Big Little Recipes

This Magical Basil Cream Sauce Doesn't Need Any Cream

August  3, 2021

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. That means five ingredients or fewer—not including water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (like oil and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Psst, did you hear we’re coming out with a cookbook? We’re coming out with a cookbook!

Years ago, so they say, if a woman plopped a basil plant on her windowsill, it was a signal for her lover to come hither, the herbal precursor to texting “you up?” I’d like to think this summery pasta sauce has a similar effect.

It works with whatever shape you want—or whatever shape your special-someone wants—be that orecchiette or rigatoni, linguini or pappardelle, ramen or udon. This unabashedly green sauce charms everyone.

There are many basil cream sauces out there, and just about all of them include basil and cream. Also: onion, garlic, Parmesan, pine nuts, chicken broth, lemon, other herbs, and even bread crumbs.

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Top Comment:
“I use cashew cream a lot ... have not tried with basil, but I will - Thanks! FWIW, it works really well with roasted red peppers for a red pepper sauce. ”
— Liz S.

This recipe includes the basil, yes, but none of the other ingredients. Not even the heavy cream (or light cream or half-and-half or milk). Instead, it ushers in something else, something just as satisfying and lip-smacking, yet also dairy-free—cashews.

Photo by Linda Xiao. Prop Stylist: Veronica Olson. Food Stylist: Sam Senevinatre.

Vegan cookbook author Gena Hamshaw calls cashew cream “one of the most powerful tools that any vegan home cook can have in his or her arsenal.” I’d argue the same for any not-vegan home cook, too.

While other nut milks mandate lengthy soaking (who has the time?) and cheesecloth straining (who has the cheesecloth?), cashew cream couldn’t care less. The nuts are soft enough that a 30-minute bath does the trick. And you don’t need a fancy blender to yield something velvety enough to skip straining altogether.

It’s a still-creamy, not-heavy, just-right backdrop for an obscene amount of greenery. Quickly blanched to set its color (we need that boiling water anyway for the pasta), then chucked into a blender, the basil is no longer an herby accent to a creamy sauce. It is the sauce.

With a very dry, very cold white wine—or bubbly, why not?—it’s my idea of an ideal summer date night. Justin, are you reading this?

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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    christine franz
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Frank September 28, 2021
I wish I lived in an area where you could buy Basil that looks like that. Here in Kansas, the only way you can buy a bunch like that is to buy the bundle to grow and it's really expensive. When I talk to my friends in Europe they tell me Basil over there is almost a throwaway it's so cheap and plentiful.
Angie E. August 15, 2021
I realize the crux of the sauce comes from the cashews. I would love other suggestions, as my son has a severe nut allergy. Thanks!
Glennora August 5, 2021
I was very stoked about making this beautiful sauce. I soaked the nuts overnight. Cut the basil from my garden just before beginning. The nuts didn’t become as creamy as I’d hoped. I switched to an immersion blender and the consistency improved a lot. Maybe I didn’t have enough basil because it was pale green after blending. I added garlic and more salt and am looking forward to serving it over pasta. Would make a great pizza base as well.
LB August 4, 2021
Looks too gummy for me, but I bet the flavor is delish!
christine F. August 4, 2021
Great Recipe . Love your hair !!!
Melody H. August 4, 2021
Does this freeze well?
Emma L. August 4, 2021
I haven't tried that! But it does refrigerate well—see recipe notes here for tips:
JoyGim August 3, 2021
Just be careful if ever serving at dinner party et al as cashews are deadly as peanuts to those allergic. Who’d not think it would be in such a sauce:)
Cecily August 3, 2021
Can you use roasted/unsalted cashews for this?
Emma L. August 4, 2021
I wouldn't recommend it—they wouldn't blend up as smoothly and the sauce wouldn't turn out the same vibrant green.
Cecily August 4, 2021
Thanks, can't wait to make it!
Sue G. September 10, 2021
I used roasted salted cashews and let them soak for several hours in the fridge. The blender smoothed it right out. This was the BEST pesto! I made it as directed but did need to add more salt and pepper to taste. Served with bowtie pasta and grilled shrimp. I thought it was an outstanding meal. Next time I might add a little garlic to that cashew/basil mixture.
SMP August 3, 2021
As someone who is not a fan of cream, the cashews are a great substitute. Thank you. Would recommend to not use that much sauce - pastas should not be heavily coated.
Deborah R. August 3, 2021
Have you ever tried it with garlic or roasted garlic?
Emma L. August 3, 2021
I haven't! Since basil is such a humble herb, I wanted to celebrate its flavor as much as possible. Other sauce aromatics, like garlic and onion, can quickly steal the show.
Deborah R. August 3, 2021
thanks for the quick reply! You are so right!
Liz S. August 3, 2021
I use cashew cream a lot ... have not tried with basil, but I will - Thanks! FWIW, it works really well with roasted red peppers for a red pepper sauce.
Emma L. August 3, 2021
Yum, red pepper sauce sounds great!
cynthia August 5, 2021
Hey Liz, My hubby isn't a fan of basil, but the roasted red pepper sounds like an ideal substitute. Can you share the amounts you used?
Liz S. August 6, 2021
The original recipe link: and the blog author notes that it is an adaptation of a Silver Hills Cookbook recipe.

Since that site is not secure and post is older AND it is pretty close to the basil, I'm feeling ok with posting ingredients:

2 red peppers (I've used jarred roasted red which is my personal preference)
1 cup raw cashews (pieces are fine and cheaper)
1 1/2 cup water
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T Nutritional yeast
garlic or garlic powder to tasts
1/4 tsp or to taste of black pepper

Combine all in your blender and blend until smooth. THEN, heat gently until warm/hot and thick. You can eat immediately or refrigerate. I like it over eggs, rice, meatloaf (the rice loaf in the link is vegan and very good!), pasta ... whatever sounds good.

PanTostado August 3, 2021
Looks delicious! Thinking maybe I can use cashew butter since that’s what I have. Curious if you think it would work and if so, how much cashew butter you’d use in place of the cashews?
Emma L. August 3, 2021
Fun idea! (Reminds me of this article about turning almond butter into almond milk: My only hesitation is that many commercial cashew butters start with toasted nuts, which might lead to a duller/browner color, and could distract from the bright basil flavor.
PanTostado August 4, 2021
Thank you! I made it for lunch. I happened to have a jar of raw (not roasted) cashew butter from my co-op and it turned out great! I used half the amount of butter to whole cashews. Next time I'll try as written to compare but would absolutely make with the butter again. What a delicious easy recipe!
Bonnie August 3, 2021
Always look forward to your next creation. Can’t wait to try!
Emma L. August 3, 2021
Thanks so much, Bonnie, hope you love it!
AntoniaJames August 3, 2021
Yes, please! ;o)
Emma L. August 3, 2021
Thanks, AJ! :o)