The pie, or should I say, The Pie, resides at Cozy Corner, a small and unassuming barbecue joint. Cozy's is appropriately hazy inside, like all good barbecue establishments. The sweet smell of sauce and spices and meat hits you at the door, promising something really, really good even before you take a look at the menu, which is posted on a wall. There are ribs, and Cornish hens, and pork, and barbecue spaghetti (yes), but what stands out most in my mind is The Pie. After all these years, it is still the sweet potato pie all other sweet potato pies must measure up to in my mind. If I were to describe it—flaky, buttery crust, velvety filling with a hint of spice, soft but not too soft, firm but not too firm—it would sound completely ordinary. But it was perfect.
I've made and eaten many sweet potato pies since then, and I always think of Memphis when I do. Does my pie add up to the legend? Not exactly. I think the ambiance of that smoke-filled restaurant has sweetened my memory a little bit over the years. Isn't that how all good food memories work? I remember eating the pie out of its plastic container and hopping back in the guy's car to go god knows where, feeling young and not knowing what was in store for me, not having a clue that I would move to New York, that I would soon fall in love with my future husband, whom I'd already met six years earlier. Life can be so sweet and so strange.
Sweet potato pie
I like Ruth Riechl's recipe from her book Comfort Me With Apples. It's exactly what you want when you're going for a classic, no-frills sweet potato pie. I used a pre-made crust to save time, but it is immensely better if you make a homemade crust. The pie is also immensely better if you listen to Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings while you make it, but that's also your choice.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)
2 medium sweet potatoes (about 1 1/4 pounds)
1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 cup whole milk
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 unbaked 9-inch pie shell
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork and roast them on a shallow baking pan in the middle of the oven until very tender, about 1 1/4 hours. Cool to room temperature. Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees, and place a shallow baking pan on the bottom rack. Scoop the flesh from potatoes into a bowl and discard the skins. Mash the sweet potatoes with a fork until smooth. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the sugar. Add the melted butter mixture to the sweet potatoes with the milk and the eggs and beat with a whisk until smooth. Whisk in the remaining ingredients (the filling will be quite liquid). Pour the filling into the pie shell. Carefully transfer the pie to the heated shallow baking pan on the bottom rack of the oven and bake until the filling is just set, about 40 minutes. Transfer the pie to a rack to cool. Serve with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, sprinkled with cinnamon.