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Monday 18 May 2020

In search of cheese – or, the Great Bulgarian (Vegan) Pizza Off

Firing up the pizza oven for the first time this year.

Being the borderline millennial clichés that we are, it was only a matter of time before we started eating vegan-ish. We already ate vegetarian 95% of the time (the other 5% being a weakness for barbecue ribs). We ate vegetarian sausages and burgers, and cooked our fried breakfasts with halloumi instead of bacon. Our curries and pasta sauces were consistently meat-free. Bean chilli is, in our book, far superior to chilli con carne. Yes, we’re those type of people. Bean-eating, Europe-loving, wet lefty lettuces.

And we used to say to ourselves, every time we watched a documentary about factory farming (because we're fun like that), ‘Well, at least we hardly ever eat meat.’ Then the penny dropped earlier this year: yes, we hardly ever ate meat, but we were still eating animal products every day. Milk in tea, a dollop of yogurt or sprinkle avalanche of parmesan on top of most meals…

So we went vegan-ish a few months ago. I say ‘ish’ because we still wear leather shoes and eat honey, which disqualifies us from the vegan club. And there’s a strong chance we’ll still bake a ham this Christmas, which would definitely disqualify us from the vegan club. I guess the correct terminology would be ‘95% plant based’. As in, ‘No cheese for me, thank you, I’m plant based.’ But who can bring themselves to say such a thing?

It’s been easy, too, since all we had to do to turn the majority of our meals from vegetarian into vegan was simply stop dumping yogurt or cheese on top.

Which brings us to the main point of this post: cheese. I suspect cheese is the one thing that stops most vegetarians going The Full Vegan. There are certain meals where cheese is absolutely essential – risotto and pizza being obvious examples. (I know you can get vegan cheese and nutritional yeast, but we can’t get any of that stuff locally and I’m bollocksed if I’m traipsing to Sofia to hunt down nutritional yeast in the middle of an actual pandemic.)

But we love risotto and pizza, so we came up with a way to get that rich, creamy, savoury-saltiness you get from cheese, without using any real cheese. The method we came up with involves tahini. Wait, come back! Stick with me…

For some reason, the combination of tahini and garlic and a load of olive oil makes a sauce that tastes … not exactly cheesy, but sort of. I don’t know if it’s some special alchemy between the particular brands of tahini and olive oil that we use, or if the same thing happens whatever tahini and olive oil you use. No idea. All I can say is it works for us. (Recipe coming up at the end, for those who are curious.)

We use this magic concoction in lots of ways, basically any time we want to replace the dairy hit achieved by cheese or butter. It goes into our bechamel sauce for lasagne. I stir it into risotto in place of the butter and parmesan. We’ve been known to dollop it on top of a veggie burger. The other day, I used it as the base of a vegan mushroom rarebit (add English mustard, Worcester sauce and Marmite to the magic concoction, stir it through beer- or cider-cooked mushrooms, pile onto toast, bake in the oven for a bit. Delicious).

And, the other weekend, we pooled it on top of pizza as a substitute for mozzarella. In the interests of science (and using up the vast quantities of cheddar we have in the freezer), we made some pizzas with cheese on, and some with the magic not-cheese, cheesy sauce. You’re welcome, science.

Homemade tomato sauce (tomatoes, garlic, oregano, balsamic vinegar
and olive oil cooked down for half an hour or so).

Pizza 1 (left) with pools of 'cheesy' tahini sauce. Pizza 2 (right) smothered in cheese.

The results of our experiment (apart from epic indigestion)? Cheesy pizzas are better. Duh. Of course they fucking are. Cheese is the best thing ever. The magic tahini sauce obviously doesn’t stand up to real cheese. (And maybe isn’t even as good as vegan cheese or nutritional yeast, we don’t know.)

But as vegan pizzas go, they were pretty damn good. I’d definitely have the tahini version again, because it hit the same sort of fatty, creamy spot as mozzarella. It’s certainly better than just having a pizza with tomato sauce and vegetables, which, as Rob insists, isn’t a pizza at all, but is just a flatbread with stuff on.

So there we have it. Vegan pizza isn’t as good as, well, pizza. But it’s still pizza. And I haven’t yet met a pizza that I didn’t like.

Magic not-cheese, ‘cheesy’ tahini sauce
  • Tahini (A couple of tablespoons. It’s got to be good tahini, of the sort you’d get from a Middle Eastern shop. Sometimes the tahini you find in the ‘health food’ section of supermarkets is a bit grainy. It has to be perfectly, perfectly smooth for this sauce.)
  • Cold water
  • Lemon juice
  • Smooshed-up garlic (half a clove to a clove, depending on whether you want the sauce to actually taste of garlic or not)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Olive oil (several good glugs)

  • Put two tablespoons of tahini in a bowl (give it a good stir in the jar first).
  • Add a small drizzle of cold water (like, a tablespoonful or so) to the bowl and stir the shit out of it. The tahini will separate, seize up and generally look disgusting at first, but keep stirring and it’ll begin to get smoother.
  • Once the water is incorporated and the tahini has gone smooth again, add a little more water and stir and stir and stir again. Do this (adding a little water at a time and stirring vigorously) a few more times until it reaches a nice loose consistency – much thicker than a vinaigrette, but looser and more voluptuous than the tahini in its original state. (Think of the consistency of salad cream or a really thick natural yogurt and you’ll be on the right lines.) Don’t worry if you’ve added too much water and it’s too runny – just add a bit more tahini to thicken it up. Stir, stir, stir.
  • Slosh in some lemon juice, and add the garlic and a pinch or two of salt and pepper. The garlic is key, for some reason, so don’t leave it out. Stir, stir, stir.
  • Then add a good glug of olive oil (like, a couple of tablespoons) and, you guessed it, stir, stir, stir. Do this a few more times until the sauce looks like something you want to put in your mouth – rich, glossy, almost mousse-like. Taste it, and if you want it saltier or more lemony or more garlicky, tweak to your tastes.

And that’s it, you end up with a luscious, shiny sauce that – to us – has a savoury richness not unlike cheese. Or maybe we’re just weird.