Sweet potato pie: Will it be the new pumpkin?

Sweet Potato Pie
Sweet Potato Pie (Mark Finkenstaedt - For The Washington Post; Styled by Lisa Cherkasky; Tableware from Crate and Barrel)
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By Jane Touzalin
Wednesday, November 18, 2009

These days, sweet potato pie is a Presidential Fave. But before Barack Obama began endorsing it last year at seemingly every campaign appearance, much of America considered it a mere pumpkin pie wannabe.

Obama got it. I, for one, did not.

To my taste, pumpkin and sweet potato pie were nearly indistinguishable. But the political partisanship made me wonder: What was I missing? Now, after talking to chef John Shields of Gertrude's in Baltimore, I think I have my answer. The problem wasn't me; it was the pies I'd had.

Turns out the flawlessly smooth custard of the iconic pumpkin pastry is not what you want in its potato-based relative. All those cooks who whip up their sweet potatoes to a fare-thee-well, Shields says, are missing the point. You don't want silken softness; you want taste and texture.

Shields, an author and the host of "Coastal Cooking" on PBS television, included a sweet potato pie in his 1998 cookbook, "Chesapeake Bay Cooking." He got the recipe from the Church of St. Ann, in Baltimore, where it was on the menu at church hall fish fries.

"It's the quintessential sweet potato pie," he says. "It's got just the right balance, with the coarseness of the sweet potato." The filling is "earthy; it fills you up." The optional pecans add crunch.

In the years since the book was printed, Shields has riffed on the recipe. For the crust, he likes to replace half the shortening with unsalted butter for better flavor. The original calls for milk or light cream; Shields now prefers half-and-half. And rather than serve a plain pie, he'll sometimes add one of two toppers.

Option 1: more cream. He whips cream and confectioners' sugar to soft peaks and mounds it on the baked pie. For a decorative touch, a light dusting of cinnamon over the cream. "You can't go wrong with that," Shields says.

Option 2: egg whites. He makes an Italian, or soft, meringue, which involves beating a warm simple syrup into egg whites until they become glossy and voluminous. After spooning it onto the baked pie, he uses the broiler or a culinary torch to brown the top.

By itself or crowned in white, this rich-tasting pie is delicious in its own right. It shouldn't have needed the presidential coattails to ride to popularity, but now that it's here, it has my vote.


Sweet Potato Pie

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