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I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t like macaroni and cheese. Whenever my Sweetie needs some comfort, I make him a big pot of creamy, cheesy goodness and it cheers him right up. While I’m sure many of us grew up with the kind that came in the little blue boxes, the best mac and cheese is the one you make yourself at home. If you have ever tried to make your own mac and cheese and found that it didn’t live up to the processed kind, don’t give up hope.

You don’t need the boxes with the powdered cheese, the bricks of processed fake cheese, or any dairy products at all to make the creamiest, cheesiest, most decadent vegan macaroni and cheese you ever tasted. All you need are a few tips and tricks and in no time, you’ll be creating mac and cheese that’s so amazing, you’ll wonder how you ever ate any other kind.

1. Perfect Pasta…uh, Macaronihealthy mac and cheese

The first part to making a great mac and cheese is the macaroni; literally, it comes first in the name. You can use any shape of noodle your heart desires. Some popular shapes are fusilli, bowties, cavatelli, conchiglie or “shells” and rotelli or “wagon wheels.” Elbow macaroni is the traditional choice but I prefer using penne rigate. The tubes and the lines on the tubes hold on to more cheese, and isn’t that the whole point of this dish?

Boil the macaroni in a lot of water, about 4 quarts for one pound of pasta. Do not try to boil a pound of pasta in a small pot; it will be sticky. Bring the water to a rapid boil over high heat in a large pot; add a tablespoon or two of salt to the water and then drop in the pasta. Use a long spoon or tongs to swirl the pasta around to separate it. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 7 minutes or so.

Do NOT overcook the pasta. It should have a bite to it so your dish has texture but also, the pasta will cook further in the cheese sauce. If you are planning to bake your mac and cheese, it will cook even more so take that into consideration. Try cooking the pasta two minutes LESS than the package directs. When you drain the pasta, leave a bit of the cooking water with the noodles so they don’t dry out. Let the pasta sit while you prepare the roux.

2. To Roux or Not To RouxEasy Mac and Not-Cheese

Traditionally, the cheese sauce begins with a roux which is a combination of fat and flour which serves to thicken the sauce. To make a simple roux, melt some vegan butter in the saucepan and then add an equal amount of flour and whisk to combine. Let the roux cook, stirring occasionally, for about 2-3 minutes, until it darkens in color a bit. You want to let it cook so you won’t taste raw flour. Some recipes, however, do not begin with a roux.

For instance, when I make a cheese sauce with raw cashews and/or pumpkin puree, it’s thick enough that I don’t need to start with a roux (see next step). On the other hand, when the sauce I’m making is made of just non-dairy milk and vegan cheese, I want the thickening properties of the roux.

3. Sometimes You Feel Like a Nut12 Prize-Worthy Mac and Cheese Dishes That are Totally Vegan

If you are using raw cashews or other nuts for your mac and cheese, you want to process them before adding the milk. Here is how I do it: In a food processor, combine the cashews and hot water. Pulse a few times to get it started and then process until completely smooth. Add any seasonings you are using such as lemon, spices, mustard, etc. Process until everything is completely combined and smooth. Transfer the cashew mix to a medium saucepan and heat over medium heat. Melt in the vegan butter and then continue on with the sauce adding any milk, cheese or pumpkin/squash puree in your recipe.

4. Warm MilkEasy Macaroni and Veggies

The next step to the sauce is the milk. Warm the milk in a pot before adding it to the roux or your cashew mix. Any unsweetened, non-dairy milk works fine for the sauce but of course, the richer the milk, the creamier the sauce will be. Good choices are almond milk, soy milk, cashew milk and coconut milk. Add the milk slowly while whisking and continue whisking until the sauce (which is now a Béchamel sauce) thickens to the consistency of heavy cream, about 3-4 minutes.

5. The Big Cheese DecisionPotato and Zucchini Mac and Cheese

Now we are up to the cheese part of our Mac and Cheese and the question is which vegan cheese to use. There are a lot of options. An oldie but goodie idea is to add nutritional yeast. It adds a salty, cheesy flavor. A second option is you can melt a few cups of store-bought vegan cheese into the thickened milk. If you are ambitious, a third option is to make your own vegan cheese. Then you have the option of not using cheese at all. A raw cashew blend with added flavors may be cheesy enough for you. Pumpkin, butternut squash , and cauliflower purees make creamy, flavorful sauces that are super-healthy and low in calories.

Personally, I have made pumpkin mac and cheese and it’s delicious but for the most decadent mac and cheese, I want a combination of vegan cheddar, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses. I turn the heat of my Béchamel to low and slowly mix the cheeses into it, stirring until all the cheese has melted and the sauce is creamy. Make more cheese sauce than you think you need. It may look like too much but the some of the sauce will be absorbed into the pasta and if you are baking the dish, it’s even more important to have added moisture.

6. Spice It UpOne Pan Thai Yellow Curry Macaroni 4

Of course you want to add salt and pepper to your cheese sauce. I always add half a teaspoon of paprika and a tablespoon of mustard, either spicy brown or Dijon, to give the sauce an added kick of flavor. If you aren’t using vegan cheddar and want your cheese sauce to have that bright yellow color, add half a teaspoon of turmeric. You’ll get the color and all the antioxidants. Add whatever spices you like such as garlic or chili powder to give it extra flavor. Taste and adjust the seasonings as you desire. Then remove the cheese sauce from the heat.

7. Putting It All TogetherSeitan Sausage With Mac and Smokey Cheddar Cheese

Return the drained pasta back to the big pot you boiled it in and pour your decadent cheese sauce over it. Toss to coat all the pasta evenly. Serve while warm. If you have to reheat the mac and cheese, you might need to add a splash of milk to it to make it creamy again.

If you want to make Baked Macaroni and Cheese, transfer the mac and cheese to a greased casserole dish, cover it with a sheet of foil and bake it at 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes or until you see the cheese bubbling when you carefully (it’s steamy hot!) lift up the foil. Remove the foil, sprinkle the top with breadcrumbs and even more cheese as well as a few pats of vegan butter. Bake it uncovered for another 15 minutes or stick it under the broiler for a few minutes until the top is golden and crispy.

8. Customize It With Add-InsTaco Mac and Cheese

You wouldn’t think you would have to do anything else to make your already decadent mac and cheese any better but consider customizing your dish with some of your other favorite foods.  Consider greening it up with broccoli, kale, asparagus or peas. Caramelized onions will add sweetness and richness while sauteed mushrooms can add an earthy goodness. Turn your mac and cheese into a Southwestern treat with black beans, corn and salsa. Add vegan bacon for a crunchy texture and smoky taste. The possibilities are endless. Tell us your favorite mac and cheese add-ins in the comment section.

Follow these steps and you’ll see how easy it is to make decadent mac and cheese at home. Try any of these 5 Killer Vegan Mac and Cheese Recipes or come up with your own.

Recommendation: Download the Food Monster AppButternut Mac and Cheese

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Lead image source: Creamy Butternut Mac and Cheese