Plant Based Milks

Not too long ago, there were few, if any, non-dairy alternatives to milk. The ones that were available were...well, at least a good effort. With the sudden resurgence for nut and grain milks within the last several years, I was admittedly hesitant, yet curious.  They've come a long way, baby. Now that they have become mainstay, it goes without saying how much it delights me to see the ever growing real estate devoted to alternative dairy in the supermarkets (and, so creative, too!).

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My first go at homemade plant based milks was several years ago and I was floored by how simple the process was. What a triumphant result! As with most things homemade, store-bought cannot compete. Even so, I don't make homemade milks as nearly as often as I would like (or should). As a legacy member of the Eternally Busy Society, I often find myself giving in to the convenience of the prepackaged variety. Are they bad for you? No, in fact, there are several brands that are outstanding, but it is discouraging to see how many other brands contain a startling amount of gut-irritating fillers, thickeners, sugar, and in one curious case, actual dairy ingredients (no kidding). It is around this time of year, however, that I tend to yearn for the homemade, created with love, care, and whole ingredients. 

What's your fancy? These days, anything goes. Almond, cashew, sunflower, flax (a house fave), oat, rice, macadamia, coconut...the sky is the limit. My personal preference, however, is hazelnut. My German roots possess a natural bias towards all things hazelnut, but I truly feel like the unique flavor of this milk is unparalleled. Rich, creamy, instant happy. 

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The plan is simple. Soak 2 cups of nuts in about 4 cups filtered water for at least two hours, as long as overnight. If any one rule should be adhered to, it is this one, your patience will be rewarded. It simply yields a richer, smoother result. I usually change out the water at least a few times during this process. Once ready, I transfer the nuts with the accompanying liquid to my Ninja and give it a good go. Typically, this will  result in a very thick consistency, which is entirely okay. You have every opportunity to thin it out to your desired thickness once strained. With a fine mesh strainer (or cheesecloth) set over a large measuring cup or bowl, pour the contents slowly to strain. Squeeze the milk through the strainer until a meal flour is created. They key is to strain as much liquid from the solid as possible to yield maximum results and also to dry out the hazelnut meal. 

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Again, your milk may be very thick, in which case you may add additional filtered water to thin out to your desired consistency. I also will run the milk through the sieve again, to filter out any grainy sediment that snuck through. Every time is different; sometimes I prefer a thicker consistency, sometimes thinner, depending what I am using it for. Additionally, I've added additional ingredients, post-strain, such as cold-brew, vanilla, cinnamon, dates, or all of the above.

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And what to do with the leftover meal? Waste not want not! It can be used for any number of holiday baking endeavors, my favorite being a healthy spiced cracker enjoyed as a cereal or a late afternoon nosh. I've even baked it low and slow to create a "breadcrumb" type topping for roasted vegetables or tofu. For example, to create the crackers, add a desired amount of flax, chia, or sesame seed, a tablespoon or so of grapeseed oil to each cup of meal, and continue to season as you wish. For a sweet cereal, I add a little brown rice syrup to taste, some cinnamon, and a dash of salt. For a more savory cracker, incorporate some fresh and fragrant rosemary instead. Keep it simple, it doesn't need to be complicated. Gently mold into a ball and chill in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes or so to bind. Preheat oven to a low 325 degrees.

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The dough may be transferred to a Silpat or parchment lined pan. I like to cover the dough with another sheet of parchment as I flatten it to about 1/8"-1/4" thick. Gently score the dough into squares (or use a cutter for shapes) and slowly bake at 325 degrees for about 10 minutes. This is a project you want to keep an eagle eye on, as to not brown any edges. If it browns, it will taste scorched. Continue to check every 10 minutes until you reach a very light and golden tint. This can be as little as 20 minutes and as much as 40, depending on how much moisture was left in the hazelnut meal. Let them cool and crisp completely outside of the oven, before loosening the crackers with a spatula and transferring them directly into your mouth. 

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Although I tend to use nut milks mostly for my daily protein shakes, I tend to reserve my homemade versions for recipes I can truly savor, like adding it to my homemade cereal squares, my pear, ginger, and cardamom granola or a decadent, nighttime turmeric tea.  Either way, it is a no-fail way to savor the season.

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Enjoy!