Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sweet Potato Pie

Really, all I wanted from my wife the baker were a few tips for making a sweet potato pie.

We have all these sweet potatoes harvested from the garden and sweet potato pie was pencilled in as dessert for our choucroute dinner. But as so often happens, making this pie would not be as easy as--well, pie. We first had to have a discussion.

My idea was to make the pie in Bill Neal's classic Southern cookbook, Biscuits, Spoonbread, and Sweet Potato Pie. What could be more authentic, I reasoned,
than a pie from the legendary Bill Neal and a book with sweet potato pie right in the title?

But my wife was not convinced. As she so often does in these situations, she first wanted to check Bill Neal's recipe against the one in The New Best Recipe, the tome from Cook's Illustrated that my wife considers her recipe bible. Sure enough, she started picking Bill Neal's version apart, piece by piece. Too much molasses. Not enough egg. Dry sherry--huh?

My wife thinks I'm crazy not to be in love with The New Best Recipe. My main beef is, the authors seem to be less interested in authenticity than in their own idealized vision of how certain foods should be. Using their personal bias as a starting point, they then weed through recipes from hither and yon, adjusting and changing them as they go until they arrive at something that more or less matches their preconceived notions.

Apparently, that suits my wife just fine. And being a man of a certain age, I've learned that beating your chest is useless. The female species is always right. It's wiser to just submit.

Hence, sweet potato pie from The New Best Recipe, wherein the authors seek "to create a distinctive sweet potato pie, a recipe that honored the texture and flavor of sweet potatoes while being sufficiently recognizable as a dessert. Neither a custardy, pumpkin-style pie nor a masked-potatoes-in-a-crust pie would do."

For the pie filling:

2 pounds sweet potatoes

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

3 large eggs, plus 2 large egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

2-3 tablespoons bourbon

1 tablespoon molasses

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2/3 cup whole milk

1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar

Prick the sweet potatoes several times with a fork and place them on a double layer of paper towels in a microwave (I bake my sweet potatoes at 325 degrees in the oven). Cook at full power for 5 minutes, turn each potato over and continue to cook at full power until tender but not mushy, about 5 minutes longer. Cool 10 minutes. Halve a potato crosswise, insert a small spoon between the skin and flesh and scoop the flesh into a medium bowl. Discard the skin. (If the potatoes are too hot to handle, use paper towels as a wrapper.) Repeat with remaining sweet potatoes. You should have about 2 cups. While potatoes are still hot, add butter and mash with a fork or wooden spoon. Small lumps of potato should remain.

Whisk together the eggs, yolks, sugar, nutmeg and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in bourbon, molasses and vanilla. Whisk in milk. Gradually add egg mixture to sweet potatoes, whisking gently to combine. Set aside.

For a pre-baked crust:

1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the work surface

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

3 tablespoons vegetables shortening, chilled

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

4-5 tablespoons ice water.

Process flour, salt and sugar in a food process until combined. Add shortening and process until mixture has the texture of coarse sand, about 10 seconds. Scatter butter pieces over flour mixture, then cut butter into flour until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse crumbs, with butter bits no larger than small peas, about 10 1-second pulses. Turn mixture into a medium bowl.

Sprinkle 4 tablespoons ice water over mixture. Use rubber spatula and folding motion to mix. Press down on dough with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding up to 1 tablespoon more ice water if dough will not come together. Flatten dough into 4-inch disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 1 hour or up to 2 days before rolling.

Remove dough from refrigerator and let stand until malleable. Roll dough on lightly floured surface into a 12-inch circle. Transfer dough to a 9-inch pie plate by rolling the dough around the rolling pin and unrolling it over the pan. Working around the circumference of the pie plate, ease the dought into the pan corners by gently lifting the edge of the dough with one hand while gently pressing it into the pan bottom with the other hand. Trim the dough edges to extend about 1/2 inch beyond the rim of the pan. Fold the overhang under itself; flute the dough or press the tine of a fork against the dough to flatten it against the rim of the pie plate. Refrigerate the dough-lined pie plate until firm, about 40 minutes, then freeze until very cold, about 20 minutes.

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 375 degrees. Remove the dough-lined pie plate from the freezer, press a doubled 12-inch piece of heavy-duty foil inside the pie shell and fold the edges of the foil to shield the fluted edge. Distribute 2 cups ceramic or metal pie weights over the foil (my wife used some pennies in addition to her pie weights). Bake, leaving the foil and weights in place until the dough looks dry and is light in color, 25 to 30 minutes. Carefully remove the foil and weights by gathering the corners of the foil and pulling up and out. For a partially baked crust, continue baking until light golden brown, 5 to 6 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

While the crust is still warm, cover the bottom with 1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar and the pie filling. Pour pie filling over the brown sugar. Bake on the lower-middle rack until the filling is set around the edges but the center jiggles slightly when shaken, about 45 minutes. Transfer pie to a wire rack and cool to room temperature, about 2 hours, before serving with your best whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

The brown sugar creates an unexpected layer of flavor at the bottom of the pie. We knew the pie was just right when our friend Pete, a West Virginia native who has an unerring taste for home-cooked food, sat bolt upright at the dinner table and nearly dropped his fork.

"Dang, that's good!" Pete exclaimed. "How did you do that? Mine is almost always flat."

Well, my wife would say it's all about The New Best Recipe, Pete. And I ain't gonna argue. (Bill Neal, wherever you are, eat your heart out.)


Joanna said...

Very funny post - and another thing to be said for your wife's cookery book is that the recipe didn't start: take two tins of pumpkin, which seems to be how most pumpkin pies are made these days ... homemade, but not homegrown. Yours sounds great


Ed Bruske said...

Joanna, to my taste, this is one of the best pies my wife has ever made. The flavor and texture of sweet potatoes comes through load and clear with out the cloying sweetness you often find in these kinds of desserts. The bonus is, the sweet potatoes come from our own garden.

Annie said...

Hi Ed, and Happy Thanksgiving! I'm curious how you might alter this recipe if you were using an unbaked pie shell, or if you have any suggestions for the best way to bake the crust before filling it.

Ed Bruske said...

Annie, don't use an unbaked pie shell for this. You would have a disaster. Just use the recipe as is for baking the shell ahead.

Annie said...

Hi again, Ed! I just wanted to let you know that I baked your pie for Thanksgiving, and it was marvelous! I had a number of different people tell me that they loathe sweet potatoes as a general rule, but loved this pie. Even my mom (often my biggest critic) said it was perfect! I have made many an average sweet potato pie in the past, but I won't be making anything but this one in the future!

Ed Bruske said...

Annie, that's wonderful to hear. I'm really glad you enjoyed that pie. I'm really anxious to make another one. Thanks for the feedback.