There was only one thing for me to do: Make it myself.
First, I had to find the recipe. Simple Google searches were a little iffy; the results were dominated by the video and the store-bought pie. But I found a reader review of her bestselling first cookbook, “LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About” (Clarkson Potter, 1999), that mentioned a recipe called Norma’s Black-Bottom Sweet Potato Pie. I couldn’t put my hands on the book immediately (Amazon isn’t that fast, and there’s no Kindle edition available), but I found recipes by that name on a few Web sites, sometimes attributed to LaBelle. I cross-referenced to find that they were identical, except one — at www.streetswing.com, attributed to www.wchstv.com — that also included a crust recipe. So that’s what I made. (When I scored a copy of “LaBelle Cuisine” from a colleague a couple days later, I verified that both recipes, for pie and “Basic Piecrust,” are indeed what appear in the star’s book.)
It’s a pretty straightforward, good-looking, traditional Southern recipe, with a filling made of boiled sweet potatoes (also referred to in the recipe as “Louisiana yams”), butter, brown and granulated sugar, eggs, spices, and a little half-and-half. The “black bottom” of the title refers to the nifty technique of sprinkling a little of the brown sugar on the pie crust before partially baking it without the filling — or “blind,” adding flavor and keeping the crust from getting soggy. (I wasn’t immediately sure who the Norma of the recipe title is, but I suspected it was Norma Harris, LaBelle’s longtime hairdresser. After seeing the book’s acknowledgements, which include a shout-out to Harris as one of her “forever friends,” and a photo on this recipe’s spread of “my best friend, Norma, and me stirring it up in Norma’s kitchen,” I’m sure.)
How did the pie turn out? It’s pretty great, honestly: The crust is flaky and tender, and the filling is particularly creamy, not too sweet, and nicely spiced — pretty bold with the nutmeg, but I like that.
And here’s the big question: How does it compare to the Patti Pie at Wal-Mart? Well, the store-bought one is cheaper, although perhaps not by all that much. Wal-Mart is selling the pies for a mere $3.48, while I paid $4.73 for the ingredients (shortening, sweet potatoes, eggs) that I needed to buy. (I had the remaining ingredients — flour, sugars, spices — in my pantry, and doubt they would have added more than another dollar’s worth of expense, given the amounts that I needed.)
Now, it’s certainly less time-consuming to buy a pie than to make one. I spent a good hour on a trip to a nearby supermarket to buy the ingredients, and another couple of hours making the pie. But that might not seem so bad compared to who knows how much time spent calling (or driving) from Wal-Mart to Wal-Mart trying to find a place that’s not sold out.
One big caveat: I don’t know how the recipe for LaBelle’s Wal-Mart pie actually compares to the recipe in “LaBelle Cuisine.” In photos I found online, on the top of the box, next to Patti’s face, are the words “Made With California Grown Sweet Potatoes, Butter and Spice.” But I couldn’t find any photos (or other sources) that included the full list of ingredients (or nutritional information).
And then there’s the most crucial comparison of all: the taste. Obviously, I haven’t sampled the Wal-Mart pie yet, but as soon as I get my hands on one, I’ll compare. I can’t imagine it’s close to as good as this freshly made one — which didn’t make me break out into song, but I bet it would James Wright.
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Patti LaBelle’s Sweet Potato Pie
This makes a light-textured pie, not too sweet and with a nice spice flavor, with a flaky and tender crust.
You’ll need a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate.
The pie crust dough can be refrigerated for up to 3 days. Any leftover pureed sweet potatoes can be frozen for up to 6 months. The pie can be baked and refrigerated a day in advance.
- 1 1/2 cups flour, plus more for the work surface
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup butter-flavored vegetable shortening, chilled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1/3 cup ice water
- 1 tablespoon melted unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
- 3 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (about 2 3/4 pounds), scrubbed
- 7 tablespoons (most of 1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
- 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1/4 cup half-and-half
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- For the crust: Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the shortening. Use a fork or a pastry blender to cut the shortening into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs with a few pea-size bits.
- Stirring with the fork, gradually add enough of the water until the mixture clumps together (you may need more or less water). Gather up the dough and press into a thick disk. If desired, wrap the dough in wax paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or up to 3 days.
- Lightly flour a work surface. Place the chilled dough on it; roll out to a round that’s 13 inches across. Fold the dough in half.
- Transfer to the pie plate; gently unfold the dough to fit into it. Trim the dough as needed to leave a 1-inch overhang. (Bake or reserve the scraps for another use.)
- Fold the dough under itself so the edge of the fold is flush with the edge of the pan. Flute the dough around the edge of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while you start the filling (and up to 1 hour).
- For the filling: Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt, then the sweet potatoes. Reduce the heat to medium; cook until the sweet potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 to 45 minutes.
- Drain the sweet potatoes, letting them fall into a colander. Run under cold water until cool enough to handle. Discard the skins; transfer the cooked sweet potatoes to a mixing bowl. Use a hand-held electric mixer to blend on medium speed until creamy and smooth. You’ll need 3 cups for the filling; scoop out the remainder and reserve for another use.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Uncover the pie shell; brush the interior with the melted butter. Sprinkle the brown sugar over the bottom of the pie shell. Par-bake until the crust is set and just beginning to brown, about 15 minutes. (If the pie shell puffs, do not prick it.) Let cool.
- Meanwhile, add the melted butter and brown sugar, the granulated sugar, eggs, half-and-half, cinnamon and nutmeg to the pureed sweet potatoes. Beat on medium speed until well incorporated.
- Pour into the par-baked pie shell, smoothing the surface. Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake (middle rack) until a knife inserted in the center of the filling comes out clean yet the filling still jiggles a bit, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.
- Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, then cover loosely and refrigerate until ready to serve.
Original Source: Adapted from “LaBelle Cuisine: Recipes to Sing About,” by Patti LaBelle (Clarkson Potter, 1999).