Note from Chef Gwen: Just in time for pie-baking season (who am I kidding…every season is pie-baking season) Linda Avery returns with a review of the new Southern Pies cookbook, from the same author of Southern Cakes.
by Nancie McDermott
photos by Leigh Beisch
Facts: Chronicle, 168 pages, $22.95 (or Amazon at $15.61)
Photos: 26 photos
Give to: Southern Belles, baker friends, pie lovers
Reviewed by Linda Avery:
After conquering the world of pastas and noodles, curries and mu shu, Nancie McDermott turned to sweets. Nancie authored seven or eight books on the cuisines of Asia, so I was surprised when, in 2007, she came out with Southern Cakes: Sweet and Irresistible Recipes for Everyday Celebrations.
There was no surprised in the quality – or the high YUM factor – of those cakes. I specifically remember Cornelia Walker Bailey’s Pear Bread, a versatile, spice-infused batter that turned out tea breads when made in loaf pans or presented as a cake when made in a Bundt pan.
And I wasn’t surprised to see another Bailey recipe in McDermott’s new book Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan. This time, Bailey’s recipe is Sapelo Island Pear Pie – that lady loved the pears from Sapelo Island, Georgia.
McDermott’s recipes are user friendly; she’s okay with store-bought pastry. Her research is evident and her headnotes span mini-biographies to historical accounts to Southern travelogue – all of which are intriguing.
The book has a concise glossary for those who don’t know what a sonker is (the abbreviated definition is a deep dish cobbler with ties to Surry County, North Carolina) as well as a listing of sources for authentic Southern ingredients (mostly located below the Mason-Dixon line).
I wrote to Nancie when I was having a difficult time narrowing which pie to make – too many temptations, diverse flavors (should I make the Vinegar Pie just because I’d never heard of it?). Perhaps it should be the sweet potato pie, based solely on the time of year? McDermott wrote:
“I came across Dr. Carver’s recipe several years back, during my research for “Southern Cakes.”. I was looking for Southern cakes using peanuts and was delighted to find that Dr. Carver’s writings included recipes using peanuts and sweet potatoes to use in the kitchen. Sweet potato pie is one of my favorites — if I’d had room for it in the book, I would have given sweet potato pies their very own chapter.
I love this particular pie because Dr. Carver calls for slicing par-boiled sweet potatoes lengthwise and layering them into the piecrust, rather than mashing them up into a custard. He also cuts loose with the spices, calling for allspice, cloves, ginger and nutmeg, and includes molasses and cream, all giving this pie an antique aspect that makes me feel like I’m flipping the calendar backwards and carrying on good kitchen customs that got left behind over time.
Even by old-time standards, this pie takes more effort than such everyday pies as egg custard, buttermilk and chess pies, and more than even peach or apple pies, using uncooked fruit piled up in a heap. But there’s a time to take a little time in the kitchen, and as Leigh Beisch’s gorgeously understated photograph conveys, this one is a beauty and a keeper.”
So take the time, enjoy the process and share with friends and family.
— Linda Avery
From Southern Pies: A Gracious Plenty of Pie Recipes from Lemon Chess to Chocolate Pecan
Dr. George Washington Carver’s Sliced Sweet Potato Pie
Makes one 9-inch pie
When Dr. George Washington Carver wrote his Agricultural Bulletin #38 in 1936, his goal was to provide African American farmers with much more than just guidance for raising sweet potatoes as a cash crop and food source.
Already in his seventies, and more than four decades into his work as a research chemist, botanist, educator, and author, he tirelessly presented practical, focused information on agriculture, nutrition, and business practices, so that his readers could choose crops that might bring them financial benefits as well as nutritional ones.
His bulletins began with notes on agricultural varieties and how to plant them with success, then moved on to dozens of recipes, including several for sweet potato pies. This one is my favorite.
Carver liked spices as much as I do, but if you don’t have all these in your pantry, you can simply season your pie with cinnamon, or a combination of your choosing. You could prepare this in advance by cooking the sweet potatoes and slicing them in one session, and then assembling and baking the pie the next day.
Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie (store-bought or recipe below)
4 medium sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds)
1/4 cups sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 tablespoons cream, evaporated milk, or half-and-half
1/3 cup molasses, sorghum, pure cane syrup, or honey
1/2 cup hot water, reserved from the sweet potatoes* cooking liquid
3 tablespoons cold butter, chopped into small bits
1. Line a 9-inch deep-dish pie pan with dough, draping it over the edge of the pie pan with a 1 1/2-inch border of pastry extending beyond the rim. Refrigerate until needed.
2. Place the whole, unpeeled sweet potatoes in a large pot with water to cover by 2 inches. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle boil, and cook until the sweet potatoes are tender enough to be sliced, but not so tender that they fall apart. Depending on their size and shape, this should take between 15 and 30 minutes. Remove any smaller sweet potatoes as they reach the right texture and let larger ones cook until they reach the correct texture.
3. While the sweet potatoes are cooking, prepare the seasonings. In a small bowl, combine the sugar, flour, allspice, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves. Stir with a fork to mix them together well.
4. In a medium bowl or a heatproof measuring cup, combine the cream and molasses. When the sweet potatoes are cooked, measure out 1/2 cup of their cooking water. Add this to the molasses and cream and stir to mix these liquids well.
5. Drain the sweet potatoes and set them out on a platter to cool enough to be handled. Peel and trim the sweet potatoes. Slice them lengthwise into slabs about 1/4 inch thick (see Note). You will need about 4 cups; enough slices to generously fill the piecrust.
6. Heat the oven to 350°F. Roll out the top crust to about 11 inches in diameter.
7. Have the spice mixture, molasses mixture, and butter all ready. Place two layers of sweet potato slices in the bottom of the piecrust. Sprinkle about one third of the spice mixture over this first layer. Add another two layers of sweet potato slices, another third of the spice mixture, and finish up with a final two layers of sweet potato slices, filling the piecrust almost to the very top. Add a few slices of sweet potatoes to the center, to build it up a little higher. Sprinkle all the remaining spices over this third layer.
8. Pour the molasses mixture evenly over the filling (you may have extra, just use what you need), and place the bits of cold butter around the top of the pie. Cover the pie with the top crust. Fold the edges of the bottom crust up and over the top crust and press to seal them together well. Using the tines of a fork, work your way around the piecrust, pressing to make a handsome parallel design on the crust as you seal it. Use a sharp knife to cut eight slits in the top of the pie, so that steam can escape and the filling can bubble up through the crust.
9. Place the pie on a baking sheet on the center rack of the oven. Bake until the crust is nicely brown, the filling is bubbling, and the sweet potatoes are tender all the way through, 45 to 55 minutes.
10. Place the pie on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel and let cool to room temperature.
Note: You’ll slice the sweet potatoes lengthwise into “planks,” not crosswise into rounds.
Sandra Gutierrez’s Butter Piecrust
Makes two 9-inch single piecrusts or one 9-inch double pie crust
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup very cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
4 to 6 tablespoons ice water
1 teaspoon white vinegar
1. In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the flour and salt; pulse for 10 seconds. Add the butter cubes and pulse until the mixture resembles coarse sand with some small lumps, 30 to 40 seconds.
2. Add 3 tablespoons of the ice water and the vinegar and pulse 5 to 7 times, until the dough just barely holds together in the work bowl. Add another tablespoon or two of ice water if needed just to bring the ingredients together. Turn it out onto plastic wrap and pat the dough into two separate disks; refrigerate them for a least 1 hour. Set one or two disks out at room temperature for 10 minutes before rolling.
3. Roll out one of the dough disks on a lightly floured surface, to a circle about 1/8 inch thick and 10 inches wide. Carefully transfer it into a 9-inch pie plate. Press the dough gently into the pan and trim away any excess dough, leaving about 1/2 inch beyond the edge of the pie pan. Fold the edges up and over, and then crimp the edges decoratively. Or press the back of a fork into the pastry rim, working around the pie to make a flat edge marked with the tines of the fork. If not filling the crust soon, refrigerate it until needed.
4. To make the crust in advance, wrap it well in plastic and refrigerate it for up to 3 days, or freeze it for up to 2 months.