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[Photo: Peanut Butter & Co.]

Who doesn't love whipped cream? It turns a slice of pie into a celebration, a scoop of ice cream into a sundae, and simple bowl of berries into a fabulous dessert. Ah, but maybe you don't do dairy and you miss the rich, creamy taste of whipped cream. Enter cashew cream, a well-known cheat for vegan and raw food chefs trying to produce the same rich, smooth texture and flavor.

I had been hearing about this stuff for years. The internet is awash with different recipes and techniques, but after testing a bunch, here's the winner.

The most important thing is you must use unsalted, raw cashews, which have very little flavor of their own. Like many nuts, it's the roasting process that really brings out all of the toasty-ness. In their raw form, cashews are slightly sweet with a faint nuttiness. This means that you can add your own spin to customize the cashew cream and complement whatever you're serving it with.

Many recipes suggest placing the cashews in a blender and filling the pitcher with water until it's one inch over the nuts. I hate inexact measurements like this. In my blender, that meant one cup of cashews and two cups of water. This produced cashew milk.* With the organic cashews I purchased at $13.89 a pound, needless to say, I wasn't pleased.

Starting over. This time I found that one cup of cashews to a half cup of liquid produced the right texture. I added a little vanilla for flavor, then it was time to think about a sweetener.

Many vegans don't eat granulated white sugar because it can be filtered using bone char. Evaporated cane juice (an unrefined sugar) is a good substitute and adding two tablespoons of simple syrup made from the evaporated cane juice worked well. But that's a lot of work. Honey seemed like a great alternative but that defeats the purpose of a "vegan" recipe. Agave nectar worked well, but it's a tad expensive. Brown rice syrup? The flavor was a little strong. Maple syrup was a possibility but the maple flavor won't work well for all desserts. The goal was to find a sweetener that made for an "all purpose" whipped, creamy topping.

Then, the Eureka moment. Apple juice. Instead of using water as my blending liquid, I tried apple juice. The results were not only tasty but cheaper.

I served the cashew cream on top of a rustic vegan apple crumble. Would it pass as real whipped cream made from dairy milk? Probably not. The cashew cream still retains hints of nuttiness and never gets as light and fluffy as real whipped cream. But it's a close enough substitute that I'd be proud serving alongside most desserts, especially ones that contain fruit and nuts, and especially to folks that will appreciate an all-natural alternative to the dairy stuff. It'd also be delicious in a parfait or trifle or in the morning with a little granola.

Have you ever made cashew cream? Got any unusual recipes using nuts?

*I saved this "cashew milk," from my first round of tests, refrigerated it, and it took on sort of a crème anglaise consistency. I added a little cinnamon, and powdered ginger and was a nice creamer for my iced coffee this morning!

Get the recipe for cashew cream »

About the author: Lee Zalben was a PB&J-loving kid that grew up to be the founder and president of Peanut Butter & Co., which began as a Greenwich Village sandwich shop serving nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and expanded to include the now-famous line of all natural flavored peanut butter. Lee is a graduate of Vassar College and enjoys traveling the world in search of interesting foods made with peanuts, tree nuts, and seeds. When he's not working, eating, flying or writing, he enjoys scuba diving and training elephants.

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