Dina Cheney has just arrived home from Whole Foods with Kite Hill's almond ricotta when I call her. "Do you ever buy that?" she asks. "I think it is phenomenal." It's a very on-brand entrance to a conversation about her latest cookbook, The New Milks: 100-Plus Dairy-Free Recipes for Making and Cooking with Soy, Nut, Seed, Grain, and Coconut Milks (out now via Simon & Schuster). Cheney's been writing cookbooks for years, but this one's personal. After finding out she was lactose intolerant a few years ago, she set about putting her well-honed recipe development skills to work creating the best possible plant-based milks she could—all with far fewer ingredients than the boxed stuff at the store. The cookbook author, who was trained at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE)–wrote this book for anyone who's interested in cutting back on dairy, whether for health, diet or environmental reasons. (It's not strictly vegan.) There are "fried" chicken and rosemary popovers, smoothies and teas, and a host of satisfying and delicious desserts. We talked about the book's inspiration and why everyone from schools to restaurants should be a little more lactose-intolerance tolerant.
F&W: What was the road that led you to writing cookbooks?
Well, if you go really far back, I wanted to be a food writer since high school—since maybe age 14, and I'm 38. I did creative writing and art, so to me it was a way to integrate those two sides. And I just love it; it's very sensual and very creative.
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I studied anthropology and English literature as an undergrad but then went to cooking school to really learn the cooking fundamentals. I started doing private cooking classes all over the New York area and doing chocolate tastings for corporations, and it led to my first book, Tasting Club, about tasting parties. I started writing for small publications and kept building up to national ones. Now I've written several books. This particular book was inspired by the fact about two and a half years ago I realized I was lactose intolerant. This is a personal book because it was my concept and it s authentic to how I live.
I eat Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, but for 95 percent of my diet I avoid dairy. That's how I got into dairy free. Then I started making and playing around with plant-based milks because I develop recipes. I realized that they're so easy to make and so fun to make and there are so many different varieties beyond what you get the store. And that's how the book came about.
F&W: Why do you think right now is the time to be talking about non-dairy milks?
Oh my god, for about a million reasons. This is a big topic for many, many reasons. The first one is that—and this is a statistic that I've been trying to promote and get the word out about—according to the NIH, 65 percent of people older than two to three years of age are lactose intolerant. It's a humongous percentage of people. The statistic speaks for itself, and I think people don't realize they have a sensitivity to lactose. They might feel bloated; they might have extra weight; their stomachs might get upset and they don't realize why. I almost wonder if a lot of people are cutting out gluten and other things in their diet when really the culprit is dairy.
I want people to realize that and I want I want schools to offer dairy alternatives—also restaurants, hotels. I want this to be more widespread. There's lactose intolerant, but there are also people who are vegan, people who follow the paleo diet—and that diet is pretty widespread—and people who are Kosher. A lot of my relatives are are kosher, and when they have meat meals they need a dairy-free alternative. And obviously sustainability is also an issue. This is harder to find statistics on, but plant-based milk is generally considered more sustainable than dairy milk, so if you care about the environment. The other thing, going back to health, is that plant-based milk ha no cholesterol, no hormones, and a lot less sugar than cow's milks—so it's great for people who are mindful of those factors.
Even if you don't have any of these issues, even if you don't care about the environment or you don't follow a special diet or you're not health oriented, if you love to try new things and you want to broaden your repertoire—plant-based milks are delicious, varied, novel, and exciting. Depending on what you're making, you could make mung bean milk.
The other thing is that people are so obsessed now with knowing exactly what's in what they're eating and drinking; if you make nut milk at home, you have complete control. If you want, you can use just organic cashews and water. You don't have to worry about carrageenan or additives. You can experiment with the consistency: Do you want to make it creamy, yes or no? I love that aspect of it, too.
F&W: Totally. So what is your go-to milk to make or buy?
I try I make my own milk probably twice a week and, to be honest, I'm always making different ones because I just love them all. I would say I most frequently make cashew milk. I make pecan and walnut milk a lot, too, and if I feel like I want to spend a half-hour getting an arm workout, I'll make coconut milk—that takes the most time and effort. I do buy these products sometimes, too. I always like to keep some in my pantry ready-made, just because they have such a long shelf life.
F&W: What's your advice for someone who's trying to pick a milk out of the non-dairy aisle at Whole Foods?
I prefer the brands that have the fewest ingredients, so I would say read their ingredient lists. If someone is concerned about carrageenan, which has been associated with stomach upset and G.I. problems, make sure it doesn't have any. This is very hard to discern when you're looking at the packaging. At home, I use a much higher ratio of the solid to water so that I get more nutrition, richer flavor, and a thicker cream.
In terms of source material, I would encourage people to try every kind. Everything is best in moderation. I really don't think people should worry about soy milk; it doesn't really have estrogen, but a compound similar to estrogen. It's the kind of thing where it's good to vary the brands and the base.
F&W: Did you have a theme in mind when creating the recipes for the book?
This was actually the hardest book I think I've ever written, in part because there are so many reasons that people opt for a dairy-free milk, right? lot of people who go for it are vegan, but then there are plenty of people who eat meat but just don't want the lactose. It was tricky.
My number one thing as I get older is that I'm much more wellness-oriented. The recipes I develop now are mostly whole grain; I really try to avoid refined grains and refined sugars, so I think wellness was my number one theme when figuring out the recipes. There are a few that have white sugar, but I would say 90 percent of the recipes are very clean.
If you're going for dairy-free milk, most people would want nourishing, wholesome recipes, so that was my number one.
Dina Cheney's Soy Matcha Milk Recipe:
Makes about 1 cup
¼ cup boiling water
1 teaspoon bright-green matcha powder
¾ cup plain unsweetened non-dairy milk, especially soy milk, chilled
1 tablespoon agave nectar
¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together the boiling water and the matcha, and pour into a small fine strainer set over a medium mug (stir the inside contents of the strainer and scrape the underside to glean all of the liquid). Add the remaining ingredients, whisk well, and chill. Serve cold.