A tall round of Bloomy White looks like a triple-crème cheese. And when it’s perfectly ripe, after the Penicillium candidum culture has worked its magic, the velvety white mold that rings the exterior of its creamy center fills your nose with the twang of a bloomy rind that evokes a slice of Camembert or brie. But Bloomy White is not a cheese in the conventional dairy sense. It’s made from cashews, coconut cream, cultures, and time in the aging cave at upstart Conscious Cultures Creamery. And it is — by far — the best vegan cheese I’ve ever tasted.
“I feel like I’m tasting the future when I eat this,” said Jonny Medlinsky, co-owner of Martha, who insisted I try it.
I gave a reluctant eye-roll, to say the least. Of all the food hurdles the vegan movement has managed to conquer over the past two decades, a stand-in for cheese has been among the most elusive. Most, in fact, are downright vile, from mozzarella replacements melted over pizza that smell completely artificial to wedges of “nut cheese” that have ranged in texture, in my experience, closer to hummus, wet sand, plumber’s putty, or worse.
But when I cut a slice of Bloomy White and spread it smoothly over a cracker, I took a bite and waited for the “yuck” that never came. In fact, I liked it — and I knew Stephen Babaki had cracked a holy code. Babaki, a server at Vedge who’s also worked at several well-known restaurants in California, taught himself cheese-making techniques. And he decided a year ago to apply the aging principles of “affinage” to a plant-based protein base of pureed cashews, salt, and coconut cream.
“It’s my blank canvas,” he said. The addition of mold cultures used in traditional cheese making, along with aging in a controlled environment, allow those cultures to bloom and give these cheeses a familiar character that would be pretty convincing among a crowd on a cheeseboard.
Bloomy White, which Babaki is debuting retail at a couple of small stores on Thursday, Aug. 22, uses the Penicillium candidum mold typical of a brie and ages for about three weeks. It also weighs in at 70% fat, somewhere between a double and triple-crème, so it has a lush spreadability and rich mouthfeel typical of the genre. The flavor is balanced, and lightly salted, with a lingering tang from the rind itself adding the primary personality. Only a slightly tan shade to the paste might key you into recognition that this isn’t a dairy cheese.
Babaki has also been experimenting with other molds, washed rinds, and longer aging periods that show its potential. One prototype I tasted was aged for three months with a natural rind that developed a spontaneous blue mold. It’s a firmer cheese, made with the by-product coconut water extracted from the richer cream (“coconut whey?” Babaki jokes), and delivers even more complex flavors, woven with a hint of sharpness and funk.
But aging cheese, of course, requires both time and space that Babaki, who’s currently working to build new caves for expansion, won’t have until sometime next year. If Conscious Cultures Creamery’s debut goes as well as I suspect it will, he’s going to need them.