A Mom and Daughter Cook: Working Together on Plant-Based Versions of Holiday Classics
Published on December 13, 2021
By Carrie Honaker
At five years old, my daughter, Olivia, couldn’t pronounce the word “lasagna,” but she knew exactly what she wanted: the melty layers of pasta, sauce, and cheese that Garfield was eating in A Tale of Two Kitties. That love of lasagna hasn’t changed now that Olivia’s a grown-up in college — but her dietary preferences have. As someone who was vegetarian for a long time, I understand the value of a plant-based diet, but when my daughter announced her plan to go vegan, I was supportive but also skeptical. How would a kid with such a deep attachment to dishes like my extra-cheesy lasagna succeed as a vegan? We needed to put our heads together to come up with a vegan version that still felt nostalgic and decadent.
Cooking and baking are my love languages. I communicate care by feeding my family comforting recipes like butternut squash bisque and slices of rich chocolate cake. I didn’t want to lose that connection because my daughter and I had started to follow different paths in the kitchen. So while working on converting my lasagna recipe, we tackled some other family classics she loved but would not fit her new eating plan. I bought books — because that’s what I do — and we took stock of our normal pantries (my more gourmet shelves, and her budget-friendly staples) to see where we could change up recipes without going overboard on the grocery budget. Minimalist Baker by Dana Shultz, and Isa Does it by Isa Chandra Moskowitz became go-to resources.
Make the easy swaps first
Going vegan can be a huge change, but there are some everyday items that are easy to substitute for vegan alternatives.
- Milk. As devoted coffee drinkers, we knew milk (and creamer) were the first areas that needed to be tackled. Oat Milk (Planet Oat is Olivia’s favorite because it isn’t thick) won out for the best in smoothies, coffee, and just drinking straight. But for baking, rice milk (Rice Dream, yum!) is tops. We tried oat, almond, and soy, but rice had the best rising properties. For Halloween (both my kids’ favorite holiday), Olivia made pumpkin muffins using rice milk, and they were super moist and fluffy.
- Tofu for eggs/meat. As a seasoned baker, I know the importance of eggs. It turns out tofu comes in a variety of textures, which can really mimic eggs’ different uses. Silken tofu is soft and easily subs in for eggs in items like quiche — and it makes a mean chocolate silk pie ingredient. A tofu scramble with a little sprinkle of nutritional yeast is very similar to the cheesy scrambled eggs you want on weekend mornings. We also tried Egg Replacer, which is great, but definitely pricey.
Embrace nutritional yeast
I was dubious about this ingredient, but it was on every vegan pantry list we saw. Cheese is a puzzle if you’re trying to go vegan and stick to a budget. There are some tasty vegan cheeses (we love Miyoko’s, especially the cream cheese), but they are pricey for a college student’s budget. Enter Bob’s Red Mill nutritional yeast. It’s made up of flakes that remarkably impart real cheese flavor — plus plenty of B vitamins. Nutritional yeast is an absolute must for going vegan.
Converting holiday classics
For the holidays, I make a 26-pound turkey, cornbread stuffing, sweet potato gratin, milk green beans, macaroni and cheese, broccoli slaw, cranberry sauce, three pies… it’s a feast. We always have a large gathering with an equally large spread of food.
In 2020, we had our first holidays apart. Olivia called me because she was making a big spread for her friends, but of course, her version was going to be vegan. She wanted to work through the process of veganizing two of her favorite childhood recipes that were always a hit on our holiday table: pumpkin pie and macaroni and cheese.
Plant-Based Pumpkin Pie
The pie converted from the classic recipe easily: vegan stick butter (Miyoko’s) subbed in on the crust, which came out light and flaky after a couple of tries. My recipe already used maple syrup as the only sweetener, but she added applesauce and coconut milk for thickening, since the eggs would be left out. It was a little loose, so this year, she splurged on Egg Replacer (Bob’s Red Mill makes a great one) — and it turned out much better.
Plant-Based Mac and Cheese
The real test came with the mac and cheese. I usually make a rich, four-cheese casserole baked bubbly and golden brown on top. I suggested buying vegan cheese to get the variety needed for the flavor profile. But Liv is an adventurous kid, and decided to learn how to make cheese from various nuts. She soaked cashews, almonds, and walnuts to render them pliable enough to blend with the nutritional yeast. She bought some cheesecloth and started the process. The exercise in patience yielded a variety of remarkable flavors. Next up was the roux, the foundation of the cheese sauce. Vegan butter and flour thickened nicely and the homemade nut cheeses blended for a thick, cheesy sauce she combined with cavatappi and baked with some panko sprinkled on top for crunch.
The best part of this experiment was the text I got the morning after Thanksgiving from Liv: Guess where I am? The grocery store. My friends ate every bite of food I brought — I have no leftovers for dinner.
It took me a second for this to sink in. My daughter’s friends loved her Thanksgiving spread so much that she was out of food.
I texted back: That is the best compliment a cook can receive. I’m so proud of you.
In that moment, the almost 5,000 miles separating us didn’t seem so far.
When my kids were still at home, I experimented with foods I didn’t have growing up in rural Vermont. I made eggplant timbale (which did not go well the first time, but eventually got better). I taught myself how to make mu shu pork from scratch. I served my family curried vegetables, cajun gumbo, and tabouleh. I showed Olivia it was fun to adventure in the kitchen, and now she is on her own exploration of what plant-based eating can taste like — and her spice cabinet rivals mine.
So how has that Garfield-inspired, childhood-memory-eliciting lasagna turned out?
Firmer tofu can sub in for meat in pasta dishes, or so we’d read. During our first attempt at a vegan lasagna, we decided to sautée and season pressed, firm tofu the way we would have seasoned ground beef. We went straight for the vegan cheese section for the best chances of cheesy flavor and texture. When I called to ask how it tasted, she gave a candid response: “Maybe not our best work. It felt gummy, and there definitely wasn’t enough cheesiness.”
Not to be beaten, we prepared to try again. This time, we omitted the tofu, since it wasn’t adding to the overall lasagna-ness of the dish, and threw in some fresh basil and a bunch of spinach for brightness, and added the secret ingredient… nutritional yeast. We also amped up the cheese with some homemade vegan ricotta.
A couple hours later, I got the call.
“Mom,” she paused, letting the word hang in the air.
“Well?” I asked. That was all it took for the floodgates to open. “So good! It was creamy. It was bubbly. It was so cheesy!”
Together, we had conquered the lasagna.