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Have you heard of Yumm! sauce?

I hadn’t either until a few months ago, when a fellow mom at work asked if I’d tried it. When she raved and raved and then raved some more about how much her daughter loves this thick, all-purpose sauce, I decided it was worth a Google.

With one search, I’d entered the wide world of Yumm!

It’s rare that a sauce can come to define a restaurant, but that’s just what has happened with Cafe Yumm!, a mostly vegetarian cafe in Eugene, Ore., that now has 11 locations throughout the state.

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The restaurant’s trademarked Yumm! Sauce is a thick, hummuslike sauce fortified with nuts and nutritional yeast, two ingredients packed with protein and flavor that give this ingredient its addictive — thanks to the umami in the nutritional yeast — taste and texture.

Natural-food enthusiasts (or perhaps we might just lovingly call them hippies) have been making creamy, nondairy sauces out of beans, nuts and nutritional yeast for many years, but Cafe Yumm! co-owner Mary Ann Beauchamps’ version has become a national phenomenon, with a commercial version of the sauce sold in grocery stores throughout the Pacific Northwest and dozens of copycat recipes floating around the Internet.

Beauchamps “would be making her lunch based on what was left over in the restaurant and put her sauce on it,” says Ed Gerdes, vice president and spokesman for the restaurant’s parent company.

(Gerdes says that Beauchamps also served the sauce to her young daughter, Jessica, to encourage her to eat her vegetables. Jessica Beauchamps, who quite literally grew up on that sauce, is now the company’s research and development chef.)

Customers started to ask about the sauce, so Beauchamps started putting it on the restaurant’s rice and bean bowls, wraps and salads, and before long, the restaurant became as known for “that Yumm! sauce” as the food itself.

Beauchamps’ million-dollar formula has stumped home cooks across the country, who have been building off a basic recipe of (mostly) equal parts chickpeas, oil and nutritional yeast and adding all kinds of ingredients, including garlic, dried herbs such as basil, cilantro and tarragon, or even soybeans and tofu.

Sarah Matheny, an Oregon food blogger who published her second book, “More Peas, Thank You” (Harlequin, $21.95), last month, has been making the sauces for several years now, and in her new book, she shares four Yumm!-inspired sauces — original, nacho, pesto and peanut — and dozens of ideas for using them.

“It’s so kid-friendly. You can’t really put your finger on what the flavor is,” says Matheny, but her two young daughters can’t get enough of it.

From a practical standpoint, Matheny likes the sauce because it’s safe to keep at room temperature longer than mayo- or dairy-based sauces and she can send it in her girls’ school lunches.

The sauce is also appealing to people who avoid dairy or eggs for health or ethical reasons, and those with nut allergies can replace the nuts with pumpkin or sunflower seeds, Matheny says.

But from a culinary perspective, Matheny loves the sauce because it’s so easy to adapt and use. It’s infinitely adjustable according to your taste, but no matter what you put in it, the sauce tastes great on anything. Matheny has added ingredients to make the sauce more Asian, Mexican or Italian and has used it in place of mayonnaise on sandwiches, as a dressing on salads, as a flavor-booster for pasta, rice, pizza or tacos, and as a dip for chips or vegetables.

“If you have a good sauce that everyone likes, it’s a good tool to have in your fridge,” Matheny says.

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