Are visions of sugarplums dancing in your head? You're not alone. "If you had a life without real dessert, what kind of life would that be?" says Hannah Kaminsky. Born with a sweet tooth and an abundance of talent, Kaminsky, 24, is an award-winning blogger, food photographer, knitter, baker and author of four cookbooks including the brand new "Easy as Vegan Pie."
A one-time picky eater, Kaminsky used to live on "pasta, white bread, ramen noodles and hot dogs. I didn't cook. I really didn't have an awareness of food. I took it for granted." Everything changed when she became vegan in high school -- except her sweet tooth. Till that point, Kaminsky had gotten her sugar fix from store-bought ice cream, cakes and cookies. She gave up playing a part in animal cruelty. Dessert, however, was non-negotiable. Armed with the desire to satisfy her sweet craving with compassion, she took to the kitchen.
Kaminsky discovered just loving sweets and having "a weird fixation with muffins" was not enough. She had little baking experience, and it showed. "The first dozen batches were rock-hard. You could not bite into them without breaking a tooth. It taught me that ratios are important. The balance of flour, liquids and fats can't be pushed beyond a certain point."
After a period of "trial and error and a lot of horrible, horrible experiments," Kaminsky learned that with baking as with knitting and photography (and life), patience pays. She tests recipes again and again until she gets them right -- and so will you when you make them at home. Her advice: "When you don't know what you're doing at all, start with a recipe."
In her cookbooks, she also provides a list of preferred baking tools and vegan ingredients, and goes the extra step of explaining the reason they're there. "White whole wheat flour and all-purpose flour are not the same," she says. "I want to eliminate confusion. I want people to feel informed."
In the six years since Kaminsky went vegan and began blogging at Bittersweet, "my baking has changed, I've changed. More than anything else, being vegan opened my palate. I understand more about flavors, about how things bake. A dessert shouldn't just taste sweet."
Her recipes do reward you with sweetness, but they also taste of soulfulness, of heart and home. That, Kaminsky believes, has everything to do with being plant-based. "Being vegan changes you. It changes the way you think about food and look at food. It extends to every part of your life. It's so intrinsic. It's made me more conscious of my decisions, what I'm buying and where it's coming from, what I'm feeding people. It speaks loudly about nourishment and what feeds your soul. It's giving you something more emotional."
For Kaminsky, being vegan has nothing but sweet rewards, from cruelty-free desserts to supportive community. "I love the fact we all band together. We're all friends." She's the only vegan in her family, though, and realizes going plant-based is not a choice everyone can or will make.
"We all do what we can," she says. "There's so much cruelty within the food system. There's a lot that needs to be fixed with food, production, food perception. It's hard to know where to start -- that's over my head." What Kaminsky can do is "offer something good and accessible and delicious. If I can get staunch omnivores to make one vegan pie, that's awesome."
Chocolate Chipotle Sweet Potato Pie
reprinted with permission from Hannah Kaminsky's "Easy as Vegan Pie," © Skyhorse Publishing, 2013
Chipotle Sweet Potato Filling:
2 cups roasted sweet potato puree*
1 cup dark brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2-1 small chipotle pepper, canned in adobo sauce
1 teaspoon adobo sauce
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1 cup canned full-fat coconut milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Chocolate Cookie Crust
1 3/4 cups chocolate wafer cookie crumbs
4-5 tablespoons non-dairy margarine or coconut oil, melted
1 cup (6 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate chips
To Finish (optional):
coconut whipped cream
chocolate shavings or curls
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
For the best texture, be sure to pulse your cookie of choice in a food processor until very finely ground. The resulting crumbs should be about the consistency of coarse almond meal. Pick out any larger pieces and re-process as needed.
Drizzle the melted margarine or coconut oil into the crumbs, and stir thoroughly to coat everything evenly. The mixture shouldn't be wet, but just moist, and capable of sticking together when pressed.
Transfer the mix to a 9-inch springform pan, and use lightly dampened fingers to firmly press it down on the bottom and along the sides. Use the bottom of a flat measuring cup or drinking glass for smoother surfaces.
You may have more crumbs than needed, so feel free to remove the excess and either save it for future crusts, or bake separately on a flat baking sheet to create any easy sweet ice cream topping.
Bake the piecrust for 10 minutes, until golden.
Immediately after removing the crust from the oven, sprinkle it evenly with your chocolate chips, letting them sit for a moment to warm and soften. As they melt, use a spatula to smooth the chocolate out over the crust, to form a fairly even layer. Set aside.
For the filling, simply place all of the ingredients (starting with the lesser amount of chipotle) in your food processor or blender, and pulse to combine. Pause and scrape down the sides of the work bowl as needed, to make sure that everything is getting incorporated, until the filling mixture is completely smooth and homogeneous. Taste for seasoning, and add in more chipotle (or even adobo sauce, if that's not enough for you) as desired.
The heat does tone down a bit after being baked, but not too much, so go easy on those spicy little peppers! Once you're satisfied with the level of spice, pour the sweet potato mix on top of your prepared crust, and smooth out the top.
Tap the pan a few times on the counter to release any air bubbles, before sliding it into the oven.
Bake for 20-28 minutes, until the edges are set but the center still looks wobbly, much like a cheesecake. Let cool completely before moving the pie into the fridge.
Only after it is thoroughly chilled can you top it with the coconut whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Release the ring from the springform pan and serve! And yes, if you added just a touch too much chipotle, a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream does help tame the flame.
*To get roasted sweet potato puree, crank up your oven to 400 degrees. Peel and roughly dice two medium-large sweet potatoes, and toss with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle very lightly with coarse sea salt, and bake for 20-30 minutes, until the pieces are fork-tender and lightly browned around the edges. Let cool, and puree to a completely smooth consistency in your food processor or blender. Alternately, you could use canned sweet potato or even pumpkin puree.