Saturday, June 19, 2010

Almond Milk, Cashew Cream & Faux Feta Cheese

Finding suitable substitutes for dairy products has been one of the biggest challenges I've had as I transitioned to a vegan lifestyle with mostly raw food. And from all the reading and research I've done, I realized that shedding my addiction to cheese was one of the most important steps I could take toward achieving vibrant health.

I've long been a fan of almond milk. I started making it back in the late '80's thanks to Harvey and Marilyn Diamond and their Fit For Life program. Switching to almond milk was easy. I rarely used cow's milk other than to pour over cereal occasionally, or as called for in baked goods.

Heavy cream usually made an appearance in my kitchen around holiday meals and special occasions. But in the summer time, with fresh berries in abundance, sweet, whipped cream is the perfect complement to juicy berries. Cashew cream has produced a fine substitute.

Recently, I've begun experimenting with finding cheese substitutes. After reading some interesting suggestions, my first attempt at faux feta, produced this zippy cheese-like spread that was a fine accompaniment to some ak-nak crackers and a crisp, cool glass of sauvignon blanc. The base for the cheese is the left-over pulp from making the almond milk, how convenient and frugal that turned out to be.

As adults, we should have been weaned ages ago. Mother's milk was intended to get us up and growing for the first couple of years after birth. Once we moved on to whole foods that should have been the end of our milk experience. Why we all switched to making animal body fluids part of our daily diet is a marketing masterpiece, isn't it? Kicking the addiction isn't easy, but it can be done, and finding substitutes or replacements can be not only interesting but lots of fun.

I'm eager to try my hand at cheese making again soon. Yet, much like the real thing, milk, cream and cheese substitutes are not low calorie items and should be treated as transition foods, used occasionally and sparingly.

There are many instructions available for making nut milks. The proportion of nuts to water, additions for flavor or sweetening, and methods of preparing the milk may vary a bit. This is what I've finally settled on for making an everyday almond milk that's quite versatile.

Almond Milk

Makes 3 cups - may be doubled easily.

Soak 1/2 cup raw almonds overnight.
Drain and then rinse thoroughly
Place almonds in blender container with 1 1/2 cups of filtered water.
If using a high-powered blender - blend until completely smooth.
If using a regular blender, purée until nuts are pulverized as small as possible.

Either way, I like to strain the nut milk through a nut milk bag (may be purchased online) or through a fine sieve or through layers of cheesecloth. Though puréeing is not necessary if using a high speed blender. Having the residue (almond pulp) is great for other uses: dehydrated cookies/crackers, pâtés or faux cheese.

Rinse out the blender container, put the strained nut milk back into the blender with another 1 1/2 cups of filtered water, a teaspoon of agave, 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla and a pinch of salt. Blend to mix well.
Pour into a covered container and refrigerate.
The milk keeps well for 3-5 days in a cold refrigerator. The saved pulp freezes well.

Cashew Cream
(adapted from The Conscious Cook)

1 cup raw whole cashews soaked overnight, then rinsed under cold water.

Drain the cashews, place in the blender with enough filtered cold water to just cover them.
Blend on high until very smooth. If you are not using a high speed blender, you may have to add a bit more water, and you'll want to strain the cashew cream through a fine sieve.
Save the water that drains out and add it to your almond milk for a rich creamy result.

To sweeten the cream for desserts add:
1/4 cup of light agave (or to taste)
1/2 tsp vanilla
Blend again to incorporate. Chill and serve as you would whipped heavy cream. This sets up even more if chilled for several hours.

Almond Feta Cheese
(adapted from Vegetarian Times - April 2009)

1 cup raw almonds, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed well.*
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 TBS olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 tsp salt

* If using almond pulp proceed from here.

Purée almonds, or almond pulp, with remaining ingredients in a food processor for 5 - 6 minutes, scraping down as necessary, until very smooth and creamy. Add a few drops of water if needed.

Place a strainer over a bowl and line with a triple layer of cheesecloth (unless you are fortunate to have a little gadget made to drain yogurt). Spoon the almond mixture into the cheesecloth. Bring corners and sides of cloth together, and twist around cheese, forming into a ball, squeezing gently to remove excess water. Secure with rubber band and chill overnight. Discard any drained liquid.

The cheese will be smooth and very spreadable . For a firmer result that is more crumbly and closer in texture to feta cheese, it may be baked for approximately 40 minutes at 200° in a conventional oven or for the raw food purist, placed in a dehydrator for 4 to 6 hours.

To dry out: Transfer from cheese cloth to a parchment lined baking sheet and flatten to a 6 inch disk about 3/4 inch thick.

To serve soft and creamy: Transfer from cheese cloth to a covered glass dish and refrigerate.

Either way, drizzling with a bit of olive oil and herbs when serving adds to the enjoyment.

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