What My Grandma’s Sweet Potato Pie Recipe Taught Me About Baking — And Life

It's all about trusting your instincts (and taste buds)!

By: Hadiya Presswood
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613035036

Homemade Festive Sweet Potato Pie For Thanksgiving

Photo by: Getty Images/bhofack2

Getty Images/bhofack2

When I was a teenager, I learned how to make sweet potato pies from scratch in the heat of a Thanksgiving-eve oven. My grandma always made a huge spread - everyone in my (large) family got to request a dish, provided that they helped prepare it. I have a sweet tooth, and I chose our traditional dessert, not knowing that I would have to earn the honor of learning the treasured recipe.

The first step was to prepare the sweet potatoes, which meant washing, chopping and boiling them. My grandma leaves the skin on during this part, waiting for it slide off once the potatoes soften. However, you still have to pluck the steaming hot, freshly boiled sweet potatoes out of the colander and pinch the skin off. I watched her deftly start peeling potatoes, unaffected by the heat, and tried to imitate her. My hand barely made contact before the steam hit it and I pulled back. Eventually, after a few attempts, I was able to help with the last of the chopped pieces, and even that little exposure numbed my fingertips.

Next, I added butter while the potatoes were still hot and mashed them, making sure there weren’t any chunks or fibrous strings in the finished product. I don’t have the most developed arm strength, so it was truly a workout to get a good, smooth texture.

Afterwards it was pour and taste time. This is a classic Southern recipe: it requires a lot of all the ingredients, particularly sugar and spices. This is also a classic grandma recip. There are no measurements — you lead with your heart and taste as you go along, and it’s best to be a bit heavy-handed. Initially, I did not know that. I added a little of everything and looked at her, and she gave me a disappointed look, so then I added a little more, and her expression didn’t change. Finally, I kept adding sugar and spices until she said that was enough, and then picked up a spoon for me to taste the mixture: it was ridiculously sweet. “That’s good for now,” she said.

As it turns out the “for now” prefaced the additional sugar and spice added after mixing in the binding ingredients of egg and flour, to offset the slight floury taste the mixture acquires. After that, all that's left to do is bake, in which I was instructed to put the oven on between 350 and 400 degrees, and let it bake for about an hour or so.

Of course I wasn't worried the whole time, trying to make a dessert for everyone, with vague instructions.

Now, years later, I still make my pies like that, though I'm sure there's an easier way to make it — one with definite measurements or some sort of pie hack. My teenage self, once stressed about how to make the perfect pie, would be impressed at my immunity to peeling hot potatoes, knowledge of exactly how much sugar to add, and how I know that even when everything isn't cut-and-dried, life is still very sweet.

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