Monday, November 19, 2012

Making Unusual Vegan Pies

When contemplating dessert plans at this time of year, one’s mind naturally turns to thoughts of pie. Just like cookies at Christmas and cake for birthdays, pie is the dessert most associated with Thanksgiving, and with autumn in general.

Pie is often considered a little bit intimidating, though.  And that’s a shame because it’s actually one of the most forgiving desserts as far as dietary modifications are considered.  It’s no harder to make a vegan pie than a regular one, and the same goes for a sugar free one.  Even gluten free is pretty doable. 

Pie is also amazingly versatile.  Different fillings can make for a very wide variety of desserts. And when you make your own pie from scratch, you can widen the pool even further by designing some truly unusual (even unique) pies.

Here are a few unusual pies I’ve made lately that might make an interesting addition to your holiday meal.

Ground Cherry and Rhubarb Pie
Ground Cherry and Rhubarb Pie

Ground Cherries
Ground cherries are supposedly common on the east coast, but this was the first time I’d ever seen them available locally, so I couldn’t resist pie-ing them up. Ground cherries are a funny little fruit that looks like a miniature tomatillo and tastes like a gooseberry. Combined with rhubarb they made for a very distinctive, tangy pie.

1 ½ cups ground cherries, husks removed and rinsed
4 ½ cups rhubarb, chopped
1 ½ - 2 cups sweetener or sugar
¼ cup flour
1 Tbsp lemon juice
½ tsp vanilla
½ tsp almond extract
½ tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg
¼ tsp cardamom

1/3 cup flour
2 ½ Tbsp ground almonds or other nuts
½ cup oats
1/3 cup sugar or sweetener
½ tsp cinnamon
dash each nutmeg and cardamom
1 or 2 dashes salt
3 ½ Tbsp oil

1 pie crust

Ground Cherry Rhubarb Filling
Prepare fruit and mix with other filling ingredients. If the mixture looks overly dry, drizzle in a couple tablespoons of water.

Prepare topping by whisking together dry ingredients, then mix oil in with your fingers until it looks like clumpy wet sand.

Pour fruit filling into pie shell, then sprinkle topping over top.  Bake at 350 degrees F for 25 minutes, then cover with foil and bake 25 minutes more.

Zucchini Cream Pie (Mock Coconut)

Zucchini Cream Pie

This one was really interesting. It tastes quite a bit like a coconut cream pie, only very light and refreshing. Some people like to use a light golden zucchini or summer squash in order to be sneakier, but I don’t mind people knowing they’re eating zucchini, and the little flecks of green are pretty.

2 cups grated zucchini (a little more or less is ok)
1 12 oz box form silken tofu
1/3 cup soymilk (or coconut milk, if you like)
½ cup flour
1 cup sweetener
1 tsp coconut extract
½ tsp vanilla
¼ tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp cinnamon
¼ tsp nutmeg (plus dash)
¼ tsp salt
1 Tbsp shredded coconut

1 pie crust (graham cracker/ginger snap crust is fine)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Puree tofu with all ingredients down to salt in a food processor. Pour into a bowl and stir in half of the zucchini.  Pour into pie crust. Sprinkle rest of zucchini on top and press down lightly to submerge. Sprinkle coconut on top and top with a dash of nutmeg.

Bake for about 35 minutes, until golden brown.

Easy Hand Pies/Turnovers
Turnover, filled with gooseberry jam and dried cranberries

These are an awful lot of fun for how simple they are. The playing with dough part might be good for kids to try.

1 can ready to bake vegan biscuits (any homemade rolled biscuit dough recipe works too)
about 2/3 cup jam or preserves (any flavor—sugar free works too but will ooze a bit)
about 1/3 cup raisins, dried cranberries or other bite sized dried fruit

Flour for rolling
Soymilk for brushing
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling

Pop the can of biscuits. After flouring your board and rolling pin, roll each biscuit out until it is an approximately 5-inch diameter disc. Place about 1 tbsp of jam in one half of the center of each dough disc and sprinkle with a few pieces of dried fruit. Wet the inside edges of the disc and fold over.  Crimp edge with a fork to seal.  Poke a few holes in each turnover with a fork or knives. Place turnovers on a cookie sheet (parchment lined would probably be best). Brush them lightly with soymilk and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 20- 30 minutes, until golden brown.

Easy Hand Pies/Turnovers

Incredibly Fancy Vegan Pumpkin-Sweet Potato Pecan Streusel Pie

This is for when a regular pumpkin pie won’t do. I’ve had people who hate pumpkin take a look at this pie and say, “Boy I wish I liked pumpkin pie, because that looks so good.” I won’t say that it will convert the haters—the pumpkin is not at all hidden here, if anything it’s emphasized. But I will say that the pumpkin and pecan both enhance each other: the candied pecans jazz up the pumpkin (which is sometimes bland) and the pumpkin tones down the somewhat sickly-sweetness that standard pecan pies are a bit prone to.

Pumpkin-Sweet Potato Pecan Streusel Pie
Pumpkin-Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

2 1/3 cups pumpkin puree (most of a 30 oz can)
1 cup peeled, diced and cooked sweet potato
1 12 oz package firm silken tofu
1 ¼ cup sugar or sweetener
2 ½ Tbsp cornstarch
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
½ tsp nutmeg
½ tsp cardamom
dash allspice
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp coconut extract
¼ tsp salt

1 cup chopped pecans, plus 8 halves for garnish
2 Tbsp maple syrup (or sugar-free pancake syrup)
½ tsp cinnamon
dash salt

¾ cup whole wheat pastry flour
¼ cup ground pecans
1 tsp cinnamon
dash salt
¼ cup oil
½ vanilla
1-2 tbsp water
2 tbsp quick oats

1 pie crust (graham cracker or ginger snap crust works great)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Puree all the filling ingredients—you will need to do it in batches. Pour into crust and bake for 30 minutes.

Pumpkin-tofu filling

Meanwhile, stir together chopped pecans with syrup, cinnamon and salt. Make the streusel by whisking together flour, ground pecans, cinnamon, and salt. Drizzle in oil, vanilla, and water while tossing with fork until it looks like crumbly wet sand. Stir in oats.

After 30 minutes, pull out the pie. It should be somewhat firm and a little browned on top. Sprinkle the chopped maple pecans over the top, leaving a 1½-inch ring bare around the edge. Sprinkle the streusel over the ring around the edge of the pie. It’s fine if the streusel overlaps the pecans a little. Take the whole pecans, swirl them around in the residue of the chopped maple pecan bowl to coat them slightly. Arrange the whole pecans in a pretty pattern on the top of the pie. Bake for another 20-25 minutes.

Putting the pecan topping on (before the streusel is added)

Let cool at least a few hours before attempting to cut. Will store well for a couple days.

Variations:  You can of course leave off the pecan and streusel toppings for a plain pumpkin pie.

You could also make either a straight pumpkin or sweet potato pie instead of combining them. A butternut squash pie would be nice too.

Other nuts such as walnuts, hazelnuts or almonds could be used in place of the pecans.

Note: To cook a fresh pumpkin or squash for a pie:  cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and strings, and bake it cut side down for 45 –60 minutes at 350 degrees F, until it is easily pierced by a fork. Then just scoop the flesh out of the skin and run it through the blender. It may be a little bit runnier than the canned puree. You can compensate for this by adding an extra tablespoon or two of cornstarch or by reducing it—simmering the puree on the stovetop until it is thickened and concentrated.

By the way, not all pumpkins are equally suited to pie making. Small pumpkins often have better flavor than giant ones, which are watery. Some kinds are specially bred for sweetness and flavor, such as Sugar Pie Pumpkins. Others are bred for looks and size and are quite bland.  At the farmers market you can ask the vendor if a particular type is good for pies. You could also research particular varieties—there are a number of heirloom varieties that have their proponents.  Taste is subjective, though, so you might not agree with others’ opinions. It’s probably best to experiment for yourself.