Smile and Say Cheez!
Joanne Stepaniak's “The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook”

Reviewed by Dan Balogh

I have visions of Joanne Stepaniak in a laboratory smock with a clipboard in her hand, surrounded by mason jars filled with nutritional yeast and agar flakes. Beakers boil aromatic concoctions of spices and herbs while whirring food processors liquify roasted red peppers and raw cashews.

It has to be this way. Only through coordinated trial-and-error can a person could come up with such amazing formulations that mimic cheeses so well you wonder whether someone exchanged your soy milk for cow's milk when you were too busy stirring that boiling arrowroot mixture. "The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook" is the result of Stepaniak's years of cheez experimentation, an update to her classic "Uncheese Cookbook" that first introduced the world to the possibilities of cheezes totally bereft of dairy products (and all their dastardly "ingredients") in 1994. One can assume that in the 10 years since, Stepaniak has honed the recipes to perfection. As they say, the proof is in the pudding – dairy-free pudding, of course.

Cheeses often figure prominently in comfort foods so it's no surprise that this book is filled with comforting recipes. Take the Baked Macaroni and Cheez, just like the "real thing" but without the cholesterol, saturated fat, antibiotics, growth hormones (I'll stop). The melted cheez coats the macaroni, filling its crevices; the baking makes the edges crunchy and crisp. There's even a second version, the Traditional Macaroni and Cheez, which doesn't require baking for those with less time. For grilled cheese sandwiches, there's the All American version and the Gooey version. Both are wonderful – in appearance, texture, and taste. In the Gooey version the cheez even seeps from between the bread slices onto the frying pan. Here, pickle relish can be added to the cheez mixture before spreading it. This is just one advantage of making your own cheez – you have complete control. If you prefer more tang, try adding a bit more mustard, or garlic powder, or whatever else you may want. You can't do that with store-bought cheeses, vegan or otherwise.

In the section on Cheezy Soups, Stews, and Chowders, you'll find (among others) Zucchini Chedda Soup which contains six diced zucchinis, one large chopped onion and a load of fake cheez (made from a mixture of nutritional yeast, tahini, roasted red peppers, raw cashews and various spices). It's a nice, comforting soup rich enough to be an entrée. A vegan friend who misses cheese liked this soup so much she ran out and purchased this book. From the same section, the Eggplant Parmagiano Stew (which is more like a soup) is even creamier, made with puréed white beans and vegetable broth, along with the ubiquitous nutritional yeast. Good stuff!

For pasta lovers there's Baked Stuffed Shells one of the best vegan stuffed shell recipes I've encountered. Here the "ricotta" is comprised of soy parmesan, mashed tofu and vegan mayonnaise, a unique concoction that I haven't seen elsewhere. The fake ricotta is wonderful – not too lumpy, not too smooth, and spiced with parsley flakes, basil, onion powder and garlic powder. The Broccoli Pesto Pasta, on the other hand, was a bit bland for me, with the soy parmesan and puréed broccoli a bit too thick for my tastes (next time I'll use less broccoli and parmesan and more liquid). For egg lovers, the Classic Quiche with Bacon (fake bacon bits) is the lightest vegan quiche I've tried – but keep it in the oven long enough to prevent it from being too watery.

Some of my favorites from the book have nothing to do with uncheeses, but are included presumably because they're the types of recipes that are associated with cheese. I've already eaten the Pickle, Tahini, and Tomato Sandwich at least five times for lunch. Here the tahini takes the place of the cheese, with the length-wise sliced dill pickles adding crunch and punch. Likewise, the Guacamole Grillers have mashed avocado acting as the cheese, with lemon juice and pinches of garlic powder, chili powder and cayenne adding flavor. The 20-Minute Bean Pizzas are so easy to make it's embarrassing! You mash white beans with some pizza sauce, soy parmesan, olive oil, and a few spices. Spread it on a couple of corn tortillas and pop them in the oven for 20 minutes for a quick lunch or snack.

There's even a section on Block Uncheeses. Even I have my limits, so when I saw this section my initial thought was – no way. I gave it a try without expecting much. Was I surprised! The Olive Cheez is unbelievable! It looks like dairy cheese, slices like dairy cheese and tastes like dairy cheese (it's delectable on crackers). And yet the entire list of ingredients is thus: water, agar flakes, roasted red peppers, raw cashews, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, tahini, onion power, salt, garlic powder, mustard and olives. How the heck does one get a block cheese from that? Don't ask, just make it. Visions of Joanne in her lab smock are sure to follow.

There were many other recipes I wanted to try before writing this review, but I felt compelled to get this out as soon as possible – like health studies that are often stopped early so that the control group has the opportunity to benefit from compelling preliminary results, I wanted cheese lovers to benefit from these findings. Consequently, I have yet to explore the sections on Spreads and Dips, Fondues, Salads & Dressings. And from the Desserts section, I made only the Peanut Butter Fudge Pie which was a bit too firm out of the refrigerator, though I discovered that popping a slice in the microwave improves the texture very nicely (perhaps next time I'll use less agar flakes).

The bottom line is this. If you're a vegan who misses dairy cheese, a cheese-lover who is lactose-intolerant, or just someone who loves cheese and wants to vastly improve their diet, get this book. Nearly every recipe I tried was relatively simple and yet very rewarding. In some cases, like the Olive Block Cheez, the results were amazing (and there are at least a dozen other block uncheeses left to try). As a bonus, by purchasing this book you'll help fund future research at the Stepaniak Cheez Institute. Joanne is probably firing up the bunsen burner right now, smiling as she says “cheez”.

Dan Balogh is a frequent contributor to VegSource.com and a member of EarthSave® New York City. In April of 2001, he and his wife Laura pledged to become vegans if they could find a dozen recipes that they could live with. Unable to prepare toast without burning it, Dan decided to learn as much about vegan cooking as was humanly possible. Since then he has amassed a huge collection of vegan and vegetarian cookbooks and has prepared many hundreds of recipes - and most they can live with! Today he can make a mean toast.