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When I first took the vegan plunge, I made a mental tally of foods I expected never to eat again. They included: shepherd's pie, lasagna, a perfect latte, meatloaf, whipped cream, and, since I'm Greek, moussaka and avgolemono. Now that I've perfected vegan avgolemono, I have officially eaten (and eaten often) every single food I thought I'd kissed goodbye for good. If this comes as a surprise to you, believe me when I say that it comes as a surprise to me, too.
One of the most important lessons being vegan has taught me is that the dishes we love to eat are often less dependent upon ingredients than we think they are. I don't mean that quality of ingredients isn't crucial, of course; I mean that the essence of a beloved food often resides more in its taste, texture, and the feeling it evokes than in any one featured ingredient. In my last column, I hope I made a good case that shepherd's pie can be perfectly satisfying without meat; if one can create the same heartiness with lentils and the same creaminess in mashed potatoes, the dish feels utterly authentic. So too with so many of our most beloved dishes.
And so too with pie.
Yes, pie. No matter how quickly it makes your mind turn to butter, milk, eggs, and whipped cream, pie lends itself easily to vegan interpretation. Today, I'll show you that vegan pie is infinitely easier than you may think, starting with one simple substitution: coconut oil instead of butter in your crust.
Coconut oil, like butter, is a saturated fat, which means it stays solid at room temperature. If your kitchen happens to be quite toasty, you'll see the oil melt and become clear, but you can easily keep it solid by giving it a quick refrigeration. As any lover of pie-making knows, the secret to perfect crust is to keep everything solid and cold. I've tried some fine olive oil crusts in my day, but the best vegan crust I've tried so far is crust made with coconut oil, which seems to replicate perfectly the flaky texture and even the buttery scent of traditional pie crust. When I first made it at home, I was stunned by how easy and authentic it was.
The next trick to vegan pie is to think about how you can create fillings that don't rely on butter or milk. A few tips that may come in handy:
• Crumbles? Easy: Coconut oil is also marvelous in crumble toppings. Use it just the way you'd use butter; one of my favorite tricks is to pulse rolled oats, brown sugar, sea salt, and coconut oil in a food processor for a rustic, hearty oat and sugar crumble.
• Try a fruit pie: Most fruit pies need little or no fancy substitution to be made vegan. Just toss your berries or apples with some brown sugar, some cornstarch (or tapioca starch, which is my personal preference, and can be easily found in health food stores or Whole Foods Markets), and whatever spices you like (cinnamon, nutmeg). Fill the pie, and bake!
• Switch up your sugars: Choose brown sugar, cane sugar, or demerara sugar over white. This may be preferable from a health standpoint, but more importantly, if you're modifying a pie recipe to be vegan, it's worth noting that white sugar isn't actually vegan! The refining process for white sugar includes bone char, so it, along with gelatin, is off limits. I personally love liquid sweeteners -- agave syrup, maple syrup, blackstrap molasses, and brown rice syrup -- but cane sugar is a safe bet, too.
• Don't forget the toppings: Full-fat coconut milk makes incredible whipped cream. Just let the can separate (as it naturally will when left standing), and use the thick, full-fat layer that is suspended on top. Whisk it briskly and thoroughly with a touch of maple syrup and vanilla for a rich cream that will melt over your pie like magic.
• Creaminess without dairy: Cashews, coconut milk, and silken tofu all make for rich, creamy pie fillings. Of these, soaked cashews may be my favorite, because they add creaminess while also keeping the mixture thick (as in the pumpkin pie you're about to see!). But silken tofu and coconut cream work nicely too, and are also useful for any kind of cream pie.
Need proof? Try this 100% vegan pumpkin pie, made without cream, eggs, condensed milk, or butter. I hope you'll find that it's just as indulgent and satisfying as the "real" thing, and that it inspires you to think about other favorites that can stand to be veganized, one ingredient swap at a time.
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (and more if necessary) cup coconut oil, cold enough to be solid
1 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon cane or demerara sugar
1/3 to 1/2 cup ice water
You Won't Believe It's Vegan Pumpkin Pie
2 1/2 cups pumpkin puree
1 cup cashews, soaked 3+ hours and drained of soaking water
3/4 cup demerara, brown, or cane sugar (extra if you like a sweeter pie)
2 tablespoons tapioca starch
2 tablespoons blackstrap molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried ginger
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 recipe Vegan Pie Crust
Photos by James Ransom