The COVID-19 pandemic may have led Universal Orlando Resort to cancel its popular Halloween Horror Nights event this year, but through special seasonal Halloween events inside its theme parks, Universal is keeping the spookiness — and the tastiness — alive.
Within the gates of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, there are spookily decorated doughnuts, "bloody charred" tandoori chicken skewers and more, but the main event for my group and me was the Jack'D Up Mac, a vegan mac and cheese dish available inside the Skeleton Bar, a transformed version of Universal's Cafe La Bamba, that offers Halloween-themed dishes and drinks. (And no, I'm not vegan!)
Made with twisty cavatappi pasta, vegan cheese and plant-based sausage, the pasta dish was surprisingly creamy and flavorful for a theme-park vegan dish.
According to Ron Cope, an executive sous chef at Universal Orlando (which is part of NBC Universal, the parent company of NBC News), that's because the parks have prioritized perfecting vegan options to keep guests and annual pass holders who follow a vegan diet full and happy.
"We were looking for a (Halloween) item for our vegan guests that frequent our parks," Cope told TODAY, explaining that any time Universal revamps a menu or creates a new dining location, the dietary concerns of guests are considered carefully. "I personally enjoy vegan food, although I’m not a strict vegan, and love to find new products that are available as well as explore the simplicity of different vegetable flavors and textures."
The vegetable flavors and textures in the Jack'D Up Mac were also phenomenal. Cope's recipe includes crimini mushrooms and red and green bell peppers to add an extra level of flavor to the dish.
Cope said it's also important to find a good vegan cheese and a plant-based sausage that's flavorful.
But the real secret to the Skeleton Bar's vegan mac is pesto: Cope says adding a vegan pesto to the mix adds a nuttiness and creaminess that may otherwise be missing from another vegan macaroni and cheese dish.
My travel group at Universal Orlando Resort included picky kids, adventurous kids and adults who love to try new foods. Everyone in my party went back for more Jack'D Up Mac, and when we played a game at the table where we asked which of the dishes we'd make the winner if we were "Top Chef" judges, it was unanimous that the creamy vegan pasta was the winner.
"We wanted to create something that was recognizable as well as satisfying for our vegan guests," Cope explained.
I'd say this dish satisfied even the meat-eaters in our group.
The Skeleton Bar and all of its offerings, including the Jack'D Up Mac, are available at Universal Studios Florida through Nov. 1, as part of Universal's revamped Halloween offerings.
But fear not: If a trip to Orlando isn't in your immediate future, Cope shared the recipe with TODAY, so you can try it out for yourself.