Life Without Cheese

For me, one of the hardest things about going dairy-free was giving up cheese. I used to love cheese in all its forms — hard, soft, mild, sharp, stinky, and especially melty. One of my favorite foods was fondue, a big pot of melted Swiss cheese that I would dip cubes of French bread into (then would subsequently spend the next few hours regretting as the lactose churned in my distended belly).

fondue
Guaranteed gut-bomb

What makes giving up cheese so challenging is the ubiquitousness of cheese in the American diet. Most of the time when I go out to eat, at least half the menu items contain cheese. It’s no wonder I was addicted to the stuff for much of my life.

But you can always ask for something to be made without cheese, unless it’s the main ingredient. Once, at a food truck, I asked for a Patty Melt without the cheese, and the guy made fun of me. “It’s not a Patty Melt without the cheese!” he scoffed. “Okay, so there’s no ‘melt’ in it,” I admitted, “but you can put the burger and the grilled onions on the rye bread, and it’ll be plenty tasty.” Then I found out the customer before me asked for the same thing. You are not alone.

Cooking without cheese is even easier: I just omit cheese from everything I make, including omelettes, sandwiches, even nachos. You may be wondering: Are there non-dairy cheese alternatives that truly mimic the taste and texture of real cheese? The short answer is no. Not that I have found. But some do a better job than others. I’ll be reviewing some of these products in future blog posts, so stay tuned.

stinkycheese
Stinky, moldy fromages that my husband and I saw on a trip to Paris in 2007.

Do I miss cheese? Yes and no. I have beautiful memories of a sharp aged Hook’s cheddar on a charcuterie plate, little pockets of goat cheese embedded in a potato pancake, a classic grilled cheese sandwich dipped in tomato soup. But I wouldn’t even dream of eating any of those things now, for fear that my gastrointestinal system would implode. It’s just not worth it… But we’ll always have Paris.

Dairy-Free Chocolate Egg Cream

eggcream
Dairy-Free Chocolate Egg Cream

It’s almost Passover, which means I’ve got a hankering for a bowl of matzo ball soup and a chocolate egg cream. What is a chocolate egg cream, you ask? It’s a drink containing milk, seltzer and chocolate syrup — basically an old-fashioned chocolate soda without the ice cream. And it can absolutely be made with non-dairy milk.

The first time I heard of an egg cream was when I was a teenager and worked at an ice cream parlor. We didn’t have egg creams on the menu, but the manager taught me how to make one. He said it used to actually contain eggs (whipped to create foam, like Orange Julius used to do), but not anymore. Not that the raw egg would’ve deterred me.

Back in New York, my favorite place to get an egg cream was Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse, a basement dive on the Lower East Side. The waiter would make my my egg cream at the table, first stirring the milk and seltzer together to make a foamy base, then trickling in a stream of U-Bet syrup from high above my glass. He never measured anything, and it always came out perfect.

Just be sure to use seltzer (plain carbonated water), rather than club soda or tonic water. The latter two contain additional ingredients that will make your egg cream taste weird.

Dairy-Free Chocolate Egg Cream Recipe

1/4 cup cold coconut milk
3/4 cup cold seltzer
3 tablespoons chocolate syrup (preferably Fox’s U-Bet)

Pour coconut milk into a 12-ounce drinking glass. Slowly pour in seltzer, using a long-handled spoon to constantly stir until foamy. Add chocolate syrup; stir from the bottom until just blended, leaving the foamy head white.

Cappuccino Smackdown

I usually brew my own coffee at home, but sometimes I want something special — not just a plain old cup of joe, but an espresso drink like a latte or cappuccino. Enter the milk dilemma.

My favorite chain coffeehouse is Peet’s, the Berkeley-based company that makes a signature blend of beans called Major Dickason, which is a staple in our house. Unfortunately, Peet’s does not offer coconut milk, only almond and soy. I can’t tolerate soy milk, and once I tried an almond milk latte at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf that was so awful, I swore off almond milk forever.

So for a while, my go-to to-go cup was a Starbucks coconut milk cappuccino. Steamed coconut milk froths beautifully, and I was so enchanted by this thick snowbank of lactose-free foam that I overlooked the mediocre Starbucks coffee underneath it.

Then one day I decided to try Peet’s almond milk cappuccino. Not only was it delicious — I would go so far as to say it was the most memorable coffee experience of my life. (Right up there with the first time I ever drank coffee, during my freshman year of college, after which I stayed up all night studying and aced a test the next day.)

Peet's almond milk capuccino
Who knew almond milk could taste so good?

Somehow Peet’s made the almond milk taste exactly like cow’s milk. It was less frothy than Starbucks’s coconut milk, but I was fine with that; actually, the proportion of foam to liquid in the Peet’s cappuccino allowed for a more balanced mouthful with each sip. And Peet’s coffee is just the best. Ultimately, no matter what the milk is like, you’ve got to start with excellent coffee.

I have since tried taking Peet’s almond milk cappuccino to-go, and although it was still tasty, I strongly recommend drinking it as soon as the barista hands it to you. Carve out a block of time for this much deserved indulgence. And don’t feel guilty: As we already established, caffeine makes you smarter.

How to Drink Coffee without Dairy

bigfuckingcoffee
Mug from store.dieselsweeties.com

Before I gave up dairy, I drank coffee every morning: a strong cup of joe with a generous pour of half-and-half. When I lived in New York, my favorite ritual was getting an enormous iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts that had enough cream to turn it a light shade of tan. So let’s get down to brass tacks. You want to go dairy-free, but what are you gonna put in your coffee? Here are your options:

  • Man up and drink your coffee black.
  • Give up coffee. Drink tea instead (without milk, obviously).
  • Use a dubiously edible non-dairy creamer.
  • Use a faux milk such as almond, rice, soy, or coconut.

Since I gave up dairy, I have become much more of a tea drinker than a coffee drinker. Not that hard for me because I’ve always loved tea. But let’s say tea isn’t your cup of… well, tea… and drinking coffee black makes you gag. That leaves options 3 and 4.

Non-dairy creamers, such as Coffee-Mate and Mocha Mix, have been around a long time and you can get them in liquid or dry powder form. Neither is appealing. Most non-dairy creamers have an artificial taste and strange mouth-feel, not to mention a plethora of unpronounceable ingredients.

So that leaves option 4: the other “milks.” I’ve tried them all. Almond milk, rice milk and soy milk tend to be thin and/or chalky in texture. Coconut milk is by far the best and it comes in many variations. Trader Joe’s Coconut Creamer is the closest thing to half-and-half I’ve ever tried, but it contains titanium dioxide — which might be safe, but the fact that it’s used in sunscreen just wigs me out.

Now I use plain old coconut milk. I steer clear of the ones that come in big cartons in the refrigerator section, like Silk and So Delicious, because most are sweetened and have a watery consistency. I prefer the canned or boxed coconut milk that you find in the Asian foods section, such as Thai Kitchen or Kara (my favorite); they tend to be thicker and contain fewer ingredients.

kara

It may take a little while to get used to the slightly coconutty flavor, but once you do, it’s very much like half-and-half. Once opened, I store my coconut milk in a mason jar in the fridge. To take care of any separation that may have occurred, I shake it up before pouring some into my empty mug. (I pour it through a strainer if there are bits of coconut in it.) Then I nuke the coconut milk in the microwave for 15 seconds to take the chill off. And finally, I add the fresh coffee, stir, and enjoy.

Coming soon: where to get a great dairy-free cup of joe to-go!