One of the beautiful things about Southern baking is its deceptive simplicity. What could be easier than a pound cake, you think, until you try to make one. Dolester Miles is the master of the genre. Her pies and cakes and cobblers are so good they won her a James Beard Foundation medal for best pastry chef in America earlier this year. But people who have been ordering dessert at Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar & Grill, Chez Fonfon, or Bottega restaurants in Birmingham have known about her magic touch for decades. That’s why recipes from Miles, who grew up in nearby Bessemer, are like gold. She doesn’t give them out easily. It’s not because she’s one of those cagey Southern cooks who think holding back a secret gives them power. She just doesn’t write them down that often. She knows them. Like many women of her generation who were taught by mothers, grandmothers, and aunties, she learned the subtle but essential tips that can produce an impossibly tender crumb in a pound cake or make a peach that’s not quite perfect into something as sweet as a summer morning.
Consider Miles’s recipe for sweet potato pie, a reliable dish on countless Southern tables each fall and something she learned early on from her mother, Cora Mae, who died five years ago. “We grew up on that sweet potato pie,” Miles says.
The first trick is to bake the sweet potatoes. “When you boil them, it takes some of the flavor out,” she says. To make sure the filling is smooth and puffs up like a soufflé, she removes any of the potatoes’ fibrous strings before whipping in eggs and a stick of butter. To improve the texture of the crust, which is as soft as they come, she sprinkles in yellow cornmeal and fortifies it with an egg yolk. And to bring the flavor of the pie into focus, she enhances the filling with ground ginger and the zest of an orange.
Individually, those touches might not seem ground-breaking. But layered atop one another with Miles’s clean, precise technique, the stalwart of a fall dessert buffet is transformed.
Her recipe includes a Chantilly cream—heavy cream whipped with sugar and bourbon—that adds a subtle layer of character so delightful you can’t imagine eating another slice of pie without it. But you won’t find it embellishing her slice. Miles was diagnosed with diabetes ten years ago, so she doesn’t eat much sweet potato pie anymore. When she does, she takes it plain. The cream adds calories, and really, she says, it can distract from the main attraction. “I just like to taste the pie,” she says. “I don’t need it to be fancy.”