Last Update: September 29, 2022
Wanna know how to impress everyone this holiday season? Bring a homemade pie with you everywhere you go.
I’ve said it before: I’m no great cook, but I’ve learned to how to bake the perfect pie for the sheer joy it brings to people. One look at a golden, flaky crust filled with sweet, luscious berries, and everyone files in line for a slice—no matter the time of day. One Christmas morning, my family couldn’t wait to cut into it, so it was chilaquiles with a side of blueberry pie for breakfast.
Pastry chefs and home-baked pie aficionados all have their secrets and preferences to achieving the best crust. Shortening and lard are popular choices for the fat needed to make the dough since they’re easy to handle. My secret: butter! You just can’t get that buttery taste without it, and if the crust isn’t flaky, a little salty, and obviously buttery, is it really still a pie? Also, I’d rather stay away from the trans fats that are typically in shortening; and as a semi-vegetarian, lard freaks me out. Don’t bust me on butter, okay? I try my best to balance ethics with personal nutrition.
And that brings me to my next point: I always sort of teeter on the edge of veganism. I’m open to vegan alternatives for everything, but I’m not a diehard fan of certain “health food” flavors. Can I be brutally honest? I’m not crazy about the way coconut oil tastes in cooking. And I have never tried it in baking, but for a vegan pie, I’m willing to experiment.
First, the crust. I always follow a simple, classic Martha Stewart recipe for pate brisee (that’s fancy talk for pie crust). The ingredients, with my substitution:
Keeping all of the ingredients cold is vital to achieving the perfect flakiness. So, I mix the dry goods in a large mixing bowl and store it in the freezer for about one hour. I measure out the coconut oil in a measuring cup and freeze that, too.
Once frozen, I break up the oil with a knife (an icepick might work well, too) and slice it into smaller pieces about the size of pearls and fold them into the flour mixture. I gradually add ice water while mixing the dough with a spatula. Eventually, I get in there with my hands. Some chefs would balk at this practice, but it works for me. The dough remains pretty crumbly, so I end up adding more water than I normally would—about 3/4 cup. When it finally binds together, the dough is still somewhat crumbly but I divide it and form into two discs, wrap them in plastic, store in the refrigerator overnight, and hope for the best.
The next day, I let the dough sit out on the kitchen counter for half an hour. I sprinkle flour over a wood block and attempt to roll out the first disc of dough with a rolling pin doused with flour, but it totally crumbles. Sad face. The only thing I can do to salvage it is add more water—just about a tablespoon for each disc—and knead it again. I manage to roll them out, but not without some tearing, and I have to settle for dough that’s not quite wide enough to flow over the side of the pie dish.
For the filling, I’m going with blueberries—my favorite! I have some big, beautiful fresh berries from the market, along with the rest of the ingredients:
In a large mixing bowl, I squeeze lemon juice over the berries. I mix the dry ingredients together in a small bowl and sprinkle them over the berries as I gently fold them in with a rubber spatula. I pour the filling into the bottom crust in the pie dish, and dot little bits of coconut oil over the top of the filling. I cover the pie with the top crust, although I’m not able to seal it properly since the bottom crust is a bit small. I brush the center of the top crust with water to help get it golden without an egg wash—so yup, this pie is totally vegan.
I refrigerate the pie for about 20 minutes to firm up the dough while I preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Then I pop the pie in the bottom rack of the oven and bake for 52 minutes while I keep an eye on the World Series. I’d like to let the pie go for a full hour to get it even more golden, but some of the filling starts to spill onto the bottom of the oven and causes some smoking, so it’s time to pull it out.
After letting it sit on the counter overnight for the filling to coagulate, here’s the moment of truth. In my first bite, I taste the yummy berry pie I’ve made over and over again, but with a hint of coconut. It’s not bad, but I test a few other palates around Thrive HQ to get a final verdict. One thing is unanimous: This pie tastes really good! (Whew!) And without fail, plenty of my coworkers queued up for a slice—seconds even.
Yes, the pie is mildly coconutty, but that flavor note happens to work well with blueberry. And a few people mention that the pie doesn’t taste “vegan;” and fans of decadent, full-dairy desserts know that’s a good thing.
So, would I try baking a pie with coconut oil again? Totally! The first time I ever tried to make a pie from scratch, with butter, was really, really difficult—but eventually I perfected it. When it comes to baking pies, it just takes practice—and it’s totally worth the final crowd-pleasing product. So, challenge accepted, coconut oil!
Photo credit: Alicia Cho
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