The first time I tried my hand at vegan baking, I made a sweet potato pie for a friend's birthday. It was a disaster -- not because of the pie itself, but rather because I was in the midst of preparing for the 2007 APC Crisco National Pie Championships in Orlando and was blogging about my baking. Since I am somewhat accident-prone, the blog more or less recounted my misadventures. The friend took offense - as if I had baked it out of a perverse sense of duty rather than because I actually wanted to - and we never spoke again.
But long before my first attempt, I knew that vegan baking was a delicate art. My journalism mentor was vegan and had embraced baking as a retirement hobby. Whenever I threw dinner parties, he would proudly bring rock-hard vegan cookies that we cautiously consumed as my vegan friends whispered, "Vegan baking is really hard."
So...if I was going to give advice to anyone who wants to make vegan desserts this holiday season but is afraid of forcing their nearest and dearest to eat said rock-hard confections, I would suggest perhaps taking the easy way out with fruit pies. As long as you make the crust with Crisco instead of butter or lard, a pie like apple is already vegan.
More traditional fare, however, requires additional tinkering.
Throughout my childhood, my family used Libby's pumpkin for most holiday desserts, so it's my go-to pie recipe. But Libby's requires a can of evaporated milk and I was nervous about finding a suitable vegan replacement. Carnation"s Web site says that evaporated milk is merely fresh milk that has been heated to remove water so it becomes creamier. But can you just heat up soy, rice or almond milk and get the same result? Or do you have to add something to achieve creaminess? And, if so, what? I didn't know...and decided instead to find a recipe on Epicurious.com. (I ultimately settled on one that isn't all that different from Libby's -- it uses heavy cream and whole milk instead of evaporated milk.)
A number of Web sites will tell you that you can use tofu, bananas or soy yogurt to replace eggs, but heavy cream was trickier. I finally read on VeggieBoards.com that you can use silk soy creamer or full fat coconut milk to replace heavy cream. (My cookbooks weren't much help. The only Vs in Nigella Lawson's book are for "vanilla sugar," "Victoria sponge" and "vodka"...and the Joy of Cooking offers two vegan cakes, but skirts the dairy issue completely, instead using ingredients like vegetable oil and vinegar.)
The only time I have ever purchased coconut milk was for a coconut cake last Christmas that my aunt hid in the microwave above her stove. (It ended up melting with the heat rising throughout the day, so my dessert looked like a huge sagging hunk of shag carpet by the time dinner was over.) My grocery store had several brands to choose from, but since I was supposed to use "full fat" coconut milk, I purchased Asian Gourmet Imported Coconut Milk because it had the highest fat content per serving (15 grams, for those keeping score). I was worried that a cup of it would overpower my pumpkin pie with a distinctly tropical taste, but I couldn't find any silk soy creamer, so my hands were tied.
It wasn't until I had already purchased boxes of silken tofu (but more because the alternative in see-through packaging was only available in "firm" and "extra firm") that I noticed that The Post Punk Kitchen recommends vacuum-packed brands such as Mori-Nu and I got a little thrill because that's the kind I purchased.
My crust came together in a snap - in part because I had a brand new tub of Crisco. I had a devil of a time rolling out pie crusts once and couldn't understand why it was so difficult. When I finally ran out of shortening and opened a new tub, I learned a valuable lesson: the age of your Crisco matters. New Crisco yields crusts that are far easier to work with. It's also extremely important that your water is cold, so I like to measure it out before anything else and let it sit in a measuring cup with some ice cubes until I'm ready.
I can't say blended silken tofu smelled all that good -- just really beany -- but when the pumpkin, spices, coconut milk and soy milk were added, it certainly looked the part. And when I licked the spatula, it definitely tasted coconut-y, but pleasantly so. And I'm not even a huge coconut fan.
As it baked, it didn't emit much scent - as opposed to that "come hither"-smell that many baked goods do. But it turned out pretty.
I haven't tried it yet (unlike brownies -- which you can cut up and sample yourself and still give away without anyone knowing what you did -- you can't hide a missing piece of pie), but I'm optimistic. It's a looker. And at least no ruined friendships this time?