An Educated Palate

Math has never been my favorite subject. If there was one black mark on my quarterly report card, it would be filed under algebra, or calculus. Quite frankly, it’s a small miracle that anyone let me graduate with such a flimsy understanding of numbers in general. One limited concept that I can comfortably wrap my mind, and my lips around, is pi.

Okay, you got me. Not actual pi, but pie. Flaky pastry and comforting fillings both sweet and savory always make perfect logical sense. Pi Day, March 14th (3.14) is the only day of the year I’m happy to bridge the gap between baking and calculating.

This year, I’d like to present to you an appropriately educated provision. Inspired by daigaku imo, imagine a chunky sweet potato pie with a touch of Asian flare. Directly translated, daigaku imo means “university potatoes.” Though still murky in origin, the name can be traced back to two plausible explanations.

Tokyo University, sometime in the early 1900’s, saw the rise of this cultural sensation. Some say a snack shop began offering lightly fried sweet potatoes drenched in sugar syrup and tossed with sesame seeds, while others are adamant that it was a student selling these sweet and savory delights to raise funds for tuition. Either way, we have Japan to thank for yet another viral food hit.

Rather than pulling out a vat of bubbling oil, my adaptation uses only a touch of toasted sesame oil to roast the tubers to fork-tender perfection. Creamy yet still toothsome, the pale white flesh takes on greater dimension with the umami notes of soy sauce rather than plain salt, plus the acidic edge of vinegar for balance. These subtle, delicate nuances will keep tasters guessing, but this is a culinary equation that’s easy to solve.

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Hello Gourd-geous!

No Thanksgiving dinner would be complete without a pumpkin pie on the menu. Over 50 million of the crusted custards meet their demise on this fateful day, despite the fact that the pilgrims didn’t serve a single slice at the first harvest celebration. Somehow, the American love affair with the warmly spiced, sweet and simple pastry blossomed into an obsession spanning the generations. Everyone has a secret recipe that their grandma made, or a special twist that no one can replicate.

My enthusiasm for pumpkin pie is admittedly a bit tepid at best. It’s just so predictable, so plain! Every bite has the same flavor, the same texture, the same sugar overload. That was, until at a friend’s behest, I tried topping tradition- Literally.

Crisp, buttery streusel, the best part of crumb cake and bakery muffins, turns ho-hum pumpkin pie into the legendary dessert that everyone will crave all year long. The creamy filling itself is still the main attraction, sweetened with a balanced hand and highly aromatic, redolent of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg.

Considering its popularity, there’s no need to give the classic pumpkin pie a gut renovation. Just a light touch-up, once in a century or two, may help win over some new fans.

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In Crust We Trust

In a rapidly changing world, there are certain constants we can depend on. Mathematically speaking, we have Euler’s number, Archimedes’ principle, and the Pythagorean theorem, of course, but for someone as nonacademic as myself, there’s little comfort to be found in such jumbles of numbers, no matter how concrete in concept.

Pie, on the other hand, immediately soothes the mental strain of of the scholarly and simple-minded alike. Also reliable is the knowledge that Pi Day will always fall on March 14th (3.14 of course), celebrating the golden ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Pie itself, however, should really be honored everyday.

This time, I propose we all cozy up to an everyday sort of pie. Mini pies, actually, easy to prepare, perfect quick snacks or last-minute desserts, they can even be prepared in advance, frozen, and thawed on demand. Warm out of the oven or reheated after a quick blast in the toaster oven, tender chunks of apple mingle with a soft, almost gooey peanut butter filling, infused with the warmth of cinnamon and lavished with a sweet crumb topping.

The combination is nothing earth-shaking, nor should it be. It’s a universally satisfying combination that’s stood the test of time, and will reliably treat you to a taste of nostalgic comfort in every mini morsel.

Yield: Makes 24 Mini Pies

Mini Peanut Butter Apple Pies

Mini Peanut Butter Apple Pies

Enjoy a tiny little bite of nostalgia with these cute mini pies! Nutty, fruity, and full of comforting cinnamon spice, they're best eaten warm.

Ingredients

Crust:

Peanut Butter-Apple Filling:

  • 1/2 Cup Creamy Peanut Butter
  • 1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
  • 1/4 Cup Plain Vegan Yogurt
  • 2 Tablespoons All-Purpose Flour
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
  • 3 Medium Granny Smith Apples, Peeled, Cored, and Chopped (About 3 Cups)

Crumb Topping:

  • 3 Tablespoons Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
  • 3 Tablespoons All-Purpose Flour
  • 2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Melted

To Serve:

  • Confectioner's Sugar (Optional)

Instructions

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease 2 dozen mini muffin tins.

Roll out your prepared pie dough to about 1/8th of an inch in thickness and use a round cookie cutter, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter, to cut out the crust pieces. In a pinch, the top of a drinking glass could work as well. Gather scraps, re-roll, and cut again as needed.

Ease the pieces into the greased pans, pressing them to fill the bottoms and up the sides as evenly as possible. There will likely be some overlap, but try to smooth out the edges to keep things neat and consistent.

Place the unbaked crusts in the fridge to chill while you turn your attention to the filling.

In a large bowl, mix together the peanut butter, brown sugar, yogurt, flour, cinnamon, and vanilla until smooth. Toss in the chopped apples and stir to incorporate, covering the fruit thoroughly with the peanut butter mixture. Set aside.

For the crumb topping, simply combine all the ingredients in a medium bowl and use a fork to combine. Continue stirring until the mixture is coarse, chunky, but cohesive.

To assemble, fill the chilled pie shells with the peanut butter and apple mixture and top each with about a teaspoon of the crumb topping.

Bake for 15 - 20 minutes, until the crusts and crumb are golden brown. Let cool for at least 15 minutes before removing from the pans and serving.

If desired, sprinkle confectioners sugar over the top very lightly just before enjoying.

Notes

To save these for a rainy day, let them cool completely before storing them in an airtight container, seperated by layers of parchment or waxed paper. Stash in the freezer for up to 4 months, or in the fridge for up to a week.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

24

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 72Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 3mgSodium: 36mgCarbohydrates: 9gFiber: 1gSugar: 6gProtein: 2g

Pie-Eyed

The only class I’ve ever failed was math. Though typically a dedicated student and overachiever, this devastating low mark hardly came as a surprise. If the theory is true that the left brain is meant to handle more abstract, creative thought and the right is in charge of practical analytics, it’s not entirely farfetched to imagine a complete absence of the latter in my skull. I’m still lost beyond the most basic arithmetic required for scaling recipes up or down and thank my lucky stars that somehow, for reasons unbeknownst to me, they still let me graduate on such shaky algebraic footing.

Despite the fact that pi is a formula I would rarely consider applying in real life, it’s a concept I’m only too happy to celebrate every March 14th, otherwise known as 3/14 on the calendar. Though a mathematical novice, I’d like to consider myself a pie expert with a lifetime of experience both eating and baking the crusted wonders. Evidence of that mild obsession is easily found in Easy as Vegan Pie, a trove of both sweet and savory recipes that could make any day a Pi/Pie Day.

Don’t know where to start? Take a gander at the cheat sheet I’ve assembled here with some of my best baking blueprints, which don’t need any sort of higher degree to decode.

The sleeper hit that no one expected, the Frankenstorm Pie (AKA Banana Ganache Pie) has become one of my most popular pies to date. Not so shabby for a recipe created under such dire circumstances, and it almost went unwritten altogether. It’s a crazy story that you’ve gotta read, and a flavor you must taste to believe.

Roasted Strawberry-Tomato Galette brings out the best in each fruit for this sweet slice. Just as comfortable together in a salad as in this free-form pie, the savory, gently acidic bite of the tomatoes serves to accentuate the sweetness of the berries.

Pumpkin pie is one of the time-honored classics, but I’m never one to go the traditional route. My best take on the concept is one with a fluffy filling, soft, simple, and full of spice. Marshmallow Chiffon Pumpkin Pie is a natural fit for autumnal holidays, but light and cool enough to hit the sweet spot in warmer weather.

Speaking of nontraditional, chipotle mashed sweet potatoes were the inspiration for my Chocolate Chipotle Sweet Potato Pie. Dialing in the heat so the chilies provided just the slightest tingle on the tongue, their intensity is further tempered by the soothing contrast of brown sugar and rich coconut milk. Better yet, a thin base of dark chocolate adds depth to the dessert, and adds appeal for those who aren’t big on starchy squash pies.

Ending on a whimsical note, caramel and custard elevate the humble popcorn kernel in this Caramel Corn Pie. 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.

What’s your Pi Day pick for this year? Don’t let the numbers trip you up. It doesn’t take a mathematician to know good food when you taste it.

Calculating the Perfect Pie

Be it custard or fruit, mousse or chiffon, a pie is only as good as its crust. Drawing as much passion as it does ire, the art of crafting the perfect pastry is a contentious subject among bakers and eaters alike. Everyone has an opinion about this essential dessert foundation, ranging from the most minimalist approaches inspired by the sage advice of grandmothers the world over, to high-end culinary graduate specifications that require a firm grasp of the scientific intricacies of baking to appreciate. There’s more than one way to go about the circumference of the dough, but there is one important rule that must be obeyed: Never let the hype go to your head.

When you find a solid formula, stick with it. There will always be new suggestions to explore, such as the substitution of vodka instead of water, or coconut oil as the primary fat, but if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

Since Pi Day, March 14th, is right around the corner, now has never been a better time to strengthen your pie making prowess. That all begins with the crust.

What follows is the crust that’s seen me through the stickiest of fillings, the most temperamental of ovens, and the hottest of summers. This “Old Reliable” is a baker’s best friend, capable of standing and delivering anything loaded into it. The ingredients are nothing noteworthy; it’s all a matter of how they’re combined for the magic to happen. Keep everything, including bowls and utensils, as cold as possible so as not to melt the fat. Though a point of contention, I do adhere firmly to the belief that an all-“butter” crust is best. You may lose a little bit of flakiness, but the added flavor and crisp texture is worth that small sacrifice. For a lighter texture, feel free to sub out half of the butter for pure vegetable shortening, and proceed as written otherwise. Do not be tempted to play around with coconut oil or any liquid oils in this one, as the structure simply isn’t built for that kind of tinkering.

Even when I’m planning to make a single-crusted pie, I always use the double-crust proportions, to make the most of my time. The extra disk of dough can be frozen for up to 6 months with no harm, as long as it’s thawed gradually in the fridge before use. That way, you’re always prepared to whip up a pie at a moment’s notice.

Classic Pie Crust
From Easy as Vegan Pie: One-of-a-Kind Sweet and Savory Slices by Hannah Kaminsky

Two Crusts (For a Double-Crust):

2 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
2 Teaspoons Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
3/4 Cup Vegan Butter, Chilled, Cut into Small Pieces
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
2–4 Tablespoons Ice-Cold Water

OR

Single Crust:

1 1/4 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
6 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Chilled, Cut into Small Pieces
1 1/2 Teaspoons Lemon Juice
1–2 Tablespoons Ice-Cold Water

The easiest, quickest way to make a traditional pie crust is to get a helping hand from your food processor. Some say this approach sacrifices flakiness in favor of convenience, but I don’t believe that any of my pies have suffered as a result. If you have the equipment, my advice is to use it! Place the flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of your food processor and pulse to combine. Add the margarine and pulse 6–8 times, until the mixture resembles very coarsely ground almond meal. A few small chunks of margarine should remain visible, but nothing larger than the size of peas. Sprinkle lemon juice and the first tablespoon of water in while pulsing a few times to incorporate. If the dough holds together when squeezed, you’re good to go. If it remains crumbly, keep adding water while pulsing, just a teaspoon at a time, until the dough is cohesive.

In case you don’t have a food processor or just don’t want to clean the darn thing afterward, the old-fashioned method is just as effective, if a bit more labor-intensive. Place the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl and use a pastry cutter or two forks to cut in the pieces of margarine. A few small chunks of margarine should remain visible, but nothing larger than the size of peas. Sprinkle lemon juice and one tablespoon of water into the bowl and stir well with a wide spatula. Sometimes it can be difficult to get the liquids properly incorporated, so it may be helpful to drop the formalities and just get in there to mix with your hands. If the dough holds together when squeezed, you’re set. If it remains crumbly, keep adding water and mixing thoroughly, just a teaspoon at a time, until the dough is cohesive. Do your best not to over-mix or over-handle the dough, as this will make it tough when baked.

If making a double crust, divide the dough into two equal portions. Regardless of how many portions you now have, shape them into rough rounds and flatten them into disks about 1/2 inch in thickness. Wrap each tightly with plastic wrap and stash them in the fridge. Let chill for at least an hour, or up to a week. To save the unbaked dough even longer, store the pieces in your freezer for up to 6 months. (Don’t forget to label them clearly!)

When you’re ready to roll, lightly dust a clean, flat surface with an even coating of flour. Work on one disk of dough at a time, and coat both sides lightly with additional flour. Starting at the center of the disk, use your rolling pin to apply light pressure while rolling outwards to the edges. Try to maintain the round shape as best you can, turning the dough as needed. It may be helpful to periodically lift the dough to ensure that it’s not adhering to the counter. Keep rolling until the dough extends at least 2 inches beyond the size of your pie pan all around.

Carefully transfer the dough to your desired pie pan, and crimp the edges or decorate to your heart’s content. See page 24 of Easy as Vegan Pie for ideas. At the very least, trim away the excess dough so that only 1/2 inch is overhanging the lip of the pan. Tuck the extra dough underneath itself along the edge so that it’s smooth.

For an unbaked crust, you’re done here! Let the crust rest in the fridge while you prepare the filling. To blind-bake, see page 24 of Easy as Vegan Pie for the procedure.

If you’re making pie with a top crust, roll out the second disk of dough in the same fashion as before, reapplying flour to the counter if need. Use cookie cutters to cut out decorative vents before moving the dough, or simply cut six vents with a sharp knife. Gently place the flattened dough onto the filled pie, centering it as best you can. Use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to trim the overhang to an inch. Tuck the excess from the top crust under the edge of the bottom piece of dough, pressing together firmly but gently to seal. Bake according to the recipe for the filling.

Makes 1 or 2 Crusts

*Chocolate Pastry Crust: Reduce the flour to 2 1/3 cups and add 1/4 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

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