Cracked Pepper Cheese: Dairy-Free

Makes one 400 gram (14 oz) block
(Vegan; no gluten, dairy or eggs)

Yes, dairy-free cheese. The texture is believable and it grates well. It’s most notable feature is how it convincingly melts over strong or direct heat…

Makers of finely crafted heritage cheese need not be frightened into retirement. But for people who must avoid dairy products, this is a welcome alternative and far cheaper than its health store equivalents. Keeps well refrigerated for one week or more and can be frozen. It takes a fairly high heat to melt it. I fan grilled oiled and seasoned eggplant slices at 180ºC (this is similar to 200° Bake – or 400°F) for about 15 minutes until soft and then topped them with slices of Vegan Cheese. In a few minutes this oozed and bubbled with unguent reward.

You could replace the soy milk with oat milk, but whatever your choice full fat milk is needed for flavour and texture (for options see below). However you still need to include soy in the form of miso* for its umami (one of the 5 core tastes specifically registered by your taste buds: a savoury flavour associated with the amino acid glutamate, whether naturally in food or from artificial forms such as MSG). Miso made from chickpeas rather than soybeans is available in North America, which tends to lead our health trends and indicate what we will soon see here.

As a naturally fermented food with a live culture (similar in premise to good yoghurt) miso can also be a digestive aid. Umami – high in aged cheese such as parmesan – is also found in the yeast flakes the recipe uses. You have about 8,000 receptors for taste, mainly around the tongue. If you try to eat for so called health alone without honouring them, they will thwart you.

½ cup raw cashews
¼ cup yeast flakes*
1 teaspoon onion powder*
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
about 30 twists of freshly ground black pepper – use a coarse grind
   ***
1½ cups soy milk
3½ Tbsp agar* granules or powder (finely ground; not flakes)
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil*
   ***
3 Tbsp light or golden miso*
1 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Finely grind cashews in a food processor (do not turn into a paste). Add yeast flakes, onion powder, salt, garlic powder and pepper. Whiz again to combine.

Combine the soy milk, agar and oil in a small to medium saucepan. Bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to low. Simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. With the food processor running, gradually pour the milk mixture through the feed tube into the cashew mixture. Blend for 2 minutes until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Blend in miso and lemon juice (adding miso after cooking helps retain its live culture).

Pour into a square container about 15 cm across. Any shape of container can be used but a square will yield rectangular slices later. Pat mixture down quickly for an even texture and smooth top (mixture will set very fast). Chill until cold and firm – about 4 hours.

Slice or grate for use in salads, sandwiches, pasta or baked dishes. Cheese will melt under a grill or on top of food such as pizza in an oven with high heat (after cooking press down with a metal spatula to enhance the melted appearance). But it usually does not get hot enough to melt if layered in a dish such as lasagne. Or melt over direct heat: slice cheese and place in a lightly oiled cast iron fry pan over low-medium heat until at least one side is browned (browning is necessary for a cheesy taste and texture), turn carefully and heat other side. The cheese will be soft but still hold its shape – similar to haloumi – or heat further to get it oozing. Remove and place on toast, pasta or veg.

Variations:

• The soy milk could be replaced with oat milk, but regarding other options, high fat milk is needed for flavour and texture. If rice milk is your only dietary option try using less and doubling the oil to ½ cup. However you still need the umami (savoury) flavour that the (soy) miso provides. As a naturally fermented or cultured food miso can also be a digestive aid.

• Experiment by replacing the cracked pepper with cumin seeds or caraway seeds: toast briefly in the saucepan before adding the milk. If you want a more yellow colour to your cheese try adding ½ tsp of turmeric to the milk when cooking.

Shopping and Preparation Tips*

• Agar: discovered by the Japanese, “kanten” is mostly fibre, sold as white powder or flakes made from boiling red seaweed (from health stores and many supermarkets). When dissolved in hot liquid it becomes gelatinous and will thicken or firm the mixture with little effect on colour or flavour – much like gelatine. 1 tsp powder sets 1 cup liquid.

• Miso: this ancient soybean and rice paste looks and tastes something like vegemite. Use it as a spread, or flavouring to stock, soup or sauce. There are many varieties from pale and delicate to dark and gutsy. As a lengthily fermented food, miso can help increase good guy bacteria in the gut and keep the pathogen population down. To gain this benefit, add miso to hot but not boiling liquid, such as at the end of the cooking. Mixing it with a little hot liquid before adding it to the pot will prevent lumps. A good made in NZ brand from local organic soybeans is Urban Hippie (from health stores).

• Olive Oil: extra virgin olive oil is achieved by using cold mechanical pressure rather than the high heat and chemical solvents typical to most supermarket oils. These practices damage oils and the people who eat them. For information on which fats to choose for which purpose and why, see my article on the TIPS page: The Fats of Life.

• Onion powder: this and garlic powder is available in most supermarkets in the herb and spice section. If only onion salt is available increase to 2 teaspoons and decrease salt to ½ teaspoon.

• Yeast, flaky savoury: this is the yeast used to make Marmite and similar spreads; not the yeast used for bread making. It looks like pale brown chocolate flakes – but there the similarity ends. High in protein, B vitamins, hard-to-obtain chromium and other minerals. High in one of the 5 core tastes: umami, meaning savoury. Imparts a nutty, cheesy flavour. Buy from health stores and some supermarkets.

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