Mac & Cheese is the ultimate classic comfort food. But if the only version you knew growing up came from a box that included a pouch of unnaturally orange powder, and now you and your family are gluten-free, dairy-free, and nut-free, mac & cheese might feel like it’s off the menu for good. While most dairy-free mac & cheese recipes rely on soaked nuts as the creamy base for their sauce, this one uses a surprise ingredient you’d never guess when you taste it—roasted eggplant!
How can we call this recipe childproof with a secret ingredient like roasted eggplant? Easy! Pureed roasted eggplant gives this recipe its creamy base, but that’s not what they’ll see or taste. Pureed carrot and turmeric give this mac & cheese a cheesy orange colour naturally, while dairy-free cheese and nutritional yeast lend approachably cheesy flavour. Seasoned with a hint of kid-friendly garlic, the mac & cheese on its own is tasty enough to pass the picky kid test. Add the crunchy bread crumb topping that you can serve as an on-the-side option, or bake on top, macaroni casserole style, and you’ve got a mac & cheese that will soon become a beloved family classic. (We promise not to tell them about the hidden veggies if you don’t!).
For the crumb topping:
- Butter each piece of bread on one side with non-dairy buttery spread. If you have a toaster oven, toast butter-side up on a toaster oven baking sheet until golden brown and crisp, in batches as needed (depending on the size of your toaster oven). If using a conventional oven, toast butter-side up on a full-size baking sheet on the top rack of the oven at 350°F until golden brown and crisp.
- In a food processor or high-powered blender, process toasted bread until crumbs are roughly the size of coarse sand. Do not over process (if they look like fine dust, you’ve gone too far!).
- In a skillet, melt remaining 2 tablespoons of buttery spread. Add breadcrumbs, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, parsley flakes, and salt and pepper to taste. Stir to combine, and sauté until mixture is golden and crunchy throughout. Set aside.
For the mac & cheese:
- For the roasted eggplant:Pre-heat your oven to 400° Prepare the eggplant for roasting one of three ways, depending on how much prep time vs roast time you’d like to spend:
- Least prep/slowest roast:Halve longwise from stem to bottom, lightly oil cut surface with olive oil, and place cut-side down on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Roast for 25 – 30 minutes;
- Peel and slice 1” thick, lightly oil both sides of each slice with olive oil, and place on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Roast for 20 – 25 minutes, flipping halfway through the cook time;
- Most prep/fastest roast:Peel and cut into 1” cubes, toss lightly with olive oil, and spread cubes evenly on a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Roast for 15 – 20 minutes, tossing/flipping halfway through the cook time;
Whatever method you choose, roast eggplant until softened and golden brown on cut surfaces. For halved eggplant, scoop the soft flesh away from the skin before proceeding to the next step. (Discard skin).
- For the carrots:If roasting carrot: wash and roast alongside eggplant until slightly golden and tender.If steaming: peel, chop, and steam using your preferred steaming method (stovetop steaming basket or microwave) until carrot is tender.
Tip: Substitute carrots for one small jar of pureed carrot baby food—not only does this save you a step, the super-smooth texture of baby food makes this the most stealth way we know of to sneak a serving of veg into any savoury sauce you’re serving picky kids.
- For the noodles:Cook gluten-free pasta of choice according to the package directions. If you plan to bake this dish after topping, cook pasta al dente, so it doesn’t overcook in the sauce.Optional: reserve ½ cup of pasta water before draining.
- For the sauce:In a food processor or high-powered blender, puree the roasted eggplant until smooth, using 1 ½ cups of non-dairy milk to aid the process. If using roasted or steamed carrots, puree with roasted eggplant (or, if using carrot baby food, add it after eggplant puree is smooth and has no lumps). Add nutritional yeast, garlic powder, turmeric, apple cider vinegar, and salt and pepper. Blend until seasonings are fully incorporated.
- Transfer noodles and sauce into a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Add dairy-free cheddar cheese shreds, stirring until incorporated and starting to melt. If mixture is thick, thin using additional ½ cup of liquid (either reserved pasta water, or more non-dairy milk), adding a little at a time (not all at once!) to avoid over-thinning.
- To serve:
- If baking:Transfer sauced noodles to an oven-proof casserole dish, and top with an even layer of crumb topping. Bake at 350°F for 10 minutes, or until crust is golden and pasta is bubbling. Scoop portions onto plates or shallow bowls and serve.
- If serving as-you-like-it:Transfer sauced noodles to a serving dish. At the table, present crumb topping with a spoon so each diner can top their noodles with as much (or as little!) crunchy crumb topping as they like. For the crumb-reluctant, gently suggest they try one small bite with topping before going without.
- Share and enjoy!