Cookbook Review: The Cheesy Vegan, John Schlimm (2013)

November 27th, 2013 1:14 pm by Kelly Garbato

It’s easy being cheesy!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a free copy of this book for review at my request.)

Vegan cheese! No two words in the English language are able to arouse the excitement, the vociferous debate, the unbridled passion of vegans quite like “vegan cheese.” (Except – maybe – “free pizza”!) Whether arguing about the merits of Daiya vs. Teese or swapping our favorite cheesy sauce recipes, us vegans love to cut the cheese. (Sorry I’m not sorry.)

John Schlimm’s latest cookbook, The Cheesy Vegan, doesn’t disappoint. Filled with recipes for cheesy sammies and cheesy pizzas and cheesy pasta dishes and cheesy soups and sides (and an entire chapter of mac & cheese! ONE WHOLE CHAPTER!), there are also a ton of recipes for homemade cheeses: Cheddar. Mozzarella. Brie. Swiss. Feta. Ricotta. Blue. Jack. Muenster. Wine. American. Cottage. Cream. Parmesan. Nooch cheese. You name it! If it’s cheesy, it’s in here.

Better yet, the cheeses are all pretty easy to make: just blend and chill. I’ve been on the fence about whether I should give Artisan Vegan Cheese a try, since (from what I’ve seen) some of the recipes border on alchemy. But these are actually recipes that homemade cheese novices like myself can pull off with some ease!

While choosing recipes to test for this review, I tried to select dishes that would allow me to experiment with a variety of the homemade cheeses. Six weeks, seven cheeses, and thirteen (plus!) meals later, and I think I’m finally ready to do this!

For what it’s worth, I’ve been allergic to milk my entire life – so I’m not exactly the best judge of whether vegan cheeses taste or even behave like their non-vegan counterparts. Luckily, my husband was more than happy to help with the taste-testing and opinionating. (We’ve both been vegan since the mid-aughts and consider ourselves connoisseurs of vegan cheese.)

With that disclaimer out of the way – let’s get cheesy!

 

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  • Hard/Block Cheeses: Cheddar, Swiss, Brie, and Mozzarella (pages 28, 34, 33, and 31, respectively)
  • Okay, I’ll admit it: I was fairly skeptical that the block cheeses would firm up as promised. I mean, hey!: If vegan cheese making is this easy (and these recipes are nothing if not easy), why aren’t all the vegans doing it?

    The cheddar cheese put all my doubts to rest. Before I could finish scraping it out of the blender, I could plainly see stray bits of the sauce solidifying before my very eyes. This particular cheese requires just an hour in the fridge – after which time it becomes a solid block, easily sliced into squares for grilled cheese or grated into shreds for whatever. In fact, it rather resembles a block of Follow Your Heart’s Vegan Gourmet cheddar cheese, only super-sized!

    (Pro tip: pimientos give the cheddar its funky neon orange color. If you plan on making this recipe with any regularity, try to find the large cans of pimientos and freeze the extras for later use. Our local grocers only carry the small, two ounce jars – enough for just one block of cheese – and, when I realized the cost, I promptly ordered a case of 28 ounce cans on Amazon. Pimientos for life!)

    The secret is in the agar, a thickening agent made from algae which is used to make gelatin-like desserts. Available in both powder and flakes, Schlimm vacillates between the two in his cheese recipes. Since I only had powder on hand – and I really didn’t want to buy any more specialty ingredients than I needed to – I was successfully able to use it in place of the flakes. Generally speaking, you need three times as much flakes than powder to achieve the same effect. For example, the cheddar recipe calls for 5 teaspoons of agar powder vs. 5 tablespoons of agar flakes.

    Elsewhere, the Swiss calls specifically for 1/3 cup agar flakes, but I was able to swap that out for 5 1/3 teaspoons powder and it worked like a charm.

    2013-10-29 - TCV Swiss Cheese - 0006

    The bases can be rather thick, though, so a decent blender is a must. Several times, such as with the Swiss, I had to add a little extra soy milk to get things moving. I’m happy to say that neither the taste nor the texture suffered!

    2013-11-07 - TCV Brie Cheese - 0002

    The Brie cheese was my favorite by far. The base is comprised of tofu as well as cashews, and the tahini gives it a really interesting flavor. According to both the husband and Wikipedia, Brie is a softer cheese. While this Brie is easily cut/sliced/crumbled, it was much closer to the “hard” cheeses – Cheddar and Swiss – in texture than I expected. Not that I’m complaining: it was delicious! But I suspect you could play around with the amount of agar to give it a softer feel.

    In terms of meltability, all of these cheeses performed spectacularly on the stovetop: folded into a tofu scramble (see below), the cheddar melted easily, and I used some leftover Swiss shreds to make a pretty bangin’ batch of macaroni and cheese.

    2013-11-05 - TCV Mac & Swiss - 0001

    They all melted fairly well in the microwave, and I even made an ooey, gooey toasted Brie cheese sandwich on my George Foreman Grill.

    2013-11-11 - TCV Toasted Brie Cheese - 0005

    They only place they failed to perform was in the oven: I tested both the cheddar and Brie cheeses on pizza, with varying results.

    The cheddar shreds softened up a bit, but didn’t melt:

    2013-10-05 - VP Taco Pizza - 0011

    While the Brie cubes became a little oozey:

    2013-11-17 - Bruschetta Pizza with Brie - 0001

    I found that, if I pushed the baked cubes down with my thumb, the liquid insides exploded out of their semi-crusty exteriors. Charmingly weird, but not exactly practical.

    Several of the main dish recipes also gave me a chance to test the cheeses in the oven. The Creamy Seasoned Baked Macaroni, for example, involves mixing the cream and cheddar cheeses with soy milk, seasonings, and uncooked macaroni and baking it at 375F for about an hour. A half hour in, I could clearly see that the cheddar wasn’t transmuting into liquid gold goodness, so I transferred the whole shebang to a skillet and finished cooking it on the stovetop.

    2013-11-04 - TCV Creamy Seasoned Macaroni - 0002

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    A delicious decision, but hella messy.

    While nearly all of the hard cheeses use agar as a thickener, mozzarella is the sole exception. Cornstarch is the thickening agent here, which is why it came as no small surprise that this particular cheese didn’t harden up. At all. After a night in the fridge, it was a bit thicker, but still saucy. Kind of like really thick pudding. I made it specifically for use on a frittata (see below), but I wasn’t able to cut it into cubes, let alone shred it. Instead, I spooned it onto the frittata, where it sat, all blob-like. During baking the cheese didn’t melt, but rather turned a golden-brown.

    In the future, I’d like to try modifying the recipe so it uses agar – it’s pretty tasty, even if the texture leaves something to be desired, and it sure would be handy to be able to make my own mozzarella. (It’s a staple, yo!) In the meantime, it makes a great cheese sauce.

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    It’s almost like a cross between Daiya cheese sauce and gravy.

    The bottom line is this: if you’re a fan of processed vegan cheeses, the recipes found in this book aren’t a surefire substitute – especially if it’s an ooey, gooey pizza you’re after! But they’re super-handy for other kinds of cooking – tofu scramble, pasta, mac and cheese, cheese sauce…basically any kind of stovetop cooking you can think of. And because you can usually make them in under two hours, they’re a lifesaver for those of us who don’t have ready access to specialty food stores.

    If you’re determined to use these cheeses in a baked dish, here’s a potential workaround: melt the cheese into a sauce on the stovetop beforehand. Then you can drizzle it on a pizza, add it to a casserole, or mix it in with pasta. A minor annoyance, but way preferable to non-melty cheese!

     

    2013-10-21 - TCV Ricotta - 0002

  • Ricotta Cheese (page 40)
  • This isn’t the first time I’ve made vegan Ricotta – that would be last Christmas, when I stuffed Isa’s version in baked manicotti – but with Schlimm’s guidance, I’ve definitely developed a new appreciation for the stuff. (It’s amazaballs on baked potato skins. SEE BELOW!) Add it to pasta sauce, mix it with veggies, put it on salad – be creative!

    It’s really as easy as mashing tofu and adding some seasonings. Weirdly enough, this recipe doesn’t use nutritional yeast (I find myself saying this about a number of recipes in TCV!), and I just couldn’t resist the urge to throw some in there. With or without, resident cheese expert Shane marveled at the Ricotta’s similarity to the dairy-based stuff.

     

    2013-11-12 - TCV Feta Cheese - 0001

  • Feta Cheese (page 35)
  • With a mashed tofu base, the Feta’s quite similar to the Ricotta – but with red wine vinegar for an extra oomph! I’m not a huge fan of red wine vinegar, but I still enjoyed this cheese on potato salad (see below).

     

  • Parmesan Cheese (page 39)
  • I’ve been making my own vegan parmesan for several years now; usually I use 1/4 cup of nutritional yeast per 1/2 cup of nuts (walnuts or almonds; either one works!), with 1 teaspoon olive oil and a dash of salt. Schlimm eliminates the olive oil – a big improvement, with no noticeable decline in quality – and offers two different recipes: one for walnuts, another for almonds, with varying amounts of nutritional yeast for each. The walnut parmesan calls for but one tablespoon of nutritional yeast; as a result, the parm has an overpowering walnut taste. The almond parmesan uses more nooch, but still less than I’d normally add. Not bad, but I think I’ll stick with my own versions.

     

    2013-10-04 - TCV Cheesy Scramble - 0011

  • The DIY Cheesy Scramble (page 50) with Cheddar Cheese (page 28)
  • There was a time when I hated tofu. (I know, a vegan who doesn’t like tofu. Revoke her vegan card, stat!) While you won’t find me popping raw cubes any time soon, I do eat my fair share of the stuff. One of my favorite dishes is the tofu scramble, and Schlimm’s Cheesy Scramble is delish. And between the tofu, veggies, and homemade cheddar cheese, it’s pretty much the healthiest comfort food ever.

     

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  • You Gotta Frittata! (page 55) with Mozzarella Cheese (page 31)
  • Frittatas are another great way to enjoy tofu. This one’s stuffed with potatoes, tomatoes, and zucchini, and topped with homemade mozzarella. (Though probably I should have diced the potatoes a bit smaller – all those large chunks made for one unsteady frittata!) I was a bit skeptical, since there isn’t any nutritional yeast in this dish (and what are tofu-based eggs without nooch!?!), but it’s as good as any other vegan frittata I’ve tried.

    The mozzarella was disappointing, on accounta it didn’t a) firm up in the fridge or b) melt in the oven. Next time imma make it into a sauce and drizzle it on top (see above). Or use Daiya. Either way.

     

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  • My Friend Alfredo (page 178) with Parmesan Cheese (page 39)
  • Not my all-time favorite fettuccine (really linguine) alfredo recipe, but pretty darn tasty just the same. It’s like 90% tofu, so super-healthy. I used silken instead of regular tofu as directed, so I reduced the soy milk a bit and also added some cornstarch to thicken things up. A little heavy on the pepper for my taste (if the sauce looks a little yellow, it’s because I added extra nooch to balance out the pepper), but otherwise a winner.

    The featured cheese, by the by, is parmesan – so more nutritional yeast plus walnuts. Like I said, healthy!

     

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  • Lemony Parmesan Linguine (page 187) with Parmesan Cheese (page 39)
  • Waaaaay good. What can I say, I’m a sucker for lemons and breadcrumbs on pasta! Though it’s reminiscent of the Linguine with Breadcrumbs and Lemon from Vegan Italiano, the recipes are quite different: the sauce in this one is a little richer and thicker, almost like a watered down version of alfredo sauce.

    A few notes: I had trouble with lumps in the cornstarch, so I processed the sauce in a blender rather than whisk it by hand. I also decided to heat it up before serving on accounta the soy milk and lemon juice were chilled. This worked a-ok, but beware: the cornstarch will clump up a little bit, so additional whisking is a must.

     

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  • Fancy Schmancy Vichyssoise (page 67) with Ricotta Cheese (page 40)
  • A mix of veggie broth, potatoes, onions, leeks, and tofu ricotta. Served with a slice of sourdough bread and chives to garnish. Lick-your-lips good!

     

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  • The Sailor’s Spinach Dip (page 141)
  • With spinach, cashews, and lime juice for a bit of kick. Tasty, though one recipe makes way more than I could use on crackers alone.

    So, I did what I always do when presented with a dilemma: I put it on a pizza!

    2013-10-23 - Cheddar Spinach Dip Pizza - 0002

    Turns out that The Sailor’s Spinach Dip makes an even better pizza sauce than it does a dip! Shown here with cheddar Daiya and Kalamata olives.

    For what it’s worth, Le Kitty was all up in this dip’s biz during the picture-taking stage.

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    LEMMY!

     

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  • Twice-Baked Ricotta Potato Skins (page 105) with Ricotta Cheese (page 40)
  • Un-freaking-believable. The combination of the tofu ricotta with just a dab of margarine and baked potatoes is just out of this world, and rubbing the potatoes down with salt prior to baking adds that extra special something. Plus they’re really easy to make – not at all the messy hassle I’d feared.

     

    2013-10-26 - TCV Pasta with Ricotta Sauce - 0003

  • Angel Hair Pasta with Ricotta & Herb Sauce (page 180) with Ricotta Cheese (page 40)
  • Yet another thrilling way to hide tofu in your foods! This was really easy to make, and I was able to save some time by skipping the ricotta cheese step. It just goes into the blender anyway, so instead of mashing the tofu into ricotta, I just tossed it (along with the seasonings) right into the blender with the rest of the sauce ingredients. It uses exactly half a batch of ricotta, so it wasn’t difficult to measure out. There’s also cilantro (of which I only used a pinch instead of a teaspoon; ew! tastes like soap!), mint, and frozen corn. Super-tasty, and as the sauce cools, the tofu reassumes the texture of ricotta cheese, kind of chunky and crumbly. Even better the next day!

     

    2013-10-29 - TCV Skillet Macaroni - 0010

  • Parmesan-Cheddar-Swiss Skillet Macaroni (page 196) with Parmesan, Cheddar, and Swiss Cheese (pages 39, 28, and 34, respectively)
  • Twice-baked macaroni with – count ’em – one-two-THREE cheeses! You blend the cheeses together on the stovetop (so they get nice and melty!), then add the pasta, top with breadcrumbs and Parmesan, and transfer to the oven.

    2013-10-29 - TCV Skillet Macaroni - 0009

    The toppings are a nice touch, though I think I prefer this dish straight off the stovetop – I like my macaroni and cheese soupy, yo!

    2013-10-29 - TCV Skillet Macaroni - 0005

    Either way, Shane and I agree: this is the best baked macaroni and cheese dish we’ve tried to date. (And we’ve tried a ton of ’em.)

     

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  • Thyme of Your Life Baked Broccoli (page 92) with Swiss Cheese (page 34)
  • Schlimm gives you a choice of Cheddar, Wine, American, Jack, or Muenster cheeses for this side; being the rebel that I am, I went with Swiss. (Oh no she didn’t.) The result is a decadent – yet not unhealthy – cheesy baked broccoli that even the fussiest of kids will eat.

     

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  • Creamy Seasoned Macaroni (page 195) with Cheddar Cheese (page 28)
  • Wowza! This macaroni and cheese might be one of my all-time favorites, second only to my own over-processed, Daiya & Vegan Gourmet version. The cheddar gives it a traditional mac & cheese feel, while the cream cheese makes it extra-creamy and indulgent. I think it also keeps the cheddar from congealing as it cools.

    The taste is really good, too – the mix of white pepper and nutmeg is rather different, I think – but if you’re using the cheddar cheese from the book, you’re gonna have to cook it on the stovetop: these shreds just don’t melt in the oven.

    2013-11-04 - TCV Creamy Seasoned Macaroni - 0002

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    You can clearly see that the shreds didn’t melt into the soy milk/cream cheese sauce, just mostly remained intact even after a half hour in the oven. At this stage I was supposed to remove the foil and bake for another half hour, but instead I just transferred the whole mess to a skillet and cooked on medium until the cheese was melted and the macaroni, cooked. Worked well enough, though the edges didn’t get crispy like they might have in the oven (boo!). I bet this recipe would be gangbusters with Daiya though.

     

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  • Brie & Tomato Pasta Shells (page 190) with Brie Cheese (page 33)
  • Toss the brie cheese with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil (but less than what’s called for in the recipe – I reduced it from 1 cup to 3/4 cup, and it was still too oily for me!), mix with fresh pasta, and dinner is served! This dish is crazy good fresh, and even better reheated in the microwave – the cheese gets nice and gooey after a few minutes on high. Love it!

     

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  • New Potato & Ricotta Salad (page 79) with Feta Cheese (page 35)
  • The title’s a little misleading here: you can use Ricotta or Feta cheese in this potato salad! I went with the feta variation recommended by Schlimm and doubled the recipe to use up a whole batch of cheese. Most of the sauce is actually homemade feta cheese – like ricotta, it’s made primarily of crumbled tofu – with only two tablespoons of vegan mayo per batch. (Yup, there’s a recipe for mayo, but I used Vegenaise!) Healthiest potato salad I’ve ever made! Really tasty, too – almost like a cold version of the Twice-Baked Ricotta Potato Skins.

     

    2013-09-20 - The Cheesy Vegan - 0008

     

    With the sole exception of the mozzarella cheese, I had excellent luck with the recipes I tried; more than a few have even made their way into regular rotation. For those who like their cookbooks flashy, The Cheesy Vegan is filled with dozens of eye-catching photos, a colorful design, and glossy, heavy paper stock. This is one gorgeous cookbook! Most of recipes are fairly easy to pull off, though the ones that feature multiple cheeses require a little extra planning, particularly if you’d rather make them all yourself.

    As for the ingredients, the most unusual item I ran into was Wondra Instant Flour – which, as it turns out, is readily available in my nearest Price Chopper chain. Additionally, you’ll need plenty of agar for the cheese recipes; I keep hearing that it’s relatively inexpensive at Asian markets but, seeing as the nearest Asian store is a good hour’s drive from me, I ordered a large canister of agar powder online for about $27 a pound. Agar flakes are cheaper, but keep in mind that you’ll need to use three times as much to achieve the same effect as agar powder.

    Some of the recipes call for special tools; for example, the Pizza Mountain Pie requires a pie maker – and a pile of red hot coals! Likewise, a few of the cheeses require specific molds, like ramekin cups – but I was able to easily substitute them with similarly-sized containers.

    When it came time to score this cookbook, I really struggled with the overall rating. While The Cheesy Vegan does have its flaws, it’s still one of my all-time favorites.

    Throughout the “main” recipes, Schlimm treats his cheeses as though they’re interchangeable with the processed, store-bought versions. Yet in my experience, the homemade cheeses don’t really don’t work in baked dishes. They’re awesome for stovetop cooking, but if you’re making pizza or a casserole, the name-brand stuff is where it’s at. Each cheese has its own strengths and weaknesses, and when cooking with them, you’ll need to recognize this and adjust accordingly.

    But, when I think about it, this isn’t all that different from how I use store-bought cheeses. Vegan Gourmet’s mozzarella blocks, while a bit temperamental, are amazing on pizza. When you can coax them into melting, that is! (But don’t freeze them!: They get crumbly and don’t melt as well.) Their cheddar blocks, on the other hand, just crisp up in the oven; I’ve yet to actually see them melt. That said, they make a really awesome cheese sauce (especially when paired with cheddar Daiya) when melted on the stovetop.

    So while not all of Schlimm’s recipes are foolproof, with a little experimentation, patience, and creativity, you can easily make them work for you. Each one fills its own niche in the vegan cheese ecosystem.

    Even if I won’t use them across the board, I also appreciate having the option of making my own cheeses. For those of us on a budget – or who don’t live near a specialty foods store – this is a huge plus. Many of the cheese recipes use some combination of cashews, almonds, and tofu as a base, so they’re pretty healthy, too!

    4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 on Amazon. The Cheesy Vegan is a must-have in my book!

    (This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

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