The non-dairy artisanal delights of raw nut cheeses
By Jillian Steinberger | Photos by Stacy Ventura
So, raw nut cheese . . . raw nut cheese . . . What is raw nut cheese?
If you don’t know, no worries. This would not be a food you see on TV. It’s kind of the opposite, really, because it’s mostly made by people who care about sustainably produced food with high nutritional value.
Simply defined, raw nut cheese is an inherently artisanal food made in a range of tastes and textures using unheated, uncooked nuts (most commonly almonds, cashews, walnuts, macadamias, and pecans) or seeds (anything from pumpkin to hemp). The cheeses can be savory like an herbed chèvre, or sweet like a mascarpone. They can be creamier than cream cheese or have a rind. There are various preparation methods, and like “real cheese,” raw nut cheeses are often cultured and even aged and fermented. Also, like real cheese, they’re a crowd-pleasing party food, easy to pack and carry.
A couple of years ago at the Raw Spirit Festival in Santa Barbara, I met a wild-eyed Hungarian woman who sold slices of her large cheese wheels at $10 for a ½-inch by 6-inch slice. Coated with herbs and spices, they were delectable. And, they went fast, I found, as I joined a pack of otherwise clear-eyed, high-vibrating, nirvana-loving raw foodies elbowing each other to get up to the front of the line.
Smacking my lips after downing a precious morsel of her paprika-coated raw nut cheese, I thought about how easy it is for a woo-woo, raw-vegan-leaning vegetarian such as myself to love it, but why would an omnivore choose this little-known niche food when there are so many beautiful handmade cheeses in the world?
Let’s Try Something New…
There are many sensible answers to this question. One of them being, it’s not an either/or situation. With the exception of vegans and others who eschew dairy products, many eaters can enjoy both raw nut and “real” cheese. Raw nut cheeses are a delicious alternative to “real dairy” for folks with allergies or lactose intolerance, or for anyone wanting to cut down on animal products.
Raw nut cheeses have high nutritional value, with no wasted calories. For example, almonds provide protein, fiber, and healthy fats, plus they are packed with vitamins and minerals. Because the nuts are unheated in raw cheeses, they are also loaded with live enzymes.
“I truly believe that food can be thy medicine, curing everything from a bad mood to cancer and diabetes,” says Chef Heather Haxo Phillips, founder of Raw Bay Area, the company through which she seeks to educate and inspire people about raw food. She explains, “There is a history of diabetes in my family. It is a terrible disease. I am totally uninterested in spending time in doctors’ offices when I could be playing in my garden. I would rather spend my money on high-quality food than high-quality prescription drugs.”
Another answer to “Why raw nut cheese?” is that this is something you can try at home. Many nut cheeses are easy to make, and there are many ways to experiment with and personalize the recipes. Chef Heather teaches raw food “uncooking” classes around the Bay Area. In her breezy and entertaining style, she demonstrates numerous recipes over the course of a two-hour session. As a foodie born and raised in Oakland, Heather has watched the fresh food movement grow here. “I see raw foods as delicious and ambitious—bursting with flavor and color,” she says.
Looking around the East Bay to see how the cheeses play in restaurant settings, I found them adding substance to the beautiful, design-y plates at Encuentro Café and Wine Bar in Oakland’s Jack London Square. Lacey Sher, executive chef and proprietor at Encuentro, was a student at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City, and has also studied with leading raw-food chefs like celebrity author Matthew Kenney, who started Manhattan’s sophisticated Pure Food & Wine. Her vegan cheese plate includes dollops of smoked pecan, macadamia nut, and herbed cashew cheese, served with fig chutney, grain mustard, walnut “honey,” seasonal fruits, and crostini. While I enjoyed her cheeses with the crostini, I really enjoyed them spread on the freshest young butterhead lettuce I have seen outside of my own garden.
At Café Gratitude’s [formerly at] two East Bay locations, executive chef Dreux Ellis puts a new—raw and vegan—spin on old favorites. For example, a raw deep-dish pizza is made with Brazil nut parmesan and cashew ricotta cheese, as well as sundried tomato marinara, pesto, and olive tapenade on a “live” (dehydrated and heated no higher than 117° so it retains its enzymes) onion sunflower pizza crust. My favorite dish at Gratitude is a totally splurge-worthy vegan BLT with sautéed maple coconut bacon, romaine lettuce, sliced tomato, and avocado, served with a spicy chipotle aioli on an organic wheat bun. In this case, the cashew nacho cheese is made into a raw vegan mayonnaise (or aioli), which demonstrates nut cheese’s versatility in recipes.
Says Dreux, who cheffed in Venice, Italy, for eight years before joining Café Gratitude, “Nut cheeses are a delightful, fun, delicious food. Most of the vegan soy-based cheeses on the market can’t compare to a raw nut-based cheese when it comes to flavor.”
Everyone’s Invited to the Table…
In the Bay Area, carnivores and vegetarians don’t always get along, particularly in Oakland, where animal rights activists (many vegan), take issue with the urban farming movement’s romance with animal husbandry. But the chefs who are serving raw nut cheeses and teaching the public how to make them and other raw foods invite everyone to the table, with enthusiasm.
Chef Lacey is clear on this point. “Being a longtime vegan and then vegetarian,” she explains, “I want to make everyone feel included. I never want people to think that Encuentro is for veg folks only. Our customers are anyone who loves creative cuisine and wants to try some great wines—some of which come from small organic wineries just around the corner.”
Chef Heather’s focus is strictly raw, but she also strives for inclusivity. “I love to teach and bring people together who want to create positive change in themselves and our world. Raw food cuts across all boundaries of class and ethnicity. From West Oakland to Pacific Heights, everyone can make delicious raw food. I can help young kids learn to love their greens. I can give truckers who love their onion rings and French fries a great alternative to help them get trim and fit. I love working with people who never cook for themselves just as much as professional chefs who want to add raw food to their menu.”
Over the hills in Pleasanton, Chef Lisa Books-Williams also caters and teaches classes through her raw food business, ThriveHolistic. Recently, she was selected from among several contenders to cater the 2011 World Vegetarian Festival’s multi-course opening night dinner in Golden Gate Park, which takes place in October. Her raw cheeses and cheese-y desserts are first class and known to please even the staunchest meat-and-potatoes fans.
As with her colleagues, inclusivity is an important value to Chef Lisa. She reaches out to adults, kids, teens, seniors, soccer moms, persons with celiac disease, those on special diets, couples, families, professionals, and people who want to get more veggies into their life, as well as underserved Tri-Valley communities. She says, “My goal is to make people happy with the food I prepare and inspire them to make changes in their diet.”
As a certified therapeutic recreation specialist, Lisa also serves special-needs populations, teaching raw food cooking classes to brain-injury patients and elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. She explains, “These classes stimulate cognition and sensory integration for patients with mild to severe cognitive impairment.” Her patients feel, taste, and smell dishes created in the class, which they enjoy at a basic sensual level that binds all humans to one another. (Some clients simply enjoy pushing the on-off switch on her Vita-Mix.)
The affable Chef Dreux sums up his inclusive attitude this way: “I want to serve everyone who loves food that loves them back! I strive for simplicity and the highest vibration possible.”
So there you have it. Live long and prosper!
Chef Heather Haxo Philips’s Herbed Almond “Chevre”
Notes Chef Heather, “Most almonds and cashews are labeled as raw when in fact they are pasteurized or heated. For a more nutritious nut, buy raw almonds directly from farmers at our local farmers markets. “Truly raw” cashews are usually labeled and can be found at many health food stores.”
Makes 2 cups
2 cups raw almonds
1 cup Rejuvelac (or 1 cup water with 2 probiotic powder capsules)
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Pinch of nutmeg
Dried or fresh herbs and spices to garnish such as basil, parsley, rosemary, cracked pepper or edible flowers
Bring 4 cups water almost to a boil and turn off the heat. Add almonds and let sit for about 5 minutes. Drain and rinse in cool water, then slip off the peels.
Place almonds and Rejuvelac in a high-speed blender and process until smooth, adding more Rejuvelac as needed to form a smooth, creamy texture.
Pour the mixture into a nut milk bag or cheesecloth-lined strainer. Allow to strain and ferment for 12–36 hours, until desired tartness is achieved. Remove from the strainer and add the salt, lemon juice, and nutmeg.
To create a chevre-style log, place cheese as a ball in the middle of a large piece of wax paper. Roll inside paper until cheese is tube shaped. Leave wrapped and refrigerate 8–24 hours so it can set.
Before serving, sprinkle the herbs/spices on all sides of the roll, then cut into rounds and serve as desired.
Note: Rejuvelac is a fermented beverage that can be made at home or purchased at natural foods grocery stores. For a cheese with fewer steps, use raw cashews or macadamias instead of almonds. Soak these nuts for up to 4 hours to make them soft and easier to blend.
Café Gratitude Nacho Cheese
This smooth and creamy cheese adds a delicious note to the coconut bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich at [the now closed] Café Gratitude. Chef Dreux Ellis also suggests serving it over roasted potatoes or enchiladas, spread on toasted crostini with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh chopped cilantro, or as a dip for crudités. And of course, don’t hesitate to try it on nachos.
4 cups cashews, soaked for at least 4 hours prior to use
1 clove garlic
¼ cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons chipotle powder
2 tablespoons soy lecithin
1½ tablespoons nutritional yeast
2½ cups filtered water
To make the cheese it is necessary to pre-soak the cashews. This is done for the texture, rather than to remove enzyme inhibitors. The soaked cashews need to be thoroughly rinsed in a strainer under running water until the water runs clear. Set them aside to drain completely while you prepare the other ingredients.
Lightly chop the garlic and jalapeño. Place in a high-speed blender with the lemon juice, salt, chipotle powder, soy lecithin, nutritional yeast, and filtered water and process until smooth. Note: If you prefer a denser cheese, you would start by adding all of the water except for 1 cup, which you would add in a little at a time until reaching the desired density.
Remove from the blender and store in glass containers in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. This is a fresh cheese and should not be kept for longer.
Note: This recipe can easily be adjusted for spiciness by increasing or reducing the amount of jalapeño and/or chipotle.
Cacao Coconut Cream Cheese
This cream cheese, created by Chef Lisa Books-Williams is a delicious non-dairy and zero cholesterol alternative to regular cream cheese. Kids and adults love the slight after note of cacao. Spread it on toast for a breakfast treat, or use it as a party dip with veggies or crackers. Learn more at Lisa’s website.
Yields over 2 cups
½ cup fresh young coconut “meat”
½ cup coconut water (choose a young coconut)
1 cup raw cashews, soaked in pure water for 4 hours and drained
1 lemon, juiced
¾ teaspoon Himalayan salt or sea salt
1 clove garlic
1 tablespoon pure water
⅛ teaspoon white pepper
1 tablespoon non-GMO lecithin granules (optional but recommended)
3 tablespoons melted cacao butter
Blend the coconut meat, coconut water, cashews, lemon juice, salt, garlic, water, and pepper in a Vita-Mix or blender until smooth and creamy. Turn blender to low and slowly add lecithin granules until incorporated. Then, with the blender still on low, add the melted cacao butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until all is incorporated. Pour mixture into a glass container and chill for at least 8 hours or overnight. It will keep for up to 10 days if stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator.
Variations and serving ideas: Flavor it by adding pimentos, chives, scallions, onion powder or za-atar. To make the cream cheese into a frosting, omit the garlic, white pepper, and water and replace with 1 teaspoon vanilla, 3 tablespoons agave, honey, or coconut nectar and 1 tablespoon nut milk.
Chef Lisa Books-Williams says this sauce is as delicious as the original but without the artery-clogging cholesterol. Serve it over steamed veggies, pasta, quinoa, seaweed, or kelp noodles.
Yields 2 cups
1 cup raw cashews
½ cup raw pinenuts or macadamia nuts
1¼ cup filtered water
1 teaspoon dried basil
½ teaspoon Himalayan or sea salt
¼ teaspoon white pepper
2 medium garlic cloves
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon nutritional yeast (optional)
Process all ingredients in blender until smooth and creamy. Then serve or store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Freezes well.
Jillian’s D.I.Y. ALMOND MILK
Fast and easy to make, homemade nut milks are far superior—tastier and without preservatives—to the boxed stuff at grocery stores. Nut milks are a great alternative to cow or goat milk. They can be dilute like nonfat milk, or rich like cream. A great base for soups and smoothies, they are also perfect in coffee or tea. (They can even be blended to a froth that any self-respecting barista would gladly put on a cappuccino or chai latte.)
Here’s a simple recipe that takes 15 minutes to prepare, can be stored for up to a week in a sealed mason jar, and looks exactly like milk. This recipe is flexible; make your nut milk to suit your personal taste.
1 ½ cups raw almonds, soaked overnight
6 cups purified water
½ teaspoon Himalayan pink salt (optional)
⅛ teaspoon pure vanilla extract (optional)
1 tablespoon coconut crystals, maple syrup, yacon, or other sweetener, or a couple of pitted dates (optional)
Strain and rinse almonds well, and add to the carafe of a blender. Add water, salt, sweetener, and vanilla, and blend until almonds are well pulverized. (For “nonfat milk” use more water; for “cream,” use less.)
Using a nut milk bag, strain the mixture into a bowl. Squeeze the bag as if you are milking a cow’s teats, and squeeze out every last drop. Pour into glass jars and seal tightly. Refrigerate. The milk will last about 1 week.
Note: Other nuts work well, too. Try Brazil nuts or pine nuts. A great milk can also be made with sesame seeds.