The first time Gregory Cole ever tasted pumpkin pie, he was a grown man.
It was Thanksgiving, and he was in the army, stationed far from home. His thankfulness quotient rocketed when he spotted an orange-colored pie.
Until he learned that the pie was pumpkin.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute. Who did this?’” he remembers with a laugh.
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Cole, who today is a pastry chef and instructor at the Butler County Culinary Arts program, grew up eating sweet potato pie exclusively. The dessert was always the centerpiece of his family Thanksgivings, and no one made sweet potato pie better than his grandmother.
Sweet potato pie is a holiday staple in African-American and Southern homes.
“It is the centerpiece,” he said. “Traditionally, people think of turkey being the centerpiece. But the real point of Thanksgiving is the sweet potato pie.”
During the 16th century, Europeans introduced pumpkin pie to people in West Africa, Cole said. It became an African cuisine tradition brought to the United States by slaves, who made it using sweet potatoes and yams, a plant native to Africa, instead of pumpkin.
Ever since, sweet potato pie has been a must-have dish at many African-American family gatherings, especially Thanksgiving.
Sweet potato pie, for the uninitiated, is similar to pumpkin pie. It’s commonly made using almost identical ingredients – eggs, condensed milk, cinnamon, nutmeg – except that sweet potatoes are used in place of pumpkin. The flavor is similar, too, but where pumpkin pie is dense and creamy, most sweet potato pies have more texture, and the filling is lighter and more airy.
Cole likes his sweet potato pie to have a little bit of chunk to it, he said, and he always uses real sweet potatoes, which he roasts in the oven and then slices. It takes one large sweet potato to make two pies.
And people who make sweet potato pie should always make two, he said.
“You don’t make one sweet potato pie because you’re going to have to share with someone else,” he said. “If you give someone a sweet potato pie or bring one to someone’s house, that’s love.”
Cole does all the cooking for his family Thanksgiving – with one exception. His wife, Carol, makes the sweet potato pies with a recipe she’s had since she was a girl. Each year she makes at least 12, and four are reserved for one brother-in-law, who requires four all to himself.
A good, basic sweet potato pie relies on fresh sweet potatoes and homemade crust, Cole said. Some people like to add extra touches, such as adding a bit of bourbon or substituting a little orange juice for some of the liquid and adding a bit of orange zest.
It’s served plain or with a dollop of whipped cream, Cole said.
“Sweet potato pie represents love. It represents me caring enough about you to make you something that makes you feel joy. And sweet potato pie makes you feel joy.”
Gregory Cole’s Sweet Potato Pie
Makes two pies
1 extra large sweet potato
1 stick of butter, melted
3/4 cup evaporated milk
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon vanilla
2 pie crusts (see recipe)
Whipped cream (optional)
Wash and dry sweet potato and pierce with a fork. Bake it in a 425-degree oven for an hour or until soft. Cool, remove skin and slice potato.
Put it in a mixer with the rest of the ingredients. Mix until blended. Mixture should have small bits of chunk but no large bits intact.
Pour half of mixture into each prepared, uncooked crust. Put foil over the edges of the crust and bake at 350 until the pie is set. Remove the foil and bake until the edges of the crust are golden brown. Cut into eight pieces and serve with whipped cream, if desired.
Gregory Cole’s Pie Crust
Makes one pie crust
1 1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 tablespoon salt
8 tablespoons of butter, chilled
3 tablespoons ice-cold water
Mix dry ingredients together. Cut stick of butter into small cubes and work it into the dry mixture with fingers until it looks like cornmeal with a few pea-size chunks remaining. Drizzle ice water into the dough and work it in, just until the dough starts to hold together. Shape the dough into a flat disc, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Roll it out and place it in the pie plate, pressing it into the bottom, fluting or crimping the edges with a fork, and poking fork holes into the bottom and side of the dough.
Fluffy Sweet Potato-Bourbon Pie with Gingered Whipped Cream and Toasted Pecans
2 to 3 large sweet potatoes (1 1/2 to 2 pounds)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 large eggs
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons bourbon
1 generous teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground dry ginger
Pinch ground cloves
10-inch graham cracker pie crust, homemade or store-bought
For the topping:
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground dry ginger
Toasted pecans, to garnish
Heat the oven to 425. Wash and dry the sweet potatoes, then pierce them on top with a fork. Set the sweet potatoes on a baking sheet and roast until soft, about 1 hour, or until you can see juices bubbling where you pricked the potatoes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
Once the sweet potatoes have cooled, peel and roughly chop the potatoes. Measure out a generous 2 cups of the flesh, then transfer to a food processor. Process for 2 minutes, or until very smooth.
With the processor running, add the melted butter, eggs, cream, bourbon and vanilla. The mixture should begin to look light and fluffy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add both sugars, the cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, ginger and cloves. Process again to combine and fully incorporate the final ingredients.
Place the prepared pie crust on a baking sheet, then transfer the sweet potato mixture into it. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the filling jiggles just slightly at the center. Let cool to room temperature.
When ready to serve, prepare the gingered whipped cream. In a large bowl, combine the cream, sugar and ginger. Use a whisk or electric mixer to whip until stiff peaks form. Mound the whipped cream over the cooled pie, then sprinkle with toasted pecans.