your nerves. Since vegans can’t get vitamin B12 the typical way— through eating meat, fish, and dairy products—they can get vitamin B12 from nutritional yeast. This parmesan-like wonder is also a complete protein, so you’ll get a boost for your brain, body, and muscles. Just one more thing: it’s got that hard-to-explain umami flavor that appeals to just about everyone. If you’re wondering where to find it, you can get nutritional yeast at any grocery store these days. Look for it in the spice aisle, the bulk section, or the natural foods section of your local grocery store.
Another tip: making vegan mac and cheese creamy is all about finely blending the cashews. For best results, use a hi-speed blender, which pulverizes the cashews and activates the fats to create that rich creaminess. Aside from giving the sauce a nice nutty flavor, cashews are full of healthy plant protein, and one cup contains about 40 grams of protein. Protein helps to build and repair muscles and body tissue, and since vegans can’t get it from meat, nuts are a great alternative source. Protein also helps keep you feeling full, so this vegan mac and cheese is perfect when you’ve got a voracious cold-weather appetite. Also, cashews have a lower fat content than other nuts, and most of this fat is heart-healthy mono-unsaturated fat. Eat up!
Full-fat coconut milk also adds creaminess to the sauce. I’ll admit to being confused about the fats in coconut milk. I thought they were long-chain fatty acids, similar to butter. Not so. Coconut milk contains a unique saturated fat with a medium-chain triglyceride formation, and can actually improve your heart health. It’s a great alternative to milk for vegans and those with lactose sensitivities.
If there’s any way to make my meals super healthy without trying, I’m in. I wanted to sneak some nutrients into this dish without cramming in big chunks of veggies. The most efficient way to do this? Baby food. Yes, seriously. A few jars of baby food not only add mac and cheesy color to my vegan version, but they add flavor and nutrition as well. And in keeping this recipe simple and easy, using a jar of baby food carrots and sweet potatoes is way faster than peeling, roasting, and pureeing, don’t you agree? I’ll never say no to a dose of beta-carotene in my vegan mac and cheese!
Want a few extra healthy vegan comfort food recipes? I’ve found five below that you’ll want to serve on a chilly fall night when you crave your favorite comfort food minus the dairy.
Low-Carb Mac and Cheese
Want to try a paleo and vegan mac and cheese? This low-carb option gets its creamy sauce from tahini, and cauliflower becomes the pasta in this healthy dish.
Crock-Pot Vegan Sloppy Joes
Another comfort food recipe, but this one’s made in the slow cooker. Vegan Sloppy Joes stand in for the usual, and this recipe is full of plant-based protein from chickpeas and lots of healthy extras. Look for a gluten-free bun if you want to go low-carb or avoid gluten.
Easy Vegan Lentil Soup
Plant-based and nourishing, Easy Vegan Lentil Soup hits the spot on a chilly night. The soup simmers in a slow cooker, so you can come home to a piping hot dinner. Serve with a side of quinoa and a big green salad.
Quick White Bean Vegan Chili
This Quick White Bean Vegan Chili has loads of flavor and gets on the table quick! Full of healthy ingredients, you’ll feel good about feeding your family this version of comfort. Top with green onions and serve with gluten-free vegan cornbread.