Nuts for Cheese: Homemade, Non-Dairy Cheese Alternatives

By / Photography By Cayla Zahoran | December 01, 2013
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The decision to become a vegan is one of the healthiest diet choices I’ve ever made. That being said, as a one-time lover of all things cheese, it hasn’t always been easy. In my quest to live a sustainable, healthy lifestyle (and to be kind to animals), the most difficult task has been finding a natural, soy-free alternative to cheese. Being that I’m somewhat addicted to Italian food, this discovery was imperative. Much to my delight, I have found the answer: the cashew!

In their raw form, cashews can be blended to form several kinds of cheese and cream, both staples in several of my favorite Italian recipes. Both hard and soft cheeses can be made from cashews; my favorites are ricotta cheese made from soaked cashews, as well as cashew cream. I asked Hilary Zozula, executive chef at Eden, a Shadyside restaurant offering raw, vegan, and gluten-free, local food options, for her tips on cooking non-dairy alternatives. “In order to make the nut cheese the best consistency when making a hard cheese from cashews, grind up the nuts into a flour while dry,” she explains. Zozula also says that of all the nuts she has tried making cheese with, cashews are definitely superior. Because of their high-fat content, cashews are most able to emulate a cheese-like consistency.

To make Vegan Ricotta Cheese, you’ll need the following ingredients:

  • 2 cups raw cashews
  • Olive oil, to taste
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of red wine vinegar

First, soak the cashews in water and keep in the refrigerator overnight. Once the cashews have soaked for the appropriate amount of time (at least one hour; no longer than 24 hours), drain them, and place in a food processor or high-speed blender, along with the remaining ingredients. Process or purée until smooth — it will look like ricotta cheese! If you’re having trouble achieving the right consistency, add water, approximately one tablespoon at a time. The cheese should not be runny, rather, it should be thick and creamy. When making manicotti, this cashew ricotta tastes great in place of the dairy equivalent. Manicotti is very simple: you’ll need manicotti shells, the tomato sauce of your choice, and cashew ricotta. Once the manicotti shells have cooked, add the ricotta to the shells, and seal the shells over the cheese. Line a baking dish with enough sauce to cover the bottom, and place the filled manicotti shells into the dish. Cover with sauce and place in the oven at 350°F for 25-30 minutes. Veggies, such as spinach or kale, make a tasty addition to the stuffing. 

I was also extremely excited to try penne alla vodka sauce with a vegan dairy substitute — cashew cream. Similar to the cashew ricotta, the recipe starts with soaking approximately ½ cup of cashews in the refrigerator overnight. Drain and place the soaked cashews in a high-speed blender along with enough water to just cover the top. Purée for one to two minutes until creamy. I also suggest straining before using for a smoother, cream-like texture. You can use this cream in place of dairy cream in any recipe, and your taste buds will be none-the-wiser.

Becoming vegan is a big step toward leading a more sustainable and healthy lifestyle. While it is a choice that is life-altering in many ways, it doesn’t necessarily mean having to sacrifice one’s enjoyment of food. Discovering that I have the ability to make my own dairy- and soy-free cheese alternative made the decision that much better. All of the ingredients listed above can be found at the East End Food Co-op, along with several pre-made vegan cheeses. I spoke with Fran Bertonaschi, perishable foods buyer at EEFC, who provided a run-down of the vegan cheeses the store has to offer. Before buying, it is important to “check labels closely!” he says. “Some of the cheeses are vegan, and some are not.”

The soy-based cheese brands sold at the Co-op are Lisanatti, Go Veggie, Vegan Gourmet, and the classic, Tofutti. If you’re like me and avoid soy-based products, cheese alternatives such as Daiya, Tree Line, and Teese are all soy-free. These cheeses come in a variety of styles, including shreds, spreads, slices, and chunks. There are also several cookbooks available that specialize in vegan cheese. A favorite of mine is “Artisan Vegan Cheese” by Miyoko Schinner.

The important thing to remember is this: transitioning to a dairy-free diet is a process. Start small, substituting here and there. I promise — with recipes like these, you won’t have to sacrifice taste to live more sustainably.

East End Food Co-op, 7516 Meade St., Point Breeze. 412.242.3598.

Eden, 735 Copeland St., Shadyside. 412.802.7070.

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