This vegan French Onion Mac & Cheese started off as a vegetarian menu option for a client of mine. It became one of their fave dishes and I’ve since made it for them countless times. I love caramelized onions, I love french onion soup and I love mac & cheese, so it was a only natural for me to create a plant-based version for myself.
For this recipe I go through the hour-long process of caramelizing the onions with pleasure, because it’s worth it. I like to keep things simple so when I say it’s worth it, trust me, it is. Plus, everyone should know how to caramelize onions and this is a great excuse to practice. Yes, it takes an hour, but it’s actually very easy when you get into a rhythm. It’s really a matter of checking on them just often enough so that they don’t burn, adding a splash of water when necessary. I’ll also say this about the onions. I give the option of 2-3 large onions in the recipe because two is plenty, but three really takes it to the next level – the choice is yours.
While the sweet and umami-rich onions make this dish what it is, it wouldn’t be anything without the sauce – which I make rich, sharp and tangy, to mimic the flavor of a swiss or gruyere cheese. A base of sunflower seeds plus garlic, nutritional yeast and some mustard work together to create a creamy sauce bursting with flavor. Simply blend the sauce ingredients, mix with the cooked pasta and caramelized onions, top the whole thing with my savory, salt-y bread crumbs and bake. Bon appetit!
Vegan French Onion Mac & Cheese
3/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
2-3 large sweet onions, sliced*
salt, fine grain
2-3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon dijon mustard
2.5 cups non-dairy milk (oat, almond, soy, etc)
black pepper, optional, to taste
1 lb small cut pasta, like elbows or shells
3/4 cup panko breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon garlic powder or granules
1 teaspoon paprika
Hot-soak the sunflower seeds. To do this, pour nearly boiling water over sunflower seeds and allow to sit at room temperature for 1-3 hours. Drain.
Caramelize the onions. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large skillet or pan over medium heat. Add sliced onions and 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon salt. Cook onions for about an hour, more or less, until dark golden brown and sweet. During the cooking process, stir onions periodically and check for moisture level. Whenever the onions start to stick, and the pan is dry with caramelization, deglaze the pan with a splash of water and continue cooking. I used about 2 cups of water during the entire caramelization process.
Cook dry pasta in boiling salted water until al dente and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Meanwhile, make the “Swiss cheese” sauce.
Add 1/4 cup olive oil and the roughly chopped garlic to a small sauce pan. Turn heat to low and allow garlic to gently simmer until golden (it takes about 4-5 minutes after the sizzle starts). Remove from heat immediately and allow to cool slightly.
In a blender combine soaked/drained sunflower seeds, the garlic-oil mixture, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, mustard, 2 teaspoons salt and 2.5 cups non-dairy milk. Blend until super smooth. It will be a very thin consistency, this is what you want.
Pour the sauce over the cooked noodles. Stir to combine. Add the caramelized onions and stir until onions are evenly distributed. Season with salt and black pepper. Transfer to a large baking dish.
In a small bowl combine breadcrumbs with 2 tablespoons olive oil, dried thyme, garlic powder, paprika and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Mix until all breadcrumbs are saturated with oil. Evenly coat pasta with the breadcrumb topping. Bake for 15-20 minutes until heated through.
Onions – two caramelized sweet onions is enough to add lots of flavor but adding three is recommended if you’re a big fan.
Baking – the “cheese” sauce sets up quite a bit while baking, avoid over-baking to keep it at it’s creamiest.