In Vardaman, Miss., you had to wear heels to compete for the title of Sweet Potato Queen. My friend April McGreger, known in Carrboro and beyond as the Farmer's Daughter, wobbled in such shoes. "I always felt bad I couldn't walk in heels," she says. "I knew very early I wouldn't be a Sweet Potato Queen."
The shoes were just a minor roadblock for McGreger, who says the challenge "set [her] on other paths with sweet potatoes."
One such road includes a forthcoming book for UNC Press' Savor the South series, in which McGreger explores sweet and savory uses for the potato that inundated her small childhood home of approximately 1,300 residents. "This time of year, the whole town is covered in dirt from the sweet potato harvest," McGreger says. "There seems to be no evidence that folks are tired of sweet potatoes."
In her family, sweet potato pie reigns. "We always, always, always had sweet potato pie at every holiday," she says. "I've never, never, never been to a family event where there's been pumpkin pie." The latter is generally spiced too heavily for her taste.
In her own version of sweet potato pie—a take on those she ate in her mother's kitchen, at church and family reunions—McGreger uses a bit of cinnamon, lemon zest and vanilla. And in the place of evaporated milk, which many recipes suggest, she substitutes half and half. The addition of bourbon is optional—but definitely recommended.
For the recipe that follows, McGreger suggests pre-baking the pie crust before adding filling. She also recently wrote me the following hint: "Baking your sweet potatoes until their sugars begin to flow and caramelize will give your sweet potato pie a deep, satisfying flavor that cannot be obtained from steamed, boiled, or microwaved, and certainly not canned, sweet potatoes. However, any of these can be substituted in a pinch."
1 1/2 cups mashed sweet potato (from about 3-4 medium baked sweet potatoes, see below)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 large eggs, beaten
1 egg yolk
1 1/4 cups half and half or evaporated milk
3 Tbsp. melted butter
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. lemon zest
1 tsp. real vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. bourbon, optional
Bake the sweet potatoes in a 400-degree oven on a parchment or foil-lined baking sheet until they are very soft and oozing, about 1 hour. Cool and peel. Puree in a food processor or food mill and transfer to a large bowl.
Whisk in the remaining ingredients until the filling is well combined and smooth. If your sweet potato is at all stringy, strain the mixture.
Pour into a cooled, prebaked 9- or 10-inch pie crust and bake at 325 until slightly puffed and set in the center, about 1 hour for a 10-inch pie or closer to 11/2 hours for a 9-inch pie.
Let cool at least 1 hour before serving. Serve warm or at room temperature with very lightly sweetened whipped cream.