Vegan Nantucket cranberry pie is inspired by Laurie Colwin’s classic recipe. It’s a cake, not a pie, and it couldn’t be easier to make! The perfect last minute holiday dessert.
I chose a weird year to go all out with Thanksgiving cooking, but it’s happening.
Then there’s the Gardein holiday roast that I trekked all around New York City to find. (Vegan roast was hard to come by this year—maybe a sign that more people are eating plant based?)
Anyway, it’s a lot of food for two people. But I guess it won’t be the worst thing for my mom and I to each eat leftovers for days.
And, in a year where nothing really feels “normal,” the traditional feast is my effort to maintain a sense of constancy. In spite of my worry for the country and what’s to come, holiday cooking is one thing that I can do to keep a sense of festivity alive.
Cooking and baking.
The most important thing to say about this vegan Nantucket cranberry pie is that it’s not actually a pie. It’s a cake. This would probably confuse and disappoint some people, but it makes me happy.
Even so, I’d pretty much always rather be eating cake than pie.
Just as I was basking in the satisfaction of having baked my pumpkin pie last night, I started to think about how there were always two desserts at the Thanksgiving table when I was a kid. Usually two pies.
The idea wasn’t to make people choose. It was to augment the abundance that’s already part of Thanksgiving. When else is double dessert the norm?
I thought that it might be nice to have something extra this year for me and my mom. The worst that could happen was that we both froze some dessert and ate it through the holiday season. How bad could that be? And, since cake is my favorite, I loved the idea of making a cake as well as a pie.
Enter Nantucket cranberry pie, the holiday pie that’s actually a cake. Even apart from the name, there are so many reasons why this pie felt perfect for the year.
Nantucket cranberry pie isn’t a recipe I can take credit for. The credit goes to one of my favorite writers, Laurie Colwin. More specifically, credit goes to her friend Ann and Ann’s mother, who couldn’t remember where it came from.
“People who feel they must make a real dessert are often looking for something simple and wonderful, two words often felt to be mutually exclusive,” Colwin writes in More Home Cooking.
She goes on to say,
“I like a cake that takes about four seconds to put together and gives an ambrosial result. Fortunately, there are such cakes, and usually you get them at the homes of others. You then purloin the recipe (since you have taken care to acquire generous friends) and serve it to other friends, who then serve it to others. This is the way in which nations are unified and friendships made solid.”
Nantucket cranberry pie is, as Colwin notes, “a snap.” It’s ridiculously easy to put together. You chop up fresh cranberries and walnuts and layer them at the bottom of a pie plate or cake pan with some sugar. (The cranberries pretty much turn into cranberry sauce as they bake.)
Then, you make a simple cake batter and pour it on top. You bake it for forty minutes, and that’s it. What comes out of the oven is a layer of fragrant, almond scented cake covering a bed of sweet and tart cranberries. It’s delicious, and it requires so little effort.
I’ve had this recipe bookmarked for ages. Laurie Colwin was a great fan of cake, like I am, and I’ve taken her advice on gingerbread and on rum cake. This is the one that I was waiting to try.
This strange Thanksgiving of 2020 felt like exactly the right moment for something simple and wonderful.
The recipe didn’t disappoint. Vegan Nantucket cranberry pie, along with my dark chocolate pear cake, is going to become a new holiday tradition for me.
This isn’t a recipe that requires a lot of instruction. But two pieces of advice will make it easier.
First, use a nonstick pie dish or springform pan. You can use the pie dish that you have, but since the cranberries get sticky at the bottom, a nonstick surface will make cleanup and serving easier. I use this pie dish for baking, and I love it.
Second, if you have a food processor, it’s worth using it to chop the cranberries. Just pulse them till they’re roughly chopped.
It’s easy enough to do the chopping hand. But when I tried, my cranberries kept rolling all over the place and ending up on the floor. The food processor takes care of the job in less than a minute.
These speak for themselves! You’ll need two cups, or about 200 grams, total. If you have leftovers (the bag I got had about double that amount), you can use them in a cranberry sauce.
Or, you can use it as an excuse to make two cakes and give one to a friend.
Unbleached, all-purpose flour is my standard for cakes and muffins. But you can use white whole wheat flour in the recipe as well.
If you want to make the cake gluten-free, that won’t be hard. A gluten-free, all-purpose flour blend will work well in the recipe. I always use King Arthur’s Measure for Measure in gluten-free baking.
If you don’t have almond extract, vanilla extract is a good substitute. And if you like both flavors, it’s actually nice to do half a teaspoon almond, half a teaspoon vanilla. Best of both worlds.
Walnuts go at the bottom of this cake, along with the chopped cranberries. If you don’t have walnuts, chopped pecans will work just as well.
And if you need to make the cake nut-free, you can simply omit the nuts altogether.
Colwin’s recipe calls for slightly more butter than I used. I think that the amount here is enough for a buttery, tender cake.
I tried the recipe with olive oil, and while I liked the buttery version better, olive (or vegetable oil) is a fine substitute. This isn’t the sort of recipe you want to run out and buy extra ingredients for, so use what you have.
Milk isn’t a part of Colwin’s original recipe for Nantucket cranberry pie. But it’s part of how I chose to replace the two eggs that are part of her formula.
I used soy milk, though oat milk, almond milk, cashew milk, and other non-dairy milks should work, too.
You’ll need a cup of cane sugar in total for this recipe. Half goes into the cake, half is mixed in with the cranberries, to sweeten them. The amount in the cake is less than what Colwin suggests, but I thought it was sweet enough for my sweet tooth.
If you don’t have cane sugar, you could use coconut sugar. Brown sugar wouldn’t be my first choice for the recipe, but I think it’ll be OK if that’s what you have lying around from your other holiday recipes.
The main question I’m asked about holiday recipes is whether or not they can be 1) made ahead and 2) frozen.
Fortunately, vegan Nantucket cranberry pie lends itself to both a few days of advance cooking and to freezing!
After you bake the cake, you can cover it and store it at room temperature for up to two days. After two days, I recommend transferring it to the fridge for storage. It should keep (with refrigeration after two days) for about five or six days total.
If you like, you can also freeze the cake for up to six weeks. The cranberries freeze and defrost well, just as they do in cranberry sauce.
Sometimes I wonder what will stand out when I look back on 2020.
Right now, I’m wondering what I’ll remember about this Thanksgiving. Will it be the smell of my Nantucket cranberry cake coming out of the oven? The fact that the sky kept alternating between rainclouds and bursts of sun? Hopefully I won’t remember the fact that I was stressed out about under-seasoning my stuffing and worried that I’d burnt the crust on my pumpkin pie.
I’ll probably recall that many things were different, but a lot of the things that matter were the same. Only my gratitude was bigger. Gratitude for the big things—health, family, friends, life—and the small things. This cake, specifically.
From my home to yours, Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrate. I’ll see you back here on Sunday, for the usual roundup.