Master and Margherita Bruschetta

Worth the slaving away in the kitchen.

Yes, I’m also a literary nerd, for those of you who recognize the reference. I’m laying on the puns in triplicate now.

I determined how to make vegan margherita (caprese) bruschetta when it turned out to be the favorite appetizer of un signore who could get me to dress up like a Wookiee and bark like a seal if he so desired. Everybody’s got to serve somebody, as a certain American bard once wrote, and this crunchy-creamy-acidic-basilicious aperitivo is one thing you can serve to the sternest of masters (or mistresses) to their begrudging pleasure.

Cashew “mozzarella” can be made all kinds of ways, but after trying out all the popular versions that use lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, miso, and/or nutritional yeast in various iterations, I think this much simpler but actively fermented, yoinked-from-the-vegan-cheese-industry version is the best. Most recipes will direct you to drop ice cream scoops of the finished product into ice water or brine to firm it up, but I like to let the cheese “gel” in a nonstick muffin tin to make handy little sliceable rounds.

20 of these naughty bites will serve anywhere from 5-10, depending on how greedy everyone gets with them. Make a half batch or less if it’s just you and your padrone.

Ingredients

For the mozzarella

  • 1/2 cup raw cashews, soaked at least 3 hours (or 15 minutes in boiled water)
  • 1/2 cup plant based yogurt (not coconut milk unless you want the taste, I use almond)
  • 1 1/2 T tapioca starch
  • 3/4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 1/2 T agar flakes (can also use 1/2 T agar powder)

Ferment the “mozzarella” by starting a day ahead of time: combine the (cooled) cashews, salt, and yogurt along with 1/4 cup water in a blender and process until completely smooth. Pour it into a container with a lid but don’t secure the lid – it should be loosely covered to let gases escape. Leave it at room temperature for 12-24 hours. It should develop a stronger tang as the cultures get busy with those sweet cashews.

Whisk the tapioca starch into the yogurt mixture. In a small saucepan, heat 1/4 cup water on medium heat until the edges sizzle, then add the agar flakes. Stir with a wooden spoon or a heat-safe spatula to dissolve the agar and let it thicken a little, then pour in the yogurt-cashew mixture as you stir. Keep heating and stirring the mixture rapidly as it starts to thicken. In about five minutes or so it will become a wonderfully stretchy, silky goo. Remove it from the heat and spoon it into a nonstick muffin tin to make four rounds.*

Let the mixture cool for about half an hour and then refrigerate in the tin until chilled. The rounds should come out fairly easily and can be stored refrigerated in sealed containers (I’m not a fan of plastic wrap).

For the crostini

  • 1 vegan baguette (Schär makes a great vegan-friendly gluten-free baguette)
  • About 2 T avocado oil
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper
  • Clove garlic, halved

Preheat the oven to 375. Slice the baguette in about 20 1/2″ slices on the bias (at an angle, for longer pieces) and brush both sides with avocado oil seasoned with a dash of salt and pepper. Toast the slices on a baking sheet at 375 for about 7 minutes – the slices should be a light golden brown when you flip them over. Rub the golden side of the crostini with the cut side of the garlic pieces and leave the crostini on the baking sheet. You can turn up the oven to broil – you’ll be “toasting” the cheese in a minute.

For the topping

  • 1 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 lb. ripe red roma or campari tomatoes, diced small
  • 1/2 cup basil chiffonade (basil leaves sliced thinly in julienne strips)

Heat the balsamic vinegar to a boil in a small saucepan and then lower the heat to low-medium to reduce it to a glaze while you chop the tomatoes and chiffonade the basil – you can roll the basil leaves together into a “log” and slice. Keep your eye on the pan, though, or you’ll have balsamic caramel! It should reduce down by about half and get syrupy.

Place thin slices of the mozzarella on each crostini (slice the cheese rounds across and they’ll be crostini-sized, you’ll only need 3 of the rounds) and put the sheet back under the broiler for a couple of minutes – this is to heat and toast the cheese a little, it won’t melt back into goo. Place the warm crostini on plates and top them with a spoonful of tomatoes and some chiffonade. Dress with an artful drizzle of balsamic on each, and serve!

*If you’re well organized, you can time the vegan-rella to cook at the same time as the glaze and can skip the broiling step in favor of just spreading hot cheese on the toasted crostini. You can even try spooning the cheese over the tomato, basil and balsamic for a gooier, more melty treat. It’s just not quite as photogenic.

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