halloween weddings and pumpkin pies (vegan & gluten-free)

“Ah, but remember that the city is a funny place
Something like a circus or a sewer
And just remember, different people have peculiar tastes
And the glory of love might see you through”

Coney Island Baby, Lou Reed

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I hate taking hiatuses from baking and blogging, because they tend to stretch on for eons. Time escapes me and days get lost among the neat boxes of calendar pages. What I’m left with is a slew of photos and nothing to say. Nothing that I could fathom into any sense of coherence, anyway.

(That’s the problem with time. Each moment holds a horizon of infinity that no words can adequately paint.)

Poetics aside, I honestly don’t recall much between my last post and now. I mean, I can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast half an hour ago, let alone what’s happened in the last month. I do know that most of my October evenings were spent in the company of a GRE textbook and a soundtrack of post-apocalyptic music for motivation. Really, though, it felt more like my life was crashing down around my ears as I dumbly stared at factorials for hours on end, hoping that the knowledge would somehow imprint itself in my mind, or that zombies a la Walking Dead would bust into my English basement and devour me so I could stop worrying about them.

Needless to say, neither occurred, but I did take a train up north for a few days in Boston as a congratulations to myself for making it through with all of my limbs and most of my sanity intact.

I was there last weekend, visiting Kev-o and a few other good friends, traipsing about the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Square and avoiding the psychotic locals who decided that Harvard Square was the optimal location to strip naked, and meeting with professors at nearby universities to discuss graduate programs. Mostly I ate an obscene amount of good food while my extremities slowly went numb from being severely underdressed for the Boston chill. It was largely successful, overall.

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I always love going to Boston. I haven’t spent as much time in the city as I’d like, but it’s a nice escape for a short while, strolling down Newbury Street and navigating the T with futility. It reminds me quite a lot of Bursa, actually; somewhat traditional and conservative in its habits, colored by layers of history and imbued with an unassuming sense of purpose, relatively untouched by the bustle of big city disquiet. I’m fortunate, too, to be in such excellent company whenever I’m there.

Though I’d have happily stayed for another weekend, I arrived back at the apartment early on Monday, unpacked my suitcase, spent the day catching up on sleep, continued to lie in bed when awake, and repacked my case for a week down south at my parents’. I didn’t travel back home for the sole purpose of visiting family, though that and the thrill of free home-cooked meals has been a nice bonus.

No, I came back for a wedding.

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Em’s, to be precise. I’d had the day marked on my calendar for about a year now, excitement renewed after staying with her and her fiancé during my visit to Chicago a few weeks ago. It was clear to me then – sprawled on the couch with eyes glued to Bridesmaids, clutching plates of deep dish pizza while our laughter warmly filled the living room – that I’d never seen her happier.

I’ve known Em for about thirteen years now, and fondly remember elementary and middle school days spent obsessing over Sailor Moon and crudely sketching ships on posterboards for history assignments. We were both involved in theater while in high school together – though she much more than I, as I pranced about backstage in a makeshift corset for my scenes as a “woman of easy virtue” in Les Miserables, while she worked the technical end of stage work with much more practical skill and overall talent – and laughed together over the antics of our teenage years. We went our separate ways for uni, she up to Chicago while I moved a few hours west, keeping in touch by means of the odd Facebook message here and there, but knowing that a decade of friendship would always ensure that we’d pick up right where we’d left off.

A few months after receiving the invite, Em asked if I wouldn’t mind doing some baking for the wedding. I happily agreed, thrilled and honored, more than anything, that she’d want me to play a small part in her big day. She requested four pies (and really, anyone who prioritizes pie over cake as their primary wedding dessert is definitely making all the right life choices): two apples and two allergen-free pumpkins. A good friend of hers has quite the extensive list of food sensitivities, and Em wanted to ensure that she’d have a chance to partake in the sweets. After reading her laundry list of allergies and sympathizing deeply, I knew I had quite the challenge in store.

And after weeks of factorials and simple triangles? Bro, I was feeling invincible.

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(Admittedly, I spent many nights anguishing over a gluten-free, egg-free, dairy-free recipe that would turn into something beyond a tasteless, chunky mass of orange filling and crumbling crust. But Em doesn’t have to know that. Eventually, I settled on a no-bake recipe I stumbled across over the ‘net, and prayed to every deity I could think of that it’d be edible.)

Let me tell you, the pie transcended edibleness. It was, in fact, one of the best pumpkin pies I have ever eaten. Now, I’m not much of a pumpkin pie fan to begin with, which I realize is sacrilegious by American standards. I’m much more of a pecan-laden-with-caramel-and-brown-butter-pie eater, or any similar dessert that could result in an immediate coronary. I suspect it’s because mum never cooked or baked root vegetables when I was a kid, so my first taste of squash or sweet potato or pumpkin didn’t really happen until I was late into my teens, and I just never developed a taste for them.

But there’s something quite special about this one. The filling has a hint of the exotic from the coconut, and the creaminess holds up beautifully against the richly nutty crust. It’s not too sugary, and pairs well with a sweetened cream topping or few scoops of (dairy-free, if that’s your fancy) ice cream. It’s both simple and complex, satisfyingly unique for the adventurous foodie while treasuring all the comforts of a warm autumn dessert.

In short, it’s wonderful.

Noosh helped me transport the pies to the venue – the Edgar Allen Poe Museum, wonderfully fitting for a Halloween wedding – before meeting up with Hannah for the ceremony. The wedding was stunning; tables adorned with purple and lavender cloths, paper bats hanging from trees, cobwebs lining the brick walls surrounding the gardens, rows of chairs and an altar canopied by strings of lights that twinkled like stars against the night sky. I more or less shook with excitement in anticipation of seeing Em and her fiancé as the bridesmaids and groomsmen made their way down the winding steps. Finally, a moving string rendition of Just Like Heaven filled the air as her fiancé descended, sporting one of the most genuine grins I’ve seen in ages.

Em appeared then, gracefully coming into view with her head slightly bowed, looking, simply, beautiful.

It was humbling, being there in that moment, seeing a world of happiness in one glowing smile.

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October had been a long month. Hell, it has been a long year. Long and melancholy, exhausting, oftentimes disheartening. So much of it was spent fretting about graduating, about job hunting, about being thrust in a foreign country without a life jacket to keep me afloat, about coming back to a country where I am so painfully unspecial in comparison, about moving and starting something unfamiliar, about loving and accepting loss, about life and how it doesn’t stop for anyone.

But seeing Em in front of family and friends and loved ones, and being part of something so special and beautiful and eternal, I felt nothing but a strange sense of calm. Like everything in the back of my mind faded to grey and all that could be seen were the smiles of everyone huddled together in that moment.

And, you know, I think it’s been a pretty great 2013, in the end.

Plus, Em’s friend came up to me a while after dessert was served to thank me personally for the pumpkin pie, and I thought my heart might burst from joy. It certainly did rival the discomfort I felt from stuffing my face full of chocolate pecan pie (courtesy of Em’s sister, and a recipe I am now desperately hoping to replicate), in any case.

I’ll certainly be making this one again in future, but each time will be a fond reminder of twinkling lights and bats hanging from trees, and of reasons to smile in spite of everything.

All my love to you, Em, and best wishes for a long and joyous marriage as beautiful as your wedding night.

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No-Bake Vegan & Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie
Adapted from The Spunky Coconut
Yields one 8- or 9-inch pie

Ingredients for the crust:

  • 2 cups almond meal
  • 10 soft pitted dates (soak first if dry)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 cup walnuts

Ingredients for the filling:

  • 1 1/2 cups coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 cups pumpkin
  • 2/3 cup packed brown sugar
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
  • pinch of cloves
  • 4 tsp agar powder (note: do not use agar flakes, or you will need much more)

Method to prepare crust:

Put all ingredients in a food processor and pulse until they come together. Press into an ungreased ceramic pie plate. Refrigerate while preparing filling.

Method to prepare filling:

In a medium saucepan over medium flame, stir together pumpkin and coconut milk. Add brown sugar, salt, and spices, and simmer until blended. Whisk agar powder vigorously while simmering for about a minute. Pour over crust and smooth with the back of a spatula. Refrigerate until set, about 3 hours.

Notes:

  • Recipe is 100% dairy-free, egg-free, and gluten-free.
  • Agar powder can be found in specialty grocery stores, and is a gelatinous substance derived from algae. It is often used as a vegetarian/vegan substitute for gelatin in dessert recipes, but also works as an excellent gluten-free thickener in soups, fruit preserves, and ice creams.
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