Book Review: Smile and Say “Un-Cheese!”
Smile and Say “Un-Cheese!”
How many times have you heard the declaration, “But I could never give up cheese!” Perhaps, once upon a time, you said it yourself. Or maybe you still do.
Every vegan has gone through the disappointing phase of trying the various vegan cheeses at the supermarket—most of which, let’s face it, taste like a combination of crayon and sponge. To be fair, these days, those who don’t mind paying the exorbitant shipping costs can purchase imported vegan cheeses that taste convincingly delicious—Lee, our legal director, always points to Redwood’s Cheezly as a fine example. Leave it to England —the cradle of veganism—to invent it. But there’s a much less expensive, and arguably more impressive solution: Make it yourself. That’s where Jo Stepaniak comes in. If you’re a lover of all things cheesy, you must own Stepaniak’s Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook.
There’s a special place in my heart for Jo Stepaniak’s cookbooks. When I first became vegan, the only vegan cookbook I found at my local bookstore was Stepaniak’s Vegan Vittles—an unassuming collection of “down home” (read: Southern) recipes that have delighted and satisfied for the past nine years and counting. My second cookbook was The Uncheese Cookbook, and although I long ago fell out of love with the idea of cheese, this cookbook remains a steadfast friend. In 2003, Stepaniak released the 10 th Anniversary Edition—with a few more recipes and updated information.
I have lived my whole life in the South. To say I have eaten a lot of macaroni and cheese in my lifetime is overtly redundant. Jo Stepaniak knows the intricacies of Southern cuisine, obviously, because The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook contains the recipes for both “Traditional Macaroni and Cheez” as well as “Baked Macaroni and Cheez.” I am partial to the baked version, as my mother refused to let me eat things that came from boxes when I was growing up. But rest assured: While the distinctive flavors and textures of childhood are there, Stepaniak takes us to a whole new, nuanced level. A pinch of cayenne pepper in the traditional version that gives the dish a slight, fiery zest; the baked version has white wine and cashew butter, and while their complimentary nature might not be immediately apparent, go ahead, taste the final product. It’ll knock your fair-trade organic cotton socks off.
One of my favorite fast and easy recipes, the “Gee Whiz Spread,” is a mock-up of a popular grocery product that’s completely unfit for human consumption. Stepaniak’s rendition possesses magical qualities that inspire one to smear it on anything edible. You can spread “Gee Whiz” on vegan burgers, use it as a dip for French fries (highly recommended), or slather it between two slices of toasted bread; add some tomato and spinach and you’re eating gourmet. You won’t believe that it only has one gram of fat per serving and contains lots of protein and calcium (all of the recipes have the nutritional information included—and it’s never scary, unlike the kind of cheese that subjugates cows and other animals). And you don’t have to pretend that “Gee Whiz” is a surrogate for “Gooey Grilled Cheez”—because there’s a recipe for that, too.
Of course my family had a fondue set that we used three times in the 70s; then it spent the rest of its life stuck behind the crockpot we never used either. The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook contains nine different fondue recipes—from “Swiss” and “Classic” all the way to a “Pizza Fondue.” Or try the “South of the Border” recipe. With basil, paprika, and peppery overtones, it’s outstanding and easy to make. There’s something fun about fondue: you and your friends or family sitting around a table taking turns dipping vegetables and breads into a pot of cheez. Fondue knows how to liven up a late-night game of Scrabble.
I am over the moon for frittata, and Stepaniak’s recipe finds the perfect balance of custardy creaminess balanced with savory potatoes, onions and peppers. I like frittata for a light dinner-for-breakfast theme, served with toast and jam, but really this frittata is perfect any time. Frittata is a great way to impress unbelievers, too (“What!? This is vegan!?,” they’ll say).
To Brie or Not to Brie
There’s a segment of the cookbook I’ve never tried, but I am exceedingly curious: a whole section devoted to making “Block Uncheez” such as vegan brie, Swiss, “Gooda,” Colby, “Buffalo Mostarella,” and several others. I am curious, but not sure what I would do with the final product; I don’t see myself as an Uncheese and crackers kind of person. The finished Mostarella reportedly melts, and can be used as a pizza topping. (I almost can’t imagine a vegan meltable cheese this side of the Atlantic, after all the money I have spent on cheese’s that refuses to melt even after I have had the foresight to put my oven on self-clean mode, so that it gets hot enough to bake pottery.)
Stepaniak offers recipes for quiches, pizzas, nacho cheez dips and desserts—like “Lemon Teasecake,” “Peanut Butter Fudge Pie” and “Easy Cheezy Danish.” There’s a lifetime’s worth of temptation contained on these pages.
The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook contains the home chef’s trifecta: clear instructions, easy-to-find ingredients, and delicious results. There’s an index, and, additionally, an allergen-free index with recipes listed according to their suitability for food allergy sufferers. Indeed, this cookbook is filled with many useful details: recommendations for variations on the recipe, suggestions for how to serve the particular recipe—what kind of vegetable is best for dipping into which fondue, for instance— and an informative introduction by vegan nutritionist Vesanto Melina. Stepaniak has a keen eye for precision.
I have skirted around the million dollar question: Do the recipes taste exactly like “the real thing”? The short answer is yes and no—and that’s the highest compliment I can offer. I am convinced that much of what we love and remember about dairy cheese has so much to do with tradition, comfort, the memories a certain meal evokes. Many, if not most, of the recipes have improved so much upon their dairy counterparts so as to shame them—nutritionally, ethically, flavor- and texture-wise.
When it’s vegan, scrumptious and found on the pages of Joanne Stepaniak’s timeless masterpiece, you can’t go wrong. This is the kind of comfort food that makes you glad to be alive.