I’m over winter, but winter definitely isn’t over. Although I really can’t complain about the balmy temps here in Denmark, it’s dark and damp and I would probably pay a lot of money to see the sun right about now. And my heart does go out to all my family and friends freezing their tooshies off stateside. Yikes! I’m here to help. Or at least, this recipe is here to help.
Like most kids, I ate a lot of macaroni and cheese growing up, the kind that came in a blue box with the magical, neon orange flavour powder. Sometimes my mom would toss in a few slices of bell peppers and cocktail wieners and my brother and I felt like kings. Kings! Those were the days. In fear of falling short of that level of awesomeness, I haven’t actually attempted to make mac ‘n’ cheese on my own past the days of high school. Until recently this winter, a gnawing hunger for warmth, comfort and nostalgia took hold and just wouldn’t let go. If you’re anything like me (a human) you’ll love tucking into this tasty meal every week until spring hits.
So, what makes this mac ‘n’ tease a tease? It’s vegan! Not one speck of cheese or milk or butter or cream in sight. Nope. Instead the delectable sauce is a winning combination of roasted butternut squash and garlic, creamy butter beans, and cheesy nutritional yeast. Although not exactly like the cheese sauce of yore, it is still completely smooth and creamy, rich, unctuous, and deeply satisfying when combined with fat noodles and the most amazing non-breadcrumb-topping made out of sunflower seeds. That’s right.
Nutritional Yeast: A Cheesy Tease
Although the name is slightly unappealing, nutritional yeast is a delicious and versatile seasoning to have in your pantry. Made from a single-celled organism called, Saccharomyces Cerevisiae, the yeast is grown on cane or beet molasses, fermented, then deactivated with heat to stop the growing process. The yeast is sold both as flakes and powder (use half the amount of powder if a recipe calls for flakes). The natural colour of nutritional yeast is vibrantly golden. The flavour is often described as cheesy, which makes it a perfect substitute for dairy products in dressing and sauces. I sprinkle nutritional yeast on popcorn, salads, sandwiches, soups, blend a little into hummus and other savory dips. Because of its high nutritional content, many people treat nutritional yeast as a food supplement.
First and foremost, nutritional yeast is an excellent source of B-vitamins, and in many cases B-12 (though not all brands, read the label to make sure). Our bodies need B-vitamins to convert food into energy, keep stress at bay, alleviate insomnia, nervousness, fatigue, PMS, and mood swings (so, kind of important). Nutritional yeast also contains high amounts of protein with 4 grams per tablespoon, and contains 18 amino acids. It is a good source of dietary fiber, folic acid, selenium, and zinc. It is gluten-free and vegan.
In North America nutritional yeast is available at natural grocers and bulk food stores. In the UK, it is sold under the brand name Engevita; in Australia, it is called savory yeast flakes; in Scandinavia it is sold as yeast flakes or B-yeast / B-gær (due to the high B-vitamin content). Among cool kids, nutritional yeast is referred to simply as nooch. Drop that bomb at your next vegan potluck for major street cred. It should also be noted that nutritional yeast is not the same as brewer’s yeast, dry active yeast or baking yeast. Do not use these as a substitute for nutritional yeast in any recipe. It will be gross.
If you suffer from Candida or suspect that you have yeast issues, not to worry. Nutritional yeast is totally safe and will not infect you or exacerbate yeast conditions. It should be avoided however by those that are allergic to yeast and yeast products, like bread products, grapes and beer.
The shape of pasta you use for this really matters. I chose a large, deeply ridged, tubular pasta that said “macaroni” on the package, but it’s much closer to rigatoni if you ask me. Rigatoni, penne, classic macaroni, ziti, or even conchiglie (shells) would work here, as the ultimate goal is to get as much sauce in and around each noodle as humanly possible. In fact, I guarantee when you make the sauce you’ll be questioning my recipe amounts – there is a lot of it, people. But once you pour it over the cooked pasta and start stirring, it magically disappears into the nooks and crannies only reappear later in your mouth, like a rich and savoury flavour explosion from heaven. Tubes work best for obvious reasons, but I’ll let you decide how you want your sauce delivered. And I hope that it goes without saying that you should make an effort to find the most high-vibe pasta you can. There are so many on the market these days, even at regular grocery stores, so no excuses! No white pasta!
And yes, there is topping. In keeping with the gluten-free theme I went with a Sunflower Crumble Topping that I am quite chuffed about. It’s savoury, crunchy, and totally takes this meal to the next level – better than breadcrumbs I tell ya! And it’s delicious not only on mac ‘n’ cheese, but garnishing avocado toast, grain salads, and roast veggies. You may have a little extra of the topping, but my casserole dish is relatively deep and narrow compared to most, and I wanted to make sure you had plenty to cover the top of yours. If you want to save time and skip steps, the pasta and sauce alone is super delish all on its own. But. The topping.
After cooking up this meal, I looked around the kitchen at the dish carnage and shrugged my shoulders. You know why? So worth it. Yes, you will use pretty much every cooking element and piece of equipment you own, but make it a Sunday project, invite some buds over and have them clean up. You did cook them a totally awesome meal after all, it’s the least they can do.
1 large butternut squash (mine was 1.25kg / 2.75 pounds)
4 cloves garlic
1 Tbsp. coconut oil
1 ½ cups / 250g cooked butter beans (about 1 can)
¾ cup / 45g nutritional yeast flakes
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 ½ tsp. fine grain sea salt
2 tsp. paprika
2 Tbsp cold-pressed olive oil
1 tsp. apple cider vinegar
2 – 3 cups / 500 – 750ml plant-based milk, as needed (I used rice milk)
4 cups / 340g whole grain gluten-free macaroni (or your favourite pasta)
Sunflower Crumble Topping
1 cup / 130g sunflower seeds
1 Tbsp. coconut oil
2 Tbsp. nutritional yeast flakes
½ tsp. fine grain sea salt
¼ tsp. garlic powder
¼ tsp. ground paprika
parsley for garnish, if desired
1. Preheat oven to 400°F/200°C. Peel and cube butternut squash, peel the garlic cloves, and place everything on a baking sheet with the coconut oil. Place in the oven to melt coconut oil, remove from oven and toss to coat, then set them back in the oven to cook, about 15-20 minutes. The butternut should be slightly blistered and tender.
2. While the squash is roasting, make the Sunflower Crumble Topping. In a large dry skillet over medium heat, toast the sunflower seeds, tossing often so that they do not burn, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and transfer the seeds to a large plate to cool. Place them in a food processor with the remaining topping ingredients and pulse several times to combine and chop up some of the seeds. Season to taste. Set aside.
3. Transfer the roasted squash and garlic it to a blender with all ingredients except for the milk. With the motor running, add the milk until the desired consistency is reached: you are looking for a very thick, yet pourable sauce. Add milk until the blend is smooth, creamy and just the right consistency.
4. Set a pot of water on to boil with plenty of salt. Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, and return to the pot, drizzle with a little olive oil, toss to coat, and keep the lid on to retain the heat.
5. Pour sauce over the pasta in increments and keep stirring so that it folds into all of the nooks and crannies. You should be able to use up all of the sauce, but if you have any leftovers serve them with the finished dish or store in the fridge for up to 3 days.
6. Turn down the oven temperature to 325°F/160°C. Transfer the pasta to a casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle the top generously with the Sunflower Crumble Topping. Bake until warmed through and golden on top, about 20 minutes. Garnish with chopped parsley, if desired. Serve hot.