Anatomy of a Classic

Sweet Potato Pie, Perfected

This year, Birmingham’s Dolester Miles was named America’s best pastry chef. Try her sweet potato pie, and you’ll see why

photo: Johnny Autry


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.

Johnny Autry

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.

Johnny Autry

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.”


Ingredients

  • For the Crust

    • 1 cup flour

    • 3 tbsp. sugar

    • 1⁄2 tsp. coarse salt

    • 1⁄2 cup yellow cornmeal, medium grind

    • 1 stick cold butter, cut into cubes

    • 1 egg yolk

    • 2 tbsp. ice water

  • For the Filling

    • 3 medium sweet potatoes (scrubbed clean)

    • 2 large eggs

    • 3⁄4 cup sugar

    • 1⁄2 tsp. ground ginger

    • 1⁄2 tsp. cinnamon

    • 1 tsp. nutmeg

    • 1⁄2 tsp. kosher salt

    • 1 tsp. vanilla extract

    • 3⁄4 cup half-and-half

    • 1 tsp. orange zest

    • 1 stick butter, softened

  • For the Bourbon Chantilly Cream

    • 1 cup heavy whipping cream

    • 4 tsp. sugar

    • 1 1⁄2 tbsp. premium bourbon, such as Bulleit or Four Roses


Preparation

  1. For the crust: Combine flour, sugar, salt, and cornmeal in a food processor and pulse a few times. Add butter and pulse until the mixture resembles large peas. Add egg yolk and water with food processor running, then pulse once or twice until the dough holds together. Roll the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.

  2. Preheat oven to 350°F.

  3. Remove dough from refrigerator and let soften for about 10 minutes. Dust with flour and roll into a 12-inch circle about to 1⁄4 inch thick, then press into a 9-inch pie pan, trimming excess and crimping edges. Cover with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dry beans. Bake for 20 minutes with parchment paper, then remove parchment paper and pie weights and bake for 10 minutes or until golden brown. Allow to cool completely before adding filling. (A store-bought crust will also work well if you don’t have time to make one yourself.)

  4. For the filling:  Preheat oven to 375°F.

  5. Bake sweet potatoes for 25 to 30 minutes or until fork tender. Allow to cool. Peel.

  6. Place peeled sweet potatoes in the bowl of an electric mixer with paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until potatoes are mashed and any strings have become wrapped around the paddle. Remove paddle attachment, wipe clean, and return to mixer. (You will need 2 cups of mashed sweet potatoes for the filling.)

  7. Lower oven temperature to 350°F.

  8. Add the remaining ingredients to the sweet potato mixture and mix until combined. The filling can be made as long as 2 days in advance if covered and refrigerated.

  9. Pour filling into the pre-baked, cooled crust and bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until the filling is slightly puffed and set in the middle. Start checking the pie about 10 minutes before the time is up, because every oven is different. Cool completely on a rack.

  10. Bourbon Chantilly Cream: In a chilled mixing bowl, whip cream until soft mounds form; gradually add sugar, whipping until soft peaks form. Gently fold in bourbon and chill until ready to serve.

Meet the Chef

Hometown: Bessemer, Alabama

Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: Her KitchenAid mixer. “That was a big investment and something I always wanted. I got a red one.”

Favorite way to relax: Curled up in bed watching TV— food and home improvement shows, Dirty Dancing, or “anything with Denzel.”

Favorite genre of music: R&B. “I like the old stuff.”


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