BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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The Life of Pie

Not all brilliant ideas start out that way. Anyone that’s spent a decent amount of time tinkering with recipes can attest to that, often chalking up more failures than successes despite any amount of experience at the stove. Case in point: This stubborn crusted wonder known fondly as a Caramel Corn Pie, which should have graced the pages of Easy as Vegan Pie.

Conceptually sound yet more temperamental than a 5-year old crashing from a sugar high, it was my problem child of the bunch. After sending it through the ringer with over a half-dozen different trials, completely revamping the base and rendering it unrecognizable from the original approach, sweet relief seemed to be in sight. Handing over the results to my unsuspecting recipe testers, I stood back with a smug sense of pride, awaiting the flood of enthusiastic feedback sure to return in no time.

Needless to say, that was not the case. Still baking unevenly, working in fits and starts, there was no rhyme nor reason to why it would work for some but flop spectacularly for others. Endless last minute tweaks caused it to miss the final deadline for joining the other perfect pies in the book, but finally, a gem I’ve been saving up to celebrate Pi Day (3.14!) the right way, its time has finally come.

For all the love that popcorn wins as a stand-alone snack, you’d think that more treats would seek to share in its reflected glory, utilizing the humble kernel for all that it’s worth. It strikes me as a huge failure of creativity that there aren’t more attempts at popcorn cupcakes, popcorn cookies, or popcorn pies. Luckily, with a bit of custard and caramel, this is a problem we can fix. Notes of burnt sugar compliment a buttery undertone, accented with a good pinch of salt. If you’re craving popcorn, it might be a wise idea to think inside the crust.

Caramel Corn Pie

1 Unbaked Classic Crust (page 36 of Easy as Vegan Pie)

Crunchy Caramel Corn Topping:

4 Cups Freshly Popped Popcorn* (From about 1/4 Cup Kernels)
1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Tablespoons Non-Dairy Margarine
1 Tablespoon Light Agave Nectar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda

Caramel Corn Custard:

4 Cups Freshly Popped Popcorn* (From about 1/4 Cup Kernels)
2 1/4 Cups Plain Non-Dairy Milk
1/2 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Applesauce
1/3 Cup Cornstarch
1/4 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1 Tablespoon Whole Flaxseeds, Ground
1/4 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine, Melted

*To pop your corn, place the popcorn kernels in a medium-size brown paper bag (if you’re not sure if it’s big enough, err on the side of caution and pop the corn in two separate batches). Use scotch or masking tape to seal the bag shut, and put it in the microwave. Use the “popcorn” setting if possible, or set the timer for 3 ½ minutes at full power. When the popping slows to about once every 5 seconds, remove the bag, and open it very carefully, making sure your hands and face are out of the way- The steam can be quite painful! Sift out any unpopped kernels.

The caramel corn topping takes a bit longer to bake than the pie itself, so your best bet is to prepare it in advance. Preheat your oven to 225 degrees and line a jellyroll pan with a piece of parchment paper or a silpat.

Place the first four cups of popped corn in a large bowl near the stove. In a medium saucepan over moderate heat, combine the brown sugar, non-dairy margarine, agave, and salt, stir well and bring to a boil. Cook at a vigorous bubble while stirring continuously for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and quickly stir in the baking soda. It will foam and bubble angrily, but don’t just stand around and watch it- Make haste and pour the mixture all over the popcorn. Toss to coat each and every kernel, and spread the syrupy corn out in an even layer on your prepared baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. It will become perfectly crisp once cool, so despite the tempting aroma, resist the urge to take a bite until it reaches room temperature.

Once the topping is baked and out of the oven, increase the temperature to 325 degrees.

Bring together the custard filling by combining the second measure of popped corn and non-dairy milk in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. Let sit for 1 hour for the corn to soften and infuse into the liquid.

Transfer the popcorn milk to your blender or food processor and thoroughly puree. Give it at least 5 full minutes at high speed to break down the kernels as much as possible, and longer if necessary. Strain through a fine mesh sieve, pressing to get all the liquid out. Discard the solids.

Pour the popcorn milk back into the medium saucepan, and vigorously whisk in all the remaining ingredients for the filling. When perfectly smooth, turn on the heat to medium, and bring to a boil while stirring continuously, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to prevent the mixture from burning. Once the mixture has thickened to the point that the bottom of the pan remains visible when you stir, without the filling immediately flowing back over the surface, turn off the heat and quickly transfer it to your unbaked pie shell.

Bake until custard is set and browned on top, about 45 – 50 minutes. The center should still be a bit jiggly when tapped, much like a cheesecake. Let cool completely and top with a generous mound of the crunchy caramel corn topping before serving at room temperature.

Makes 8 – 12 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Creature Comforts

Undefinable yet immediately recognizable, there’s no sense in wasting many words attempting to define it; it’s a sentiment communicated through taste instead of language. Comfort food is a concept that transcends all cultural and temporal boundaries, no matter what final form it may take. Seasonings change and dishes vary, but the ability to instantly transport an eater to a happier place, at least for the duration of a meal, that remains the same, from the first bite to the last crumb. That’s why it’s never a bad time to delve into Allison Rivers Samson‘s lovingly crafted ebook, Comfortably Yum. A short but sweet compilation of her ten most soul-soothing recipes, Allison manages to cover a wealth of common cravings without wasting a single digital page.

Incredibly, for a category traditionally laden with fats, sugars, and often processed foods, Comfortably Yum avoids those dietary pitfalls by making every recipe gluten-free or adaptable, and only employing the use of coconut sugar as a sweetener.

Call me biased, but I already knew I was in for a treat with this ebook, since I had previously made and photographed Allison’s fresh take on Caesar Salad for VegNews Magazine two years ago. Yes, salad can be comfort food too, and it’s a refreshing to find someone else who agrees! This rendition on the classic leafy blend comes the closest to my childhood memories, skipping all the fussy fare and focusing in on crisp, garlicky croutons and a creamy dressing, boasting a gently oceanic flavor thanks to the addition of briny capers and nori. Who needs anchovy paste when you have such excellent plant-based alternatives?

Vegan Egg Salad is a classic recipe that every cruelty-free cook should have in their arsenal, and this tofu-based interpretation makes a strong case for taking that spot of honor. Naturally, preparation couldn’t be simpler; an effortless dump-and-stir affair brings together a rich blend of vegan mayonnaise, kala namak, and basic seasonings to coat crumbled bean curd and crunchy cubes of celery. The powerfully eggy flavor borne of that combination is unreal, rivaling the aroma of freshly cracked hard boiled eggs. Served on crackers or between bread, I daresay that only the most astute omnivores would even detect a difference.

Finally, for dessert, I couldn’t resist the siren song of the Chocolate Salted-Caramel Pudding Parfaits. Regrettably, perhaps out of impatience or a lack of finesse, mine refused to form the neat, even layers as photographed in the ebook, but none of that mattered when it came time to dig in. Swirls of coconut sugar custard interlaced with cocoa pudding, creating a flavor sensation sure to delight anyone with a sweet tooth. For anyone who fears traditional caramel-making, take heart: The coconut sugar does all the work for you here, bearing a naturally toasted flavor similar to that of burnt white sugar.

Whether you’re staring down a string of snowy days in the forecast or simply want a taste of comfort any day of the week, Comfortably Yum has got your cravings covered. In this winter of particular extremes, Allison has very generously offered to spread the warm, cozy feelings and wants to share a free copy of her ebook with one lucky winner! To enter, leave a comment on this post and tell me about which recipe you’d most like to recreate first. (You can see the full listing if you scroll down here.) Speak up before February 2nd, midnight EST, and I’ll chose a lucky recipient shortly thereafter.

UPDATE: Always ready and willing to help, the random number generator has spoken, and has proclaimed that the winner should be…

The owner of comment #25: greatveganexpectations!

There’s a golden lining to this contest, even if it wasn’t your lucky day. Allison was so delighted by the positive response that she has very kindly extended a $5-off promotion for anyone who purchases her ebook! Don’t wait too long to secure your copy, because this is a limited-time offer. Enter the code “HBCY24″ from now until February 10th to make the most of this delicious opportunity.


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Lost at Sea

Nothing is off limits when it comes to capturing the perfect photo. Fulfilling a vision, watching it come to life, and being able to share it with others, no translation necessary, is the most satisfying aspect of the craft. No one said that reaching that goal was ever easy though, which is why I’m willing to go great lengths in order to see a concept through to completion. Even for your garden-variety food photo, every frame counts. Shooting on location presents its own unique set of challenges, but posing a pie for its closeup on the beach is far from my craziest idea yet.

A week of planning, a day of preparation, and day of meticulous baking later, the photo was everything I had dreamed of. With the recipe completed and fine tuned well in advance, the styling went off without a hitch. My Island Breeze Pie from Easy as Vegan Pie looked radiant, a true beach babe if I ever did see one. Never mind the fact that it was a chilly February morning, the wee hours of the AM affording us a quiet, undisturbed spot on the shoreline; the sun’s gentle golden glow suggested otherwise, and the soft ripples of sea water coming in with the tide seemed to lovingly cradle the dish itself. It was perfect, that one moment that every artist lives for when everything in the world feels right.

And the next moment is what every risk-taker dreads.

Splash! Right before my lens, one cruel wave silently crept up from beyond my viewfinder, sneaking around the edges of my painstakingly styled pie, and maliciously scaled the walls of the ceramic vessel, crashing through the latticework in one fell swoop. I never saw it coming, but with camera poised and a finger on the trigger, the devastating attack was inadvertently captured for all eyes to see, detailing the full destruction in a multitude of frames.

“No, not the macadamia nuts!” I howled in anguish, helplessly watching the waters recede. They were one of the rare edible souvenirs that made the journey with me back from Hawaii, you see, much more sentimental than your average ingredient.

Leaving behind a soggy but fully intact pastry in its wake, my rescue efforts came too late, but the whole dish was nonetheless toweled off and taken home. This poor, brave pie made the ultimate sacrifice- Who could be so cold-hearted as to simply shrug and throw it away? Not I; loathe to waste food, and turn my back on this valiant fighter.

Only out of desperation, and only due to one overly optimistic suggestion did the pie return to the oven in an attempt to dry out. The water was removed, but the sand, grit, and salt remained, tasting of of detritus and sadness. Officially beyond salvage, all I could do was honor its memory, publishing that glorious photo to inspire generations of Island Breeze Pies to come.

Don’t forget to enter my giveaway for a chance to win a copy of Easy as Vegan Pie for yourself! Pretty please, don’t let any of your baked creations anywhere near the water, for your own eating enjoyment.


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Freedom Cookie Press

Hands down, the best part about being a freelance photographer is when exciting new projects practically fall into my lap, and my greatest struggle is figuring out how to say “YES!” without sounding like an overeager puppy. A rare occurrence indeed, that intermittent system of rewards has me hooked, reinforced by the random, incredible opportunities that happen to come my way. After recently being recruited by Carina Comer to shoot the cover of her premier cookbook, Freedom Cookie Press, that addiction has only grown stronger.

Though the work of creating the cookies and capturing their best sides was deeply satisfying, having such delicious treats to enjoy at the end of the day was the greatest payoff. Featuring a cookie inspired by each of the fifty United States, baking your way through this innovative collection is like taking an edible road trip, without ever leaving the comfort of your own kitchen. Pictured here on the cover are the CT Nutmeg Doodles, TX Texmex Wedding Cookies, and OR Flowering Filbert Petit Fours, to provide some insight on the creative combinations that Carina has dreamed up. Though nostalgic and comforting in a way that only heartfelt recipes can be, these aren’t your grandma’s cookies, and you’re not likely to find such daring sweet flavors anywhere else.

I may be completely biased, but take my word for it: Freedom Cookie Press, hot of the digital presses, is truly a must-buy for anyone with a sweet tooth!


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Southern Fried with All the Fixin’s

Southern food is not a subject I can speak about with any authority, but I’d like to believe that I make up for such an absence in knowledge with enthusiasm and curiosity. Though I can count the number of times I’ve eaten the cuisine on one hand, thanks to the dearth of vegan options in general, the comforting, straightforward flavors always resonate. Given the opportunity to explore this uncharted culinary territory with the sage wisdom of The Southern Vegetarian Cookbook, it was an edible adventure I couldn’t resist. Though the pages are still packed with recipes calling for eggs, cheese, and butter, there are enough solid ideas here to provide the inspiration for vegan adaptations. Take, for example, the infamous Chicken-Fried Portobello with Mushroom and Shallot Gravy, originally appearing on the authors’ blog years ago to great acclaim. It’s no surprise; between the crisp, lightweight breaded exterior and the inherent umami depth of the mushroom, such a deceptively simple preparation can do no wrong. Similarly, that gravy could just as easy coat a used dish sponge, and I would happily wolf the whole thing down, as long as I could use a spoon to catch every last drop.

Swap out the egg for ground flaxseeds mixed with water, and the cream for any unsweetened non-dairy milk, and you’ll be in business too. Paired with sauteed, smoky beet greens and lightly charred corn, it was the perfect summer dinner, complete with a comforting southern accent.


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I Only Have Pies For You

March 14th is always a cause for celebration, a holiday that deserves more fanfare than it ever earns. For those who haven’t marked their calendars and awaited the day with enthusiasm, just take a peek at the numerical representation: 3.14. Ring any bells? Yes indeed, it’s Pi Day!

Every year, bakers and bloggers across the globe try to out do themselves, coming up with some truly brilliant representations of this most delicious mathematical value. You wouldn’t guess it based on the current state of my recipe index, but I’ve been working especially hard on my pie contribution this time around. In fact, I have not one mere pie to share, but well over one hundred. There’s just one small catch…

You’ll have to wait until Easy as Vegan Pie is released this coming October.

All you pie-lovers out there, can I get a “Hell Yeah!”? It’s been a difficult path, paved with crumbly, sticky, and otherwise uncooperative dough; runny custards and undercooked fruits; every pie-related woe possible stood in my way of the perfect slice. Now I can confidently promise a fix to all those problems, along with dozens of mouth-watering, near revolutionary fillings never before seen in a crust. Get excited everyone- This book will make every day a pi day.

As if that wasn’t enough news to make you jump up and dance around the kitchen, brace yourself because I have another reason for you to start preheating your oven in anticipation… Vegan Desserts, out of print for many months now, is to be reprinted and re-released in paperback format, come November!

It’s going to be one sweet fall season…


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Slow and Steady Wins the Meal

When Beverly Lynn Bennett let it slip well over a year ago that she had a slow cooker cookbook in the works, it may or may not have had a strong influence on my biggest birthday request. Timing also played a significant role in the decision, as I scrambled to find something, anything, to populate my sparse wishlist, but it was also too enticing a concept to resist. A gadget that independently bubbled away on the counter and produced hot, comforting dishes without any further human intervention? Moreover, a kitchen gadget that I didn’t yet have? Preposterous. With a bit of help from generous parents, that gift pushed me firmly into the world of slow cooking at last.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Slow Cooking may not look like much on the shelf, but it contains a wealth of knowledge that only an expert could bring to the home kitchen. A decorated chef and author, Beverly has been in the game for decades, boasting one of the earliest vegan recipe websites to my knowledge, providing a sturdy crutch to countless new, practiced, and simply curious cruelty-free cooks. Having had the pleasure of sampling many of her creations through past photography assignments, I had a feeling that her take on the mysterious slow cooker would be worth waiting for, and I was not wrong.

Cautiously dipping my toes in the water first, I went with one of the most common uses for the contraption first: Stew. What could be better than just tossing a whole mess of ingredients into the spacious pot, setting a timer, and going about your day? Anything that does more work for me is welcome in my kitchen, so I eagerly piled in the vegetables and proteins for the Basque Potato Soup (page 88). When dinner time rolled around a few hours later, the rich, tomato-scented air was driving me mad with hunger. Packed with hearty chunks of potato and seitan chorizo, the intense flavor flew in the face of its humble, oil-free beginnings. An underlying smoky, roasted, and gently piquant flavor lurked throughout, giving the whole stew incredible depth. Though the heat grows with each successive bite, it never reaches nuclear levels, staying quite manageable no matter your spice tolerance. For such a basic soup, this one really hits all the high notes.

With one staple passing the slow cooker test with flying colors, it was time to move on into more adventurous fare. Beverly fills the pages of her book with plenty of tried-and-true preparations, ranging from chili to hot fudge sauce, but where this book really shines is in the more inventive uses for the contraption in question. Take, for example, quiche. Yes, a whole quiche cooked right in the slow cooker! Crustless Vegetable-Tofu Quiche (page 44) had my name written all over it: Mushrooms, zucchini, red onion, and of course tofu, all wrapped up in a savory brunch-worthy package. After painstakingly waiting for the quiche to cool before slicing, the texture was positively luxurious. Like a silky custard throughout, it was as creamy as a cohesive tofu dish can be. Unfortunately, the taste didn’t quite measure up to that strong start. Best described by my mom as a “mild vegetal flavor,” it was unfortunately rather bland, with a faint salty bitterness at the back of the palate. Bumping up the seasonings or swapping them out for a new set entirely would easily elevate this dish into a clear winner.

Finally, I went for a real grand finale, and pulled out one dish that had everyone exclaiming, “You made that in a slow cooker?!” Yes indeed, that Sweet Potato Streusel Coffeecake (page 250) pictured above never saw the heat of an oven, spending a solid three hours getting acquainted with my slow cooker instead. At first, it seemed like an inevitable failure. Though the recipe fails to say when the margarine should be added, I slipped it in while mashing the potatoes, still warm and readily drinking in the added fat. It was only after “baking” that I became concerned though, testing for doneness at least a dozen times over. Still, the center toed the line between a super-moist sad streak and dough wad of moist raw flour. Luckily, after serving it to a crowd, the overwhelming consensus was that rather than being a disappointment, this was in fact an asset. Perfect for anyone who loves cookie dough or slightly under-baked banana bread, it was simply a cake with a dense crumb, no disclaimers needed. A hearty wheat flavor gives this treat a more wholesome impression, but make no mistake, it’s still plenty sweet enough to pass for dessert. This is one idea that clearly needs further exploration, because guests couldn’t stop raving about that crazy concept.

Whether you’ve never touched a slow cooker before or are a seasoned pro, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Slow Cooking is sure to give you something new, and definitely delicious, to stew over.

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