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.
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.
In a few short weeks, we're headed to New York, Vermont and New Jersey to visit family and see my sister Zoe get married. In starting to think through the trip and do a little planning, I found Oliver the cutest tiny-person dress shoes I've ever seen (and he's quite smitten with them), sussed out childcare options for the night of the wedding, and found what feels like the most expensive (and last) rental car in the state of New Jersey. I try very hard not to be one of Those People that begins lamenting the loss of a season before it's remotely appropriate to do so, but this year, as we'll be gone much of September, I've felt a bit of a 'hurry, make all the summery things!' feeling set in. So we've been managing increasingly busy days punctuated with zucchini noodle salads, gazpacho, corn on the cob and homemade popsicles (preferably eaten shirtless outside followed by a good, solid sprinkler run for one small person in particular. Not naming any names).
Somehow, in what seems to have been a blink of an eye, we have a six month old baby. In some ways I can't remember a time we didn't have an Oliver, and in other ways it's all a blur broken up by a few holidays (a Thanksgiving thanks to grocery store takeout, and our very first Christmas in Seattle), a few family visits, a one-day road trip to Portland, a birthday dinner out, a birthday cake, weekend drives to nowhere in particular, swimming at the pool with Oliver, weekly get-togethers with our parent's group, doctor's visits, hundreds of walks around the neighborhood, hundreds of cups of coffee, dozens (or more?) of scoops of ice cream. Most of the worrying about keeping a baby alive has made way for other concerns, and Oliver's need for constant stimulation or soothing walks and car rides has been traded for stretches of time playing with a new toy or checking out his surroundings. In truth, it's thanks to that tiny bit of baby independence that this humble, summery cake came to be in the first place. So we've all got an Oliver to thank for that. Or, really, we have a Yossi Arefi to thank, as it's from her beautiful new cookbook that I've bookmarked heavily and am eager to continue exploring.
A triple berry summer crisp made with oats, quinoa flakes and hazelnuts. Summer in a skillet.
I had a weak moment on our honeymoon in Italy when I decided that I should be making gelato for a living. My enthusiasm for Italian gelato wasn't surprising to anyone. I'd done extensive research, made lists, had Sam map out cities in terms of where the best gelaterias were. I took notes and photos and hemmed and hawed over flavor choices: Sicilian Pistachio! Chestnut Honey! Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig! In truth, on that particular trip, I cared far more about treats, sunshine, and cobblestone walks than I cared about famous landmarks or tourist attractions, often leaving the camera back at the hotel in favor of my small black notebook which housed detailed jottings on dessert discoveries in each city we visited. Our friends Matteo and Jessica happened to be in Naples on the one night we were there, and we all went out for pizza together followed by a long stroll around the city. At some point the conversation turned to gelato (as it's bound to) and Matteo brought up the famous school in Bologna where many renowned gelato artisans study. My wheels were spinning. Maybe we should visit Bologna. I should see this school! I should talk to these students! I could make Sicilian Pistachio; Chestnut Honey; and Sweet Cheese, Almond and Fig each and every day of our lives. Or at the very least, travel to Bologna to learn how and then come back to Seattle to take our Northwest city by storm. Well here we are six months later, back to reality, and the impetus to pack up my bags and head for Bologna has subsided for the time being ... but not the unwavering gusto to sample. That part will always be with me. It's been awhile since I mixed up a batch of ice cream at home, but the other day a beautiful new cookbook landed on my doorstep and I flipped right to a recipe for dark chocolate sorbet with toasty, salty almonds. I didn't need much convincing.