Traditions are what make holidays special. And food is a big part of that for most families.
When I was growing up, Grandma — and later Mom — would make baked oysters for our big Thanksgiving Day celebration, which was attended by all my aunts, uncles and cousins on the Menard side of the family. Since then, the dish has become synonymous on “Turkey Day” for many relatives of my generation.
And there was always pumpkin pie and apple pie for dessert at Grandma’s, a tradition that Therese and I have kept up at our house, except for this year.
Therese, who is the pie-maker, crafted a sweet potato pie for our post-meal repast because we had a guest, University of North Dakota football player Demun Mercer, join us.
Demun, who is a wide receiver on the Fighting Hawks team that will host the University of Richmond on Saturday in a Division I playoff game in the Alerus Center, hails from Winnsboro, La., which we all know is in the Deep South, where sweet potato pie is a Thanksgiving Day tradition.
To make Demun feel at home at our dinner table, Therese decided the sweet potato pie would be a nice touch, along with mac ‘n’ cheese, another holiday favorite of many African-Americans.
From the smile on Demun’s face when Therese announced we had sweet potato pie — ala Patti LaBelle’s black-bottom pie crust version — I think she succeeded.
And after sampling the sweet potato pie, I’ll never go back to pumpkin.
Sweet Potato Pie
FOR THE BLACK BOTTOM PIE CRUST:
1½ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter-flavored vegetable shortening, chilled
1/3 cup ice water
¼ cup light brown sugar
FOR THE FILLING:
3 large orange-fleshed sweet potatoes (Louisiana yams), scrubbed
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter, melted
½ cup packed light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
¼ cup half-and-half
¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Whipped cream, for serving (optional)
For the crust: Sift the flour and salt into a medium bowl. Add the shortening. Using a fork or a pastry blender, cut the shortening into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs with a few pea-sized bits. Stirring with the fork, gradually add enough of the water until the mixture clumps together (you may need more or less water). Gather up the dough and press into a thick disk. If desired, wrap the dough in wax paper and refrigerate for up to 1 hour.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 13-inch circle about 1/8-inch thick. Fold the dough in half. Transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, and gently unfold the dough to fit into the pan. Using scissors or a sharp knife, trim the dough to a 1-inch overhang. Fold the dough under itself so the edge of the fold is flush with the edge of the pan. Flute the dough around the edge of the pan. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate while making the filling.
For the filling: Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the sweet potatoes and reduce the heat to medium. Cook until the sweet potatoes are tender when pierced with a knife, about 30 minutes. Drain and run under cold water until cool enough to handle. Peel the sweet potatoes and place in a medium bowl.
Mash with an electric mixer on medium speed until very smooth. Measure 3 cups mashed sweet potatoes, keeping any extra for another use, and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Uncover the pie shell and brush the interior with some of the melted butter. Sprinkle ¼ cup of the brown sugar over the bottom of the pie shell. Bake until the pie dough is set and just beginning to brown, about 15 minutes. If the pie shell puffs, do not prick it.
Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, using an electric mixer on low speed, mix the mashed sweet potatoes, the remaining melted butter and ½ cup brown sugar, the granulated sugar, eggs, half-and-half, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Spread into the partially baked pie shell, smoothing the top.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake until a knife inserted in the center of the filling comes out clean, about 1½ hours. Cool completely on a wire cake rack. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve with whipped cream.