Monthly Archives: March 2011

Abby Fisher’s Sweet Potato Pie

In a food history class, we got this recipe for sweet potato pie. This has orange juice and zest in it, and the class demo pie was delicious.

Sweet potato pie cooled

Sweet potato pie cooled


Abby Fisher was born into slavery in 1832 in South Carolina. In the 1870s, she and her husband moved to San Francisco, where they made pickles. She did catering for wealthy San Francisco and Oakland society, and someone urged her to write a cookbook. One problem: In her youth, she had not been allowed to learn to read or write. She dictated the recipes, and What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking was published, but eventually it was forgotten. It was discovered by a librarian and is now available as a facsimile edition.

Until the late 19th century, recipes were written in paragraphs, just as you might tell someone how to make the dish (which, of course, is what Mrs. Fisher was doing in her cookbook). The original recipe looks like this:

Sweet Potato Pie.
Two pounds of potatoes will make two pies. Boil the potatoes soft; peel and mash fine through a cullender while hot; one tablespoonful of butter to be mashed in with the potato. Take five eggs and beat the yolks and whites separate and add one gill of milk; sweeten to taste; squeeze the juice of one orange, and grate one-half of the peel into the liquid. One half teaspoonful of salt in the potatoes. Have only one crust and that at the bottom of the plate. Bake quickly.

(A gill is half a cup; “cullender” was a standard spelling for colander.)

You need to plan ahead for this one. One efficient way to organize it is to preheat the oven to 400℉, scrub the potatoes and put them on a baking sheet, then get the pie dough made. By the time the dough is ready to rest in the fridge, the oven is preheated and you can pop the potatoes in. When the potatoes are done, leave the oven on and set the potatoes aside to cool a little bit so you can handle them. Roll out the pie dough, line the pie plate, and stick that in the fridge. Then make the filling and get the pie in the oven. This will take about 2 to 2½ hours start to finish. Then the pie needs to cool before you can eat it, so that’s maybe another hour.

Abby Fisher’s Sweet Potato Pie
(makes one pie)
dough for flaky pie crust (recipe follows)
1 lb sweet potatoes, baked until tender (about 45 minutes at 400℉)
½ Tbl butter
3 eggs, separated
¼ cup milk
½ cup sugar (or more if you prefer it sweeter)
juice of half an orange (about 2 to 3 Tbl)
zest of ¼ of an orange, about 1 tsp*
½ tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt, or ¼ tsp table salt

*You could use regular orange juice and not bother squeezing the orange, but I strongly recommend using the zest because there’s so much flavor in it.

Flaky Pie Crust
5½ oz (1¼ cups) all-purpose flour
¾ tsp Diamond Crystal kosher salt (or 3/8 tsp table salt)
1 oz (2 Tbl) vegetable shortening
2 oz (½ stick) butter
2 to 3 oz (¼ cup or more) ice water

To make the pie dough:
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and salt.
Cut in the shortening and butter using a pastry blender, knives, or your fingers.
Add the ice water a little at a time, fluffing with a fork or your fingers.
When the dough holds together, pat it into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate it for 30 minutes or longer.
When the dough is chilled, roll it into a circle, fit it into a pie plate (I use a 9″ Pyrex plate), and crimp the edges.

To make the filling:
Peel the hot potatoes, put them in a bowl, and mash them with a masher or fork.

Peeling the sweet potato: You can just pull the skin right off.

Peeling the sweet potato: You can just pull the skin right off.


Mash in the butter and stir in the salt.
Mash the potatoes, then mash in the butter.

Mash the potatoes, then mash in the butter.


In another bowl, beat the yolks until they’re thick and light, about 1 minute. Whisk in the milk, sugar, juice, and zest.
Stir the egg mixture into the potatoes.
Stir the egg mixture into the potatoes.

Stir the egg mixture into the potatoes.


Whisk the whites until they’re foamy. (You’re not making meringue, but you’re using them to lighten the filling, so be aggressive.) Stir the whites gently into the potatoes.
Gently stir in the beaten whites.

Gently stir in the beaten whites.

To assemble and bake the pie:
Turn the filling into the pie shell.
Bake at 400℉ for 40 to 50 minutes.

Sweet potato pie right out of the oven

Sweet potato pie right out of the oven

References
Fisher, Abby: What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. San Francisco: Women’s Co-operative Printing Office, 1881.
Fisher, Abby: What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking, Soups, Pickles, Preserves, Etc. Facsimile edition, with historical notes by Karen Hess. Bedford, Mass: Applewood Books, 1995.

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