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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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Happy Birthday, Dr. Science!

Dr. Science is from Oregon, and in his family they get pie for their birthdays. No surprise, then, that Dr. Science traditionally gets blackberry pie for his birthday:

Blackberry birthday pie

Blackberry birthday pie

Happy birthday, Dr. Science!

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Welcome to the 21st Century

This evening I made a banana cream pie. I still get a little thrill seeing the blind-baked pie crust. The pastry cream looked good. I had enough bananas, and I had three egg whites left over from the lemon curd I made on Sunday. I spooned some pastry cream into the crust and sliced the bananas onto it. It looked pretty. I got out the camera and turned it on. The camera said, “Battery depleted.”

There was a time not too long ago that cameras used film and you always had to be thinking ahead. You had to think about how you were using your film and if you had enough.Then you couldn’t see the pictures until the film was developed. That was pretty fast with a Polaroid, but it could be months with conventional film. I have photos from when I was kid that were taken on Christmas and stamped June of the next year. I’ve been taking this instant photo thing a little for granted. I don’t have to make sure I have enough film, but I have to make sure I have enough battery. Welcome to the 21st century.

I’ll take a photo tomorrow when the pie is sliced.

Update: Dr. Science sliced himself some pie to take to work and said, “Now you can take a picture of the crumb.” (We both know pie doesn’t have a crumb, but I like the concept.)

Banana cream pie: the crumb view

Banana cream pie: the crumb view

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More Flaky Pie Crust?

Finally, we’re nearly out of carrot cake. The next time I make a sheet cake, I’m sending it in with Dr. Science. If the products don’t get eaten, I don’t get to bake.

Here’s my opportunity to see if the extra-flaky pie crust I made last time was a fluke, or if the things I did differently contributed to the effect. The three different things were chilling the shortening in the freezer, cutting the butter into random-sized chunks instead of into small cubes, and rubbing in the fat with my fingers instead of cutting it in with the pastry blender. Tonight I did all three. If the crust is extra flaky, that’s probably a result of one or more of these differences. Then I can experiment with trying just one thing, like chilling the shortening, and gauge the effect. If the crust is not extra flaky, then the last time was a fluke.

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The Novelty Still Hasn’t Worn Off

I ran out of time to make carrot cake today, so I got some leftover dough out of the freezer and blind baked a crust for banana cream pie:

Blind-baked crust, soon to become banana cream pie

Blind-baked crust, soon to become banana cream pie

I kept glancing at it through the oven window as it baked. I still can’t believe it works! And now that it’s done

Quick and dirty banana cream pie

Quick and dirty banana cream pie

I can see it needed three bananas in the pie and three egg whites in the meringue instead of two of each. Well, it’s a quick and dirty substitute for carrot cake, which I hope I’ll have time to make tomorrow.

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Flaky Pie Crust

Yesterday, Dr. Science polished off the lemon coconut cake, so I made a mixed-berry pie. (There were three slices left less than 24 hours after it came out of the oven.) Dr. Science dug into his first slice and said, “This crust is really flaky!” My reaction should’ve been “I don’t know why; I didn’t do anything different.”

But I did do something different. Actually I did three things different, and who knows which one(s) made the crust extra flaky?

Between all the social excitement and work, the last week has been pretty full, and I’ve been sleeping badly, so by yesterday I was pretty tired. Julia always wants you to chill the shortening before you use it in pie or tart dough, and yesterday afternoon I thought to stick the can in the freezer, intending to make pie dough a little later.

By the time I got around to it, it was about 7:00 and I was too tired to do my usual mise en place of cubing the butter and weighing the shortening. I got the ice cubes in the measuring cup and filled that with water, put it in the freezer, and got out the shortening. Then I weighed the flour and added the salt and whisked them together and weighed in the shortening. I was too tired to get out the pastry cutter, so I mixed in the shortening with my fingers. Then I used a dinner knife to cut the butter into chunks, and I mixed that in with my fingers. Then I added the water, patted the dough together, and put it in the fridge to chill.

So what made the difference? Chilling the shortening? Not cubing the butter? Mixing in the fat by hand? Who knows? Maybe it was just a fluke.

I won’t be experimenting tomorrow to find out, though, because tomorrow’s baking is going to be carrot cake.

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Pie, Pie

I keep wanting to try Sherry Yard’s blood orange curd, and I’ll probably make it this weekend. The problem is that her method is very labor intensive, so I keep putting it off. But today I decided to try a hybrid version of lemon curd. I processed the zest with the sugar, and I used less sugar. I also used no cornstarch and then baked the tart.

I’m no longer sold on this method. The tart isn’t very lemony, and the curd isn’t stiff enough, although maybe I haven’t let it sit long enough. I’ll try the blood orange curd, though.

Well, that was dessert. For dinner I made the Spring Salmon Pie in the Spring Baking Sheet. The crust is cracker crumbs held together with melted butter and beaten egg, and it was awfully crumbly in the pie plate, and it was still crumbly after the pie was baked. Next time I’ll follow my instincts and add something to the crust—maybe a couple teaspoons of olive oil. The filling was good, although it called for Worcestershire sauce, and I don’t have any so I didn’t use it, and I can see that it needed some kind of added zip. You separate the eggs and beat the whites and fold them in, and when the pie came out of the oven it was very puffy, like a soufflé.

The sourdough culture is bubbly but not extremely active, as it has been. The smell is better. It doesn’t smell like starter yet, but it doesn’t really stink, either.

Reference
Spring Salmon Pie. King Arthur Flour: The Baking Sheet 21;3(Spring 2010): p 15.
Master Lemon Curd. In Sherry Yard: The Secrets of Baking. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp 75-76.

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