Saturday, November 14, 2009

Sweet Potato Pie

I don’t like pumpkin pie. I love pumpkin in other contexts – bread, cookies, cinnamon rolls – but in pie form, pumpkin doesn’t do it for me. Pumpkin pie always tastes flat and one-note to me, like cheap coffee or artificial vanilla-flavored ice cream. It’s totally not worth its calories.

Sweet potato pie, on the other hand, is something I can’t get enough of. It tastes like pumpkin pie’s brighter, sharper cousin – or perhaps pumpkin pie is the ugly stepsister to sweet potato pie’s Cinderella. Sweet potato pie is what pumpkin pie aspires to be when it wishes on a star.

It had been a while since I’d tackled pie, but I didn’t feel like peeling several pounds of apples. I didn’t even feel like making a double crust. This is something of a cheater’s pie. If you know how to make crust (or if you use frozen/premade crust), it really isn’t any more trouble than a batch of cookies.

For those of you who aren’t confident homemade crust makers, I’m going to attempt step-by-step instructions that work for me. I like to think I’m pretty good at crust. This one was absolutely perfect – it even rolled into a symmetrical round without any cracking – but then I went and over-baked the pie.

The sweet potatoes I bought were really big, and the pie’s middle hadn’t set up until it been in the oven for over an hour. I should have just trusted the middle would firm up on its own and pulled the pie after 55 minutes. If you let pie go for over an hour, the crust becomes kind of crispy and chewy. It’s still great, but it’s not quite what most people have in mind when they envision flaky and buttery homemade pie crust.

Not that anyone complained about this pie, which was actually baked the week before I went on vacation.

The recipe is loosely adapted from this epicurious recipe. I will definitely stick with my variations, as the flavors in the filling are just right for my palate. Feel free to adjust the spices to suit your own preferences – just dip your finger in before you add the eggs. I am not a huge cinnamon fan and often cut the amount called for in half; if cinnamon is more your cup of tea, you might want to add more of it especially.

And yes, that was totally a mixed food metaphor.

The crust is a simple pate brisee. I’ve seen it so many places that there’s no point in attempting to give credit. My “crust preparation strategy” is a little bit Martha, a little bit America’s Test Kitchen, and a little bit from an old edition of this cookbook, which I bought at a used bookstore when I was in college. I like a hint of sweet in my pie crust, so I add sugar. If you don’t like sweet in your pie crust, leave it out.

Sweet Potato Pie

1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 stick plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cold
2 tablespoons to ¼ cup ice water

Pie filling:
2 medium sweet potatoes
¾ cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons amaretto liqueur
2 tablespoons whiskey
¾ cup heavy cream
3 eggs

Make crust: Whisk together the flour, sugar, and salt in a small-medium bowl. Cut in butter – the easiest way to do this is to use the coarse side of a box grater to simply grate it into the flour mix. I use an extra tablespoon of butter when I do it this way because butter inevitably gets stuck to the grater.

Some recipes instruct you to freeze the butter before grating it, but I find that if I go quickly, there’s really no need.

Use your hands to make sure the shredded butter is evenly distributed in pea-sized pieces throughout the flour. Sprinkle water over crust a tablespoon at a time, using a fork or spoon to sort of quickly toss the mixture around after each tablespoon of water is added.

Now this is important: You DO NOT NEED to have a dough that actually adheres into a ball at this point. I sprinkle in water until I get large clumps of dough, as in the picture above.

But I don’t worry about “mixing” the crust.

Turn the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Use the plastic wrap to shape and squish the ball into a flattened disk. I sometimes “knead” the dough a little bit with the plastic wrap to get it to make a ball. It sometimes seems a bit dry, but it usually comes together after a few seconds of smushing. If you put in a full quarter cup water, the dough will almost certainly be moist enough to adhere. Those of you in warm and humid climes will probably need even less water.

Wrap the dough disk in plastic wrap, then chill for at least an hour in the refrigerator. I find that after all the squishing, the plastic wrap often won’t make an airtight seal, so I often pop the plastic wrapped-disk into a Ziploc bag so it won’t dry out.

Make pie filling: Wash sweet potatoes and prick all over with fork. Microwave sweet potatoes on high for approximately 6 minutes per side, until soft.

Cool until you can comfortably handle them, then peel and puree. I use a potato ricer to puree sweet potatoes because they are often stringy, and the potato ricer helps remove some of the strings. Mine looks like this and cost a few bucks at IKEA:

I bought it expressly for the purpose of mashing sweet potatoes. For best results, you’ll want to rinse the strings out after each bit of potatoes you pass through.

Mix sweet potato puree with sugar, syrup, spices, salt, amaretto, whiskey, and cream. Adjust spice levels if desired.  Add eggs and stir until blended.

Roll out pie crust: place two partially overlapping pieces of wax paper on your countertop. Sprinkle liberally with flour. Put pie crust on top of flour, sprinkle top with flour, and roll until it measures approximately 12” around.

Once it’s rolled into a circle, either wrap it around your rolling pin or fold into quarters, then unfold/unroll onto pie plate. I find that using the “fold into quarters” method makes it easier to get the pie crust in the middle. Tuck overhanging crust beneath lip of pie plate and pinch dough between thumb and forefinger to create a decorative edge.

Pour sweet potato mixture into unbaked crust and bake at 400 for 45-55 minutes.

As mentioned, I overbaked the depicted pie. And it shows! I put an aluminum round over the edge of my crust after 30 minutes of baking, and the crust is still too brown. Next time I make this, I’m going to pull the pie at 50 minutes no matter what the middle looks like and see if it sets up okay. The depicted pie was in the oven for an hour and five minutes.

This really doesn’t diminish the tastiness of the pie, though. In fact, I kind of like the slightly crispy crust. It has a snap that goes well with the soft filling.

In sum: sweet potato pie is full of win, especially when compared to pumpkin pie.

Dissenting opinions will not be tolerated. Okay, they will be tolerated. But they are crazy.

Printable recipe here.


  1. This looks great!! I love sweet potato and pumpkin, you could sell me on either. Yes, sweet potatoes have more flavor.....for sure. I made Sweet Potato Chocolate Chip Cookies last month and they were divine! Check 'em out if you wish :)

  2. Thanks! Your cookies sound way better than pumpkin chocolate chip ... great idea!

  3. mmm yummy! the only thing i would suggest is that it's worse to take it out too early. once the crust has cooled, it's likely to burn pretty soon if you have to put the pie back in the oven. i learned that the hard way with a pumpkin pie recently. the middle always looks a bit goopy, but i think once the crust looks done and there's a good ring of done-ness, the middle will set. if it all still wobbly, or less than half done-looking, i'd give it a couple minutes more... :)

  4. That might be true ... I think next time, I'm going to go for smaller sweet potatoes and hope for the best. :)