Being from Southern Ontario sweet potato pie is not something that you regularly find, even during the Thanksgiving season. Pumpkin pies litter every grocery store aisle but despite the produce section's abundance of sweet potatoes, you'll rarely see it used in a pie. At a young age the only reason that I was ever conscious of sweet potato pie was thanks to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
There were a few specific Thanksgiving and Christmas episodes where Uncle Phil's mother, Hattie, is renowned for her sweet potato pie. Ever since then I have been intrigued by what a sweet potato pie would taste like. I know a lot of people compare it to pumpkin pie but I was never sure how that could be true. They look similar, but sweet potatoes are inherently sweeter than pumpkin and produce a far different texture. But who was I to say? I had never had one.
The push to make this pie actually came from my brother who had been asking for one for a few weeks. He had never had a real sweet potato pie either, the closest thing was more of a sweet potato quiche. It's rare that he specifically asks for anything so I was happy to accomodate the request. Using my final frozen pie crust dough I was going to surprise him with a sweet potato pie (I'm such a good brother :)) as well as satisfy my own curiosity (okay, maybe not that good :))
I wanted something traditional, not all done-up and fancy. There were two recipes I was moving back and forth between. I had pretty much settled on a Paula Deen recipe, which in a great irony was actually one of the healthier versions; but switched it up at the last minute for an old Smitten Kitchen bookmark I had. The differences were minimal other than a few extra steps, the use of buttermilk and a little less sugar, but with the added benefit of the actual amount of required sweet potatoes.
On that note this recipe calls for two medium sweet potatoes approx. 1.5 lbs total weight. I bought three just in case and when I got home and weighed them I found that before cutting and peeling two of them weighed exactly 1.5 pounds. Sweet! I steamed and mashed the potatoes using the cooling time to prepare everything else for the filling. However when I went to measure out the 1 1/4 cups of mashed sweet potato what I found was that 1.5 lbs is a little too much. I probably ended up with closer to 2 1/4 cups. Not a huge deal but do keep that in mind (I used a spoon to fix my leftover problem :)).
Despite the recipe being so basic and simple I still managed to play around with it and cater it to my taste. I swapped out the white sugar for brown since brown sugar seemed like a more natural fit. And because brown sugar is a little sweeter, I reduced it to a 1/3 cup to compensate. Other than that I added a touch of mexican vanilla (so wonderful) and ignored the lemon. I didn't bother with whipping and folding egg whites. Somehow I didn't see an old southern grandmother taking the time to fold egg whites into her sweet potato pie, but I could be wrong :). The filling was much runnier than I had expected, very soup like. I figured this was probably because of the egg whites and was really hoping that all my effort wouldn't go to waste over something so simple. I was also worried because I had decided not to blind bake the pie crust. Some recipes did, some didn't. Blind baking always seems unnecessary to me unless it is a custard based pie or fruit pies with a lot of liquid. In my opinion the bottom crust shouldn't be super crispy. It should start soft and then end with a little crispness. Maybe that's just me. I eat a lot of pie when I can, but I am by no means an authority on its preparation (don't tell anyone, you're going to ruin my rep :)).
The only decision left was whether to eat the pie room temperature or chilled. I understand there is a bit of a debate on this. I love pumpkin pie chilled but I wasn't sure if this would translate to sweet potato pie as well. I decided that in the name of scientific discovery I would have to eat at least two pieces, the first at room temperature and the second chilled.
Once it was ready I called up my parents and invited myself over for pie. I told my mother that it was a surprise for my brother and specifically asked her not to mention anything. I mean honestly, I would be there in thirty minutes :). When I was arrived I looked at my brother and said “Hey, check it out” and he said, “Yeah, I know, Mom told me.”
Really Mom? Really? :).
As I cut into the pie all worries surrounding its baking vanished. There was one oddity with the crust as it looks like some air was trapped beneath it and it bubbled a bit in the center. Otherwise the the crust was flakey and the filling had set perfectly. On the other hand my first bite didn't exactly blow me away. It was more like "hmmm, this is different" but the more I ate the more I enjoyed it. Initially, the texture is a bit jarring, almost like cooled mashed potatoes, but very creamy cooled mashed potatoes. And because the potatoes are not pureed there are tiny chunks of sweet potato throughout. It wasn't intentional but it gave a nice texture variance here and there. The flavours themselves were quite subtle, and it made me happy that I had reduced the sugar. Any more and it would have overpowered the natural flavour and sweetness of the sweet potato. Overall it was quite good, but I expected a little more impact. Perhaps years of wonder had left me with expectations far too high. However the next day, once chilled, it was a completely different story. The filling was firmer yet still retained its creaminess. The flavours had developed significantly, becoming much fuller. The nutmeg was now out in front and the taste of sweet potato was considerably richer. The impact I wanted from the start had been realized. This pie was fantastic.
I'm really happy my brother suggested sweet potato pie. It was really good and I'm looking forward to introducing it to others who have not tried it before. It is visually similar to pumpkin pie and though it shares some of the same spices they couldn't be anymore different. Sweet potato pie is about the flavour and texture of the sweet potato. It's like comparing apples to oranges because they're both fruit. It just doesn't make sense. Though, for the record, apples are better :).
Sweet Potato Pie
Adapted from Smitten KitchenCrust:
My favourite pie crust or your own :).
1 1/4 cups steamed and mashed sweet potatoes (approx. 2 medium sweet potatoes before peeling)
2 tbsp all-purpose flour (17g)
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 cup buttermilk**
1/3 cup packed golden yellow/light brown sugar (74g)
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted (57g)
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
** Alternatively substitute 1 cup milk less 1 tbsp + 1 tbsp vinegar. Stir and let sit for 10 minutes
Set rack at the bottom 1/3 of the oven and preheat to 375F, have ready a 9" unbaked pie crust.
In a large bowl add mashed sweet potato, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt and stir until everything is completely combined.
In a small bowl add eggs and beat lightly. Add sugar to eggs and whisk until combined.
Add egg mixture to sweet potatoes and stir until completely combined and smooth. Add flour a half tablespoon at a time, stirring until no longer visible.
Add buttermilk and whisk until everything is combined. Filling will be quite runny.
Pour filling into prepared pie crust and bake for 35 to 40 minutes (mine took 35 minutes).
Allow pie to cool completely on rack before moving into fridge to chill overnight -- This is just my suggestion, it's ready to serve once completely cooled.