A Sweet Potato Pie Your Mother Will Love


Photo: Greg Vore

Thanksgiving always brings out our inner obsessive compulsive, that little, squawking bird who must have certain dishes on the table, or else it “just wouldn’t be Thanksgiving.” A lot of these demands depend on where you grew up, or who cooked your earliest Turkey dinners. Some New Englanders crave chestnuts in their stuffing; Southerners like my mother insist on dressing, a stuffing so dense you can slice it like a brownie.

I haven’t adopted all of her Thanksgiving preferences, but her prejudice against pumpkin pie is something I’ve found hard to shake–maybe because so many pumpkin pies are made from canned pumpkins and have that too-sweet, too-soft texture that makes it perfect for jarred baby food, but not dessert. To her, sweet potato pie is the only option because it has substance and texture and depth.

If you share these anti-pumpkin thoughts, or want to make a good thing better, check out this recipe from Greenpoint chef Millicent Souris, author of How to Build a Better Pie: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Flaky Crusts, Toppers, and the Things in Between. Here, she takes sweet potato pie to an even fancier level, adding sesame praline to the top, a fitting move for a semi-Southern cook who grew up in Maryland. But most importantly, she insists on roasting your potatoes, as early as three days in advance if you like. This is what keeps your filling–be it sweet potato or even pumpkin, which you can substitute here–from taking on that “disconcerting texture,” writes Souris, “one thought up by men in suits over a three-martini lunch.”

If you do substitute fresh pumpkin, you can even be a “superdork” says Souris, “and save the pumpkin seeds, clean them, toast them and use them as the praline.”

Don’t worry if you’re a novice baker. Souris is a patient guide, holding your hand through each step until you’re positive you’ve done it right.

Sweet Potato Pie with Sesame Praline

Sweet potato pie is the first pie that gave me the feeling of the transformative ability of cooking and knowledge. My sweet potato pies have evolved over the years, from lumpy masses with whiskey to this more flan-like approach with whiskey. You may substitute pumpkin for sweet potatoes in this pie as well.–M.S.

Single Basic Pie Crust , chilled (recipe follows)

2 pounds (910 g) sweet potatoes
or 3 cups roasted and put through a sieve
2 large eggs, room temperature
3⁄4 cup (175 ml) heavy cream, room temperature
3⁄4 cup (170 g) packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon (6 g) kosher salt
1⁄8 teaspoon ground mace
1⁄8 teaspoon fresh nutmeg (about 15 grates)
1⁄8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1⁄2 tablespoons (12 g) fresh ginger, zested across a grater
zest and juice of 1 lemon
shot of bourbon

6 tablespoons (84 g) unsalted butter
6 tablespoons (90 g) packed brown sugar
6 tablespoons (90 ml) heavy cream
2 teaspoons kosher salt
3⁄4 cup (108 g) sesame seeds, toasted

1 egg white

Prebake tools:
aluminum foil
baking beans

As much as I believe it’s important to make pies with fresh fruit, it is really important to make this pie with actual sweet potatoes. Canned sweet potatoes and canned pumpkin have a disconcerting texture, one thought up by men in suits over a three-martini lunch. It’s tantamount to public school or hospital food, something capable of holding its shape in times of need and needlessness. A starch should never be so gelatinous.

Buy sweet potatoes. It’s a simple thing to do, and they should be readily available and affordable. There are a few ways to prepare them, but if you have the time I implore you to roast them. It gives you the best texture and allows a rich flavor to develop, rather than just boiling them. When I roast them (and this includes pumpkin), I like to toss the potatoes with a few different things to add flavor. These flavors becomes nuanced, just hints instead of sledgehammers. Sweet potatoes get along well with allspice, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, bay leaves, coriander, and mace. Certainly you don’t have to use each and every one of these spices, and it’s preferable to use them in their whole seed form. The whole seeds are really flavorable (or leaves in the manner of the bay leaf) and impart a flavor. It’s akin to marinating the potatoes.

Preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C, gas mark 7).

Bottom Crust
Roll out your chilled pie crust to 1⁄8-inch (3 mm) thick and about 15 inches (38 cm) in diameter. Place in your pie pan and trim the edges so there is no more than 1⁄4 inch (6 mm) of overhang. Lift and crimp the overhang along the rim of the pie pan. Chill your crust in the freezer for at least 15 minutes or chill in the refrigerator for at least 20 minutes. It is important for the crust to be very cold and the fat to re-form and firm up. Pull your pie plate out of the refrigerator and place your foil in it. It should sit flush with the plate, come up along the rim, and fold down to cover the edges. This foil protects the crust from overbrowning, but do not press the foil to the edges. Place your baking beans in the bottom and level them out. Put the crust in the oven. Bake the crust for 20 minutes at 425°F (220°C, gas mark 7). Then pull out the crust, lower your oven to 375°F (190°C, gas mark 5), and carefully lift the aluminum foil by the edges off your crust with the beans in it. Put your crust back in the oven for 15 minutes. Check at 7 minutes and turn it 180 degrees. Check your crust. The edges may be a little darker than the rest, but it should be set and very light in color. The bottom is more than likely a little bit bubbly and looks shiny. Let it cook a bit more, 5 minutes at the most, if the bottom is more shiny than matte. Then take the crust out and let it rest for 10 minutes. Lower the oven to 350°F (180°C, gas mark 4).

Roast your sweet potatoes (as much as three days in advance). When the potatoes are still warm, slip them out of their sleeves and push through a medium-size colander. If you have a high-power blender or food processor, use that, but in lieu of said equipment, push the sweet potatoes through a colander with a wide wooden spoon. This is an essential step, because the texture informs the loveliness of this pie. If you have a blender or a hand mixer, pull it out. If not, wield your strongest whisk and your dominant hand. Don’t use the blender or hand mixer on the first step of ricing the potatoes; they don’t have enough horsepower, and you’ll just end up with a gluey mess. Mix together your eggs and cream until homogenized. Add the 3 cups of sieved potatoes and mix until it’s all together. Add the sugar, salt, spices, and bourbon. Mix until smooth.

Pour your sweet potato mixture into your cooled, partially baked pie crust. Put it in the oven. At 30 minutes turn it 180 degrees. Check the pie at 45 or 50 minutes. This takes about an hour to cook. The best way to check it is to put a butter knife in the middle or give it a shake. If the knife comes out pretty clean, it is good. For the same measure, if it’s only the very middle of the pie that is jiggly, the pie is done. Pull it and let set for at least an hour. While it cools, make the praline.

Sesame Praline
To make the praline, melt your unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the brown sugar when the butter begins to bubble and whisk them together. Watch your heat, you don’t want this to burn, but you want the brown sugar to dissolve into the butter, to cook together.

Add the heavy cream in a steady stream, whisking the whole time. Stop whisking and let this bubble a bit to come together. It’s done when it ceases to taste just like butter, sugar and heavy cream, it’s still raw. It will taste like a creamy caramel, about 5 or 7 minutes.

Add the salt to finish and whisk. Finish with the sesame seeds.

Mix the sesame seeds in so everything is well dispersed. It is very important to let this praline sit and cool a bit. If you pour on the pie hot it will spill over the sides. Pour the cooled praline over a cooled pie. Let it firm up a bit, about 30 minutes.

Yield: 1 pie (8 servings)

Basic Pie Crust

Basic Pie Crust (halve recipe for Sweet Potato Pie, or make two single-crust pies)

2 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons white sugar
2 sticks cold unsalted butter
cup strained ice water, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons
mixing bowl
plastic wrap

This is an amazingly versatile recipe for a double-crust pie. It can be used for sweet or savory pies. It can be all butter, all leaf lard, all shortening, or any combination. For savory pies you can even use beef suet.

Choose a good-size bowl, one where both of your hands can fit in and work. You will be mixing the crust with your hands.

Pour all dry ingredients into the bowl and mix together in the bowl with your hands.

Cut the cold butter into 1⁄4-inch (6 mm) pieces. It is very important that your butter be cold; its ability to maintain its shape is what lends flakiness to the crust. You can freeze it, but I find refrigerated butter to be quite sufficient.

Scatter the butter over the dry ingredients. Incorporate the butter into the dry ingredients by pinching each piece. Do not break up the butter beyond this; it should keep its shape. You are really just introducing them to each other.

As you work, cup your hands and lift all the dry ingredients from the bottom of the bowl to the top. Do this a few times so you aren’t stuck with dry ingredients at the bottom of the bowl. (The butter should not get warm or create tiny little butter
pebbles.The goal is for the fat to have presence in the crust. It has a lot of work to do; leave it some backbone.)

Strain the ice water so ice doesn’t end up in the crust. (Ice water is used for the same reason cold butter is: to keep the fat separate through the process.) You can also pour the ice water through a slotted spoon held over the bowl.
Slowly pour the water into the bowl. Start with 1⁄4 cup of water, and pour it around the outside of the bowl. Never sloppily dump wet ingredients into dry ingredients, especially for a crust. The water should be evenly distributed. Push the crust around with the fork, moving from the outside of the bowl. Add the second 1⁄4 cup (60 ml) of water and repeat.

When mixing the ingredients, make sure you are incorporating all ingredients on the bottom of the bowl. You’ve added 1⁄2 cup of water. It is almost there, but you probably need to add at least 2 tablespoons (30 ml) more water. After adding the
extra water, push the crust more with your fork.

Note: In warmer months you may not need the last tablespoons (30 ml) of water because of the humid air. Always slowly add water to a crust before adding any more. Once you add it, there is no going back. Now, a splash of water from your fingertips or a dusting of flour can tip the balance in the crust texture. Say your crust is almost together but just needs a little shove, or it’s beginning to feel a bit tacky. Try just a touch of water or flour to adjust the texture. –M.S.


From How to Build a Better Pie: Sweet and Savory Recipes for Flaky Crusts, Toppers, and the Things in Between.

2 Responses

  1. EmilyP -

    What’s the texture of the sesame topping? Is it sticky? Is it hard to cut slices of the pie? Does it change texture if you don’t serve the pie right away?

    • Nicole Davis -

      From Millicent: “It’s not a hard praline-it’s more of a toffee. It needs to set on top of the pie for an hour or it will just be goo, but it’s easy to slice.”


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