Welcome to Ask Elazar, a column in which Eater staff writer Elazar Sontag answers your highly specific and pressing cooking questions.
I’ve never in my life made a pie before, but in the spirit of taking on a baking project during quarantine, I’ve decided I’m going to make my first-ever pie for the holidays this year. Can you recommend a recipe that’s reasonably foolproof but that gives good holiday vibes?
At the intersection of foolproof, low effort, and festive lives one perfect dessert: sweet potato pie. There is perhaps no simpler pie, and the payoff is tremendous, the sweet potatoes providing a rich custard-like texture that pumpkins just can’t deliver (even a mediocre sweet potato pie is, really, quite good). On the baking end, there are very few steps, and very little that can go wrong: Nearly all sweet potato pie recipes have you mix the filling in one bowl, before plopping it into the crust, and sliding the pie into the oven for the filling to set and the crust to brown. And when the process is done, and the pie is in the oven, you’ll have three or four dishes to wash, at most.
My first encounter with this dessert was not on a holiday table, but at the birthday party of a childhood friend. His mom made a sweet potato pie for all three of her sons’ birthdays, and after tasting her pie once, I made it my business to be at as many of these family celebrations as possible. I distinctly remember the warm, cozy smell of roasted sweet potatoes, buttery pie crust, and nutmeg lifting into the air and filling her kitchen.
This sweet potato pie recipe, from the archives of Saveur, is about as simple as it gets, with a filling that calls for only a handful of ingredients. The recipe notably lacks spices, so you can treat the recipe as a base for light improvisation, adding a quarter teaspoon each of your favorite fall flavors — think nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and allspice. Or you can leave the recipe exactly as it is, planning to adapt it next year, when you’re a little more confident in your pie-making chops. For an absolutely no-fail version that’ll take even less time, you can use canned sweet potato, though I really recommend starting with baked or boiled sweet potatoes (plus, canned sweet potatoes are hard to find in many parts of the U.S.) Roasting or boiling the sweet potatoes yourself reinforces the feeling that you have played a meaningful role in the creation of this pie, even if the crust is store-bought and the “Pie Spice” came pre-mixed.
I’ve made sweet potato pie every holiday season for years now, but as a nervous baker who never gets more confident, I’ll be buying my pie crust this year. There are lots of good store bought options out there that’ll result in the buttery, golden-brown pie of your dreams. Or, if you’re deeply committed to making every inch of your first pie from scratch, you can roll up your sleeves, dust a rolling pin, and get to work. Either way, you should take pride in the fact that you made this pie (more or less) without a scratch of help, and that it’ll give even the best pumpkin pie a run for its money.