Monday, April 6, 2009

sweet potato pie, an ode to

In my early twenties, B.D. (before Dan), I dated a guy from Memphis, Tennessee. We met after colliding into each other, inebriated, in New Orleans. Which pretty much set the tone for the entire relationship. I use the term "relationship" loosely—we mainly drove and flew long distances to spend time together which generally involved eating fried food, going to indie rock shows, and you can probably imagine what else. Although it was not a romance for the ages, it was a lot of fun, mainly because I was able to experience Memphis through the eyes of a born-and-bred local. Some of my happiest travel memories took place there, in the company of that guy: hanging out in the city's seediest and best karaoke joint, turning a corner and unexpectedly seeing the Lorraine Motel under a full moon, feeding a jukebox at the perfect neighborhood bar, touring Graceland and feeling slightly superior to the average slack-jawed tourist, and perhaps most importantly, eating the sweet potato pie of my dreams.

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.


Anonymous said...

I have always wanted to try Sweet Potato Pie. I guess I have never made it because I would be the only one eating it.

This recipe sounds wonderful and I am going to try it...only I will have to cut it in half, otherwise I would have to eat the whole pie alone.

Megan and Butch! said...

I have no idea why more people don't eat sweet potato pie instead of pumpkin. It's so full of depth and flavor that you just don't get with pumpkin. Sweet potato pie is like the mousy younger sister in an 80's, Molly Ringwald in 16
Candles -- you dismiss her as plain, and then you look again, and she's gorgeous. And then the hunk with the red convertible falls in love with her.
So I took that analogy too far. But still -- sweet potato pie is so good. This recipe looks wonderful.

E. Tyler Lindvall said...

I am unclear to as to what exactly you are referring to when you say "you can probably imagine what else" you did with rapscallion you kept time with. Please elaborate. Please elucidate. Post pictures if you think that may help. Matter of fact, I think pictures are just the ticket here. Thanks in advance.

Love the blog, BTW. It has just become my FireFox's home page. You're welcome in advance.

Laura said...

Displayed on my living room bookshelf is a shadow box- It's contents: a brass furniture wheel from the Ritz Carlton-New Orleans and a bright orange matchbox from Antoine's.
Ahh..the melancholy memories of early 20s.
I'll never forget feeding the goats at Silky's with you :)

Lisa said...

T&D: I have a crustless (much healthier) version with pumpkin in my archives. Might be worth a try?

Megan: Love the analogy. Sweet potato is surprisingly superior to pumpkin.

ETL: Class it up, dude.

Laura: Ah, I miss you!

Daniel said...

I like rapscallion in my salad but not my sweet potato pie.

Unknown said...

Yam flan!

Anonymous said...

It must be Tuesday!

How about a shot of Makers Mark
in that pie someday? I don't think it would hurt.

Lisa said...

Good idea, my dear mother. A little Makers never hurt anyone.

fredric koeppel said...

Lisa, thanks for the shout-out for Cozy Corner. I reviewed restaurants in Memphis for 20 years (for the local newspaper) and it's still my favorite barbecue joint(well, with Payne's, which I hope you also got to). The longtime owner died recently, but his family still runs the place.

Lisa said...

Hi Fredric--thanks for your comment, and for reading. Interesting that you worked at the Commercial Appeal. I did not get to Paynes--but I did get to Gus's Fried Chicken. Not barbecue, of course, but still pretty memorable. Memphis is a great food town, I'm sure you had fun writing about it. Lisa


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