Once upon a time, the vegan section of the dairy aisle was more or less a joke, stocked with plastic packets of rubbery, oily, starch-filled "cheeze"—a dubious word that appropriately conveyed just how short it fell compared to its melty, gooey, dairy-born parent. But times have changed. Nut cheese has reached new heights, in part because the people making it are increasingly using the same processes as dairy farmers: taking nuts from almonds to cashews to macadamias, blending them with cultures, and aging them to make spreadable cream cheeses, aged hard cheeses and everything in between.
“Until recently, only raw foodists made vegan cheeses—and they did it in very simple ways,” says Miyoko Schinner, author of Artisan Vegan Cheese and owner of the Miyoko’s Kitchen line. “But recently the amount of vegan cheese on the market has skyrocketed.”
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"In the next few years, vegan cheese is going to go mainstream,” says Jay Astafa, the chef at 3 Brothers Vegan Café in Long Island. He's banking on that possibility; soon, his cashew-based mozzarella, based on a recipe he started developing in 2011, will be available to buy retail. This is not your vegan sister-in-law's plasticky cheeze, Astafa promises. It melts, it browns and it bubbles up on the top of your pizza—just as a cow’s-milk cheese would.
Not that the point of nut cheese is simply to mimic its dairy counterpart. According to Michael Schwarz, who owns the Hudson Valley-based vegan cheese purveyor Treeline, the idea is to create a product that's delicious in its own right. “If I go to someone who’s not vegan and say, ‘This is brie,’ they’ll taste it and say, ‘It’s not,’" he says. "So I say, ‘This is our cracked pepper nut cheese.’”
For the skeptical brie-lovers out there, rest assured: No one is asking you to give up dairy cheese altogther (not yet, anyway); accepting nut cheese into your life doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. “There are so many kinds of cheeses in the dairy world," says Michaela Grob, owner of Riverdel, Brooklyn’s new nut cheese shop. "Nut cheese is just another variety."
Make 2016 the year you give nut cheese a chance. Here, Grob’s suggestions for kick-starting your journey:
Treeline Soft Cheeses:
“These are great spreadable cheeses,” says Grob. “They remind me of a Boursin—fresh and delicious on a hearty country bread with sprouts and tomatoes.” treelinecheese.com
Jay Astafa’s Mozzarella:
“Delicious on its own, or with tomatoes, olive oil and basil to form a classic Caprese,” says Grob. jayastafa.com
Miyoko’s Kitchen’s Aged English Smoked Farmhouse:
“A full-bodied cheese that’s just wonderful with a crisp apple and a rustic bread,” according to Grob, it “also pairs well with a peppery fig reduction.” miyokoskitchen.com
“A lovely soft, dare I say, almost Camembert-like cheese,” Grob notes, “with a beautiful, delicate blend of spices in the middle that will excite you.” cheezehound.com
Dr. Cow’s Three-Month Aged Cashew Cheese
“It’s raw, which makes it easy to digest,” Grob says. “With a cheese like this, a simple cracker is all you need; it speaks for itself.” dr-cow.com
While not technically nut cheese, these are made with fermented tofu and coconut oil for a very stable sliced cheese with great flavor that is widely available in supermarkets. “Melt it on a burger, or use it as the main attraction in a classic grilled cheese sandwich,” Grob says. fieldroast.com
“This is the cheese that inspired Riverdel's launch,” Grob says. “This is a delicate, mild, semi-soft cheese with a nod to a classic goat cheese. It plays well with dairy cheeses and is a nice way for beginners to get into nut-based cheeses.” riverdelcheese.com