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.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
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.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.