I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they’re one of Oliver’s favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I’ve been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I’ve made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven’t started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance. I’ve made a number of pies on this site in the past (and listed a handful at the bottom of this post if you need some additional baking inspiration), and hundreds for my baking business, Marge. Today at Marge we focus solely on granola, but when I first started the company in San Francisco six years ago, pies were my thing. I’d bake them Thursdays and Fridays in my rental kitchen in Richmond, load up my little Volkswagon early Saturday and Sunday mornings and drive them to the farmers markets where I’d sell whole pies and individual slices. Unlike a lot of competitors, I made the pie dough and rolled it out by hand — a real labor of love come Thanksgiving when orders would stream in and I’d work late into the night, questioning this very decision (as well as my sanity … and my business plan).
At the time I favored a pretty standard all-butter pie crust made with all-purpose flour, but these days — as you know — I love experimenting with whole grain flours whenever I can. And while it’s feasible to make alternative flour swaps with simple baked goods like muffins or quick breads, a really flaky pie crust isn’t always as forgiving. In the past, I’ve fallen in love with a rye pie dough or, if nothing else, often add in some whole wheat pastry flour in place of the all-purpose flour. But I’ve been determined to try making pie dough with kamut flour ever since teaching a class with it a few months back at The Pantry.
If you’re not familiar with kamut (its full name is Kamut Khorasan Wheat), it’s an ancient relative of modern day wheat that looks a lot like a wheat berry except it has a really pretty, golden hue. You can buy the hearty grains and eat them much like you would wheat berries or farro (grain salads, pilafs) or you can buy them ground down into a flour with a nice, light texture and a subtle, buttery flavor — a natural fit for holiday pies.
I used Bob’s Red Mill kamut flour largely because I love Bob’s Red Mill products and have been using them for many years now. They’re really easy to find, and with such a vast line of whole grain flours and nut flours, I’m often inspired to break out of a rut and try something new. The pie dough recipe here should feel familiar if you’ve made a homemade pie dough before (and if you haven’t, let’s do this!): it’s an all-butter affair that I like to make by hand. Keep your ingredients cold, turn on some good tunes, work relatively quickly (you want that butter to remain cold to get the best, flakiest crust) — and all will be just fine.
In addition to the buttery whole grain crust, this filling is worth talking about. If you’re an ardent pumpkin fan, I encourage you to give sweet potato pie a try. It has a very similar spice profile so you still get all those warm spices but I find the filling to be much lighter and airier. I think it would’ve been hard to do this when I was baking dozens and dozens of pies for special orders, but at home I like to whisk brown butter in with the sweet potato custard; it has that nutty, fragrant character that makes this pie really deluxe and special. If you’ve never made brown butter at home, google a quick tutorial (this one is good) — it’s really not at all difficult, and makes all the difference in flavor.
As I was working on this recipe I found myself photographing it like crazy, sharing it with family and friends, and talking about it non-stop with Sam. I even went so far as to give Oliver a few tastes, which is generally against my ‘sugar’s not good for babies’ philosophy. I hadn’t felt this excited about something to come out of the kitchen in a long time, and I couldn’t quite place the feeling. It wasn’t simply a craving for pie — it was more that I hadn’t made a pie in such a long time that muscle memory kicked in and I started to just get in the zone, relishing in something that I felt capable and good at.
It’s funny when you start a business because you love to do something — bake pies, for instance — and as the business grows and morphs and your role changes (as it’s bound to), you no longer do that thing you loved to do. So it’s become clear: I need to bake more pies at home, and I think marrying my old recipes with my new interests (natural sugars and whole grain flours) feels just as exciting as the initial journey was many years ago. So, onward!
I realize this recipe may look a little long, but I assure you the steps are all quite manageable. To make things easy on yourself, roast the sweet potatoes and make the pie dough the day before so on the day you’re baking the pie you’re focusing on browning butter, making the filling (which is quick at this point), and rolling out and pre-baking the crust. I’d love to know if you make this pie and what you think of it. If you decide to share on Instagram, tag it with #asweetspoonful and @meganjgordon so I can see yours!
This sweet potato pie is sweetened solely with maple syrup and has a slight butterscotchy flavor thanks to the fragrant browned butter. I roast the sweet potatoes (boiling them can make for a pie with a little more moisture than I ultimately want) but you can certainly use canned sweet potato or even pumpkin here if you’d prefer. The one step not to skimp on is pre-baking the pie shell: whenever you’re working with a custard (or wet) filling, you really want to do this so your bottom crust won’t end up soggy.
Sweet Potato Filling:
Make the pie dough: Whisk both flours, salt and sugar together in a medium bowl. Using a pastry blender (or your fingertips), cut the butter into the flour, working quickly, until mostly pea-size bits of butter are left. Drizzle in the cider vinegar and 2 tablespoons of ice water and stir with a fork or your fingers. Add more of the ice water mixture, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the dough comes together into more of a uniform ball. It’s ok if there are some dry, mealy bits and great if there are bits of butter still visible. Test if it’s done by squeezing and pinching the dough with your fingertips to see if you can gather it together. Shape into a flat, chubby disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour and up to 1 day.
Roll and bake the pie shell: When you’re ready to roll out your crust, take out the dough about 10-15 minutes before working with it so it has a chance to soften up just a bit and become more pliable and easier to work with. Then work quickly to roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface until it’s about 11-12 inches round. Carefully transfer to a 9-inch pie plate and nestle gently into place. Leave 1-inch of overhang (if there’s a great deal of overhang, trim), then fold edges under and crimp.
Preheat the oven to 375 F. Prick the bottom of the pie shell a few times. Line with parchment paper or aluminum foil and fill to the top with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 20 minutes, or until lightly golden. Remove pie weights or beans along with parchment or foil and bake for an additional 8 minutes, or until the shell is nice and dry on the bottom.
Make the filling: Preheat oven to 400 F. Prick sweet potatoes with a fork, set on a baking sheet and bake for one hour, or until soft. When finished cooking, remove sweet potatoes from the oven and reduce the temperature to 350 F.
In a small light-colored saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula to encourage even cooking. Cook until butter begins to foam, about 4-5 minutes. Continue cooking until the foam subsides and little brown bits appear at the bottom of the pan, smelling fragrant and nutty. Pour butter into a heatproof bowl, remove from heat, and stir for 1-2 minutes to allow it to cool. Set aside.
When cool enough to handle, slice sweet potatoes in half and scoop out the flesh. Discard the skin and place sweet potatoes in a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Puree until smooth (should yield about 1 2/3 cup). Add the eggs, maple syrup, heavy cream, sour cream, vanilla extract, flour, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and salt and pulse a few times to combine well. Slowly stream in the slightly-cooled brown butter.
Pour the mixture into the prepared pie shell and bake until set, about 55-60 minutes. The pie is finished when the edges are completely set and the center is no longer liquid but still a touch jiggly (it will continue to set after it comes out of the oven). Cool on a wire rack for at least 2 hours before serving. Serve warm or room temperature with whipped cream if you’d like.
Glimpses of Spring
We returned home from San Francisco on New Years Eve just in time for dinner, and craving greens -- or anything other than baked goods and pizza (ohhhh San Francisco, how I love your bakeries. And citrus. And winter sunshine). Instead of driving straight home, we stopped at our co-op where I ran in for some arugula, an avocado, a bottle of Prosecco, and for the checkout guys to not-so-subtly mock the outlook of our New Years Eve: rousing party, eh? They looked to be in their mid-twenties and I figured I probably looked ancient to them, sad even. But really, there wasn't much sad (or rousing, to be fair) about our evening: putting Oliver to bed, opening up holiday cards and hanging them in the kitchen, and toasting the New Year with arugula, half a quesadilla and sparkling wine. It wasn't lavish. But it's what we both needed. (Or at least what we had to work with.) Since then, I've been more inspired to cook lots of "real" food versus all of the treats and appetizers and snacks the holidays always bring on. I made Julia Turshen's curried red lentils for the millionth time, a wintry whole grain salad with tuna and fennel, roasted potatoes, and this simple green minestrone that I've taken for lunch this week. Determined to fit as many seasonal vegetables into a bowl as humanly possible, I spooned a colorful pesto on top, as much for the reminder of warmer days to come as for the accent in the soup (and for the enjoyment later of slathering the leftover pesto on crusty bread).
It turns out shopping for wedding dresses is nothing like they make it appear in the movies. Or at least it hasn't been for me. Angels don't sing. Stars don't explode. Relatives don't cry. There isn't a sudden heart-stopping moment that this is, in fact, "the one." To be honest, I always knew that I wasn't the kind of gal for whom angels would sing or stars would explode but I did think I'd have some kind of moment where I could tell I'd found the best dress. Instead, my mom flew into town and we spent three (yes, three!!) days shopping for dresses, and since then I've been back to the stores we visited -- and I'm more undecided than ever. Tomorrow morning I'll return with my friend Keena to try and tie this business up once and for all. Cross your fingers.
When I was single and living alone in the Bay Area, I made virtually the same thing for dinner each night. I ate meals quickly while in front of the computer. Or even worse: the television. This most often included what I call "Mexican Pizzas" which were basically glorified quesadillas baked in the oven until crispy. Sometimes, if I was really feeling like cooking, I'd whip up a quick stir-fry with frozen vegetables from Trader Joe's or a mushroom frittata using pre-sliced mushrooms. Mostly, though, it was Mexican Pizzas -- a good four or five nights a week. Today, thankfully, dinner looks a lot different. Meals in general look a lot different. How would I explain that difference? I think that ultimately how we feel about our life colors how we choose to feed ourselves and the importance that we place on preparing our own meals.
Today was 75 degrees in Seattle and it seemed the whole city was out and about drinking iced coffee in tank tops and perhaps not working all that hard. When we have a hit of sunshine like this in April (or, really, any time of the year), we're all really good at making excuses to leave the office early -- or, simply, to "work from home." I just got back from LA last night, unpacked in a whirlwind this morning, and took Oliver to meet up with three friends from our parents group at the zoo. The only other time I'd been to the Seattle zoo was once with Sam a few years ago when we arrived thirty minutes before closing and ended up doing a whirlwind tour -- sprinting from the giraffes to the massive brown bear to the meerkat. The visit today was much different: we strolled slowly trying to avoid the spring break crowds and beating sun. I managed to only get one of Oliver's cheeks sunburned, and he even got in a decent nap. A success of an afternoon, I'd say. Coming home I realized we didn't have much in the fridge for lunch -- but thankfully there was a respectable stash of Le Croix (Le Croix season is back!) and a small bowl of this whole grain salad I made right before I left town. It's the kind of salad that's meant for this time of year: it pulls off colorful and fresh despite the fact that much of the true spring and summer produce isn't yet available. And for that reason, I make a few versions of it in early spring, often doubling the recipe so there's always the possibility of having a small bowl at 1 p.m. while the baby naps in the car seat, one cheek sunburned, windows and back door open -- a warm breeze creeping into the kitchen.
On Monday our little family of three is headed to the airport at 6 am to board our first with-baby cross-country trip. We'll be visiting Sam's family in New Jersey for a few days, then renting a car and driving over to meet up with my family at my mom's lake house in the Adirondacks. Sam's younger sister and her kids have yet to meet Oliver; my grandpa has yet to meet him, and Oliver has yet to take a dunk in a lake, see a firefly, or spend quality time with energetic dogs -- of which there will be three. A lot of firsts. This week my family has been madly texting, volunteering to make certain meals or sweets on assigned days while we're at the cabin and it got me thinking about really simple, effortless summer desserts -- in particular, ones that you can make while staying in a house with an unfamiliar kitchen and unfamiliar equipment and still do a pretty bang-up job. I think fruit crisp is just that thing.