Of all the baked goods that fill Thanksgiving’s dessert board, the one that characterizes and practically defines the holiday, almost as much as the turkey at the table’s center, is pumpkin pie. For many Southerners, however, the pie that was the real holiday standard was sweet potato custard. Long before Thanksgiving was a national holiday, even before Georgia’s Annabella Hill set the recipe down in 1867 in her seminal work Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book, these pies have graced the region’s autumn and winter holiday tables. For more than four generations, my maternal grandmother’s sweet potato custards were our family’s favorite. While MaMa dutifully made a pumpkin pie, it was more out of obligation than anything. It would never have occurred to her to substitute it altogether with sweet potato pies.
MaMa’s version of this pastry was denser than her pumpkin pie, yet lighter both in color and flavor. She used very few spices because good sweet potatoes just don’t need them. Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve tried to reproduce that special something that was my grandmother’s touch with this pie, both while she was at my side to coach me and in the years since she died. It’s doubtful that I’ll ever completely succeed; we seldom match the flavors that have become larger than life in our memories, but as I close my eyes and taste, every bite whispers of falling leaves and frosted windowpanes, and I can actually feel MaMa beside me, so I think I’m pretty close.
MaMa’s Sweet Potato Custard Pie
Makes 2 9-inch pies
3 pounds (about 6 medium) sweet potatoes
1 recipe Basic Pastry (recipe follows)
1 cup sugar
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (optional)
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
About ¼ cup heavy cream or evaporated milk
Scrub the potatoes well under cold running water. Put them in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, reduce the heat to a steady simmer, loosely cover, and cook until the potatoes are tender (a fork or sharp knife should easily pass through). Drain and cool enough to handle.
Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 375° F. Line two 9-inch pie plates with pastry and prick well with a fork. Cover with buttered foil, buttered side down, weight with dried beans or pie weights. Partially bake for 20 minutes. Remove the weights and foil and let cool.
While they’re still hot, peel the sweet potatoes and puree through a potato ricer (note: a potato ricer is a simple kitchen tool used to process potatoes by forcing them through small holes, which are often no larger than a grain of rice) into a large mixing bowl, or cut in chunks and mash them well with a fork or potato masher. Mix the butter and sugar and until absorbed, then stir in the eggs, spices, vanilla and enough cream or evaporated milk to make it smooth but not soupy. It should still be quite thick.
Pour the custard into the prepared pastry, smooth the top, and bake in the center of the oven until set at the center, about 40 minutes. Cool on wire racks and serve at room temperature or slightly chilled, with a healthy dollop of whipped cream.
This pastry is a snap to make in the food processor. Chill the blade in the freezer for 5 minutes.
Makes 2 9-inch pie shells or 1 9-inch pie with top crust
10 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose, soft-wheat flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 ounces (8 tablespoons, 1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits
1 ounce (2 tablespoons) chilled lard or vegetable shortening, cut into bits
About 1/3 to ½ cup ice water
Whisk the flour and salt in a mixing bowl, or put it in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chilled blade and pulse to sift. Add the butter and lard, toss to coat each bit, and work it into the flour with a pastry blender or by pulsing the machine until it has the texture of coarse meal.
Add 1/3 cup of ice water, and lightly stir or pulse the machine until the dough is moist and beginning to clump, adding more water by spoonfuls until it is just holding together, but not sticky. If using the machine, stop before it is completely clumped together and finish mixing by hand. Lightly dust it with flour, divide it into two equal balls, wrap each with plastic wrap and lightly flatten into 1-inch-thick disks. Refrigerate half an hour.
Lightly flour a cool work surface and roll out the pastry from the center of the lump outward until it is evenly rolled to the thickness required in the recipe—for most pies about 1/8-inch thick.
Damon Lee Fowler is a culinary historian and author of six cookbooks, including Classical Southern Cooking, Damon Lee Fowler’s New Southern Baking, and The Savannah Cookbook. His work has also appeared in Food & Wine, Bon Appetit, and Relish. Damon lives and eats in Savannah, Georgia.
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