Dairy Free Macaroni and Cheese

 Rich and creamy macaroni and cheese...made without a speck of cheese! My dairy free macaroni and cheese is made with a pumpkin-cashew sauce and topped with a crispy breadcrumb topping. 

Happy New Year!  I hope 2014 is filled with lots of love, laughter and (healthy) delicious food!

Last year was incredible, one of the best years of my life.  Although I often joke about dreading "The Big 3-0," honestly, in my old age, I've become so much more confident and comfortable with myself in a way I never would have imagined as an awkward middle schooler. Professionally, this year I earned my CDE (technically it was December 30th 2012 but whatev), developed a clearer sense of my food philosophy, and started this little blog.  I've gone on two trips of a lifetime, seeing the most stunning and intricate works of man in Turkey and the most interesting and awe-inspiring natural treasures in Yellowstone and Grand Tetons.  This year, Scott and I have learned so much about ourselves and each other in our relationship.  I can honestly say I love him more today than the day we were married.

Most importantly, 2013 was the year I realized life doesn't have to be perfect, or even good, in order to feel truly, completely and insanely happy.  Last year certainly had it's share difficult, frustrating and trying times, but I finally learned that it doesn't have to dictate how I feel.

Losing both my grandma and grandpa last year were two of those difficult times.  I feel so blessed to have had them in my life to this point, that they were able to see me grow into an adult, graduate college and get married.  At 90 and 96, their lives were full and complete, and they were both ready to go, but it was difficult to lose them nonetheless.

Looking back at everything they saw and accomplished in their lives is really amazing.  My grandma was born into a poor family who had immigrated to America from Latvia just a few years before she was born.  Growing up on the lower east side of Manhattan, I'm sure she never imagined her grandchildren would become an assistant dean, masters students in history and museum education, graduate law school, and, of course, become a dietitian.  My grandpa had one of life's great love stories with my grandma, right up there with Princess Buttercup and Wesley. He served his country, built a company from scratch and traveled around the world.  I doubt either had any regrets in life.

When my grandma passed away this summer, I wanted to dedicate a blog post to her and recreate one of her dishes.  Then I realized, despite the fact she was an amazing cook, I don't have any memories of her cooking, since my mom and aunt did most of the food preparation when we visited.  I do remember she knew how to pick the sweetest and ripest cantaloupes, but clearly that wouldn't make a very interesting post.  The only real food memory I have is of her amazing macaroni and cheese, topped with crisp, buttery breadcrumbs.  When I asked my mom for her recipe, I learned she never used one, and sometimes she just served us frozen Stouffer's frozen mac and cheese.  Childhood ripped to pieces.

My grandpa, on the other hand, has an interesting story, one I often share with my clients.  When he was in his 60s (way back in the 1980s), he underwent two heart surgeries in a year.  It wasn't a huge surprise as his diet was pretty horrid, he smoked two packs a day and heart disease runs in our family.  From what I understand, his prognosis was pretty grim.  But rather than accept his fate, he decided to make huge changes to his diet, start exercising regularly and quit smoking.  He never experienced any further heart problems.  At 96, he had nary a hardened artery in his body.  In fact, the only real health issue he dealt with was dementia, which didn't impact his life until the last year or two.  In the years after he changed his diet, he witnessed the birth of 4 grandchildren, took care of my grandma as she battled the breast cancer that took her life much too early, traveled around the world, saw both my dad and I get married, lost friends and gained friends...just think how much of life, both the good and bad, he would have missed had he not made the decision to change his lifestyle.

The biggest change he made was eliminating all dairy from his diet.  One of his doctors felt dairy was the root of chronic disease and my grandpa listened.  He passed on the cheese plate (gasp!), ate his shredded wheat with orange juice (gross!) and constantly repeated one of the most annoying phrases I've ever heard - "Disease follows the cow."  He was appalled that in my nutrition education, we didn't cover the chapter on dairy being poison.  My view on small amounts of high quality, organic dairy was not satisfactory.  Did I mention he was stubborn?

I developed this recipe to honor both my grandparents and the influence they had in my life. They were both so incredibly supportive of my career and this blog.  I know my grandpa would absolutely love this dairy free take on macaroni and cheese.  My grandma, well, probably not, but that wouldn't stop her from scooping a second helping on my plate and telling me to fatten up.

 Dairy Free Macaroni and "Cheese"

Dairy Free Macaroni and Cheese
Author: Rachael Hartley, RD, LD, CDE
Serves: Serves 8
  • 1 cup cashews
  • 1 lb 100% whole grain penne
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
  • 3 cups canned pumpkin (from two cans)
  • 3/4 teaspoon mustard powder
  • 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
  1. Place cashews in a small bowl, cover with water and soak at least 4 hours.
  2. Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a small skillet on medium-high heat. Add onion and sauté about 5 minutes until lightly browned. Add garlic, sage and thyme, stir and cook about 60 seconds, then remove from heat. Place drained cashews, onion mixture, pumpkin, mustard, nutrition yeast in a blender and blend into a smooth puree. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. In a large bowl, combine the "cheese" mixture with the pasta until evenly coated. Spread evenly into a large baking dish coated lightly with oil. Bake 20-25 minutes until the top is lightly browned.
  5. In a small bowl, combine the panko, Italian seasoning, 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a little salt. Sprinkle evenly over the macaroni. Turn on the broiler, place the macaroni underneath and brown about 60 seconds, being careful not to burn it (like I did, oops!)