A friend told me that one of her friends was looking for people’s favorite sweet potato pie recipe, and asked if I could share mine. The problem for me is that sweet potato pie is one of those things I learned how to make by helping one of my great-grandmothers and one thing all three of my great-grandmothers had in common is that measuring cups were at best guidelines. They eyeballed a lot of ingredients in recipes and then adjusted as they went along. So when I make one of those recipes I tend to do it the same way. If I make biscuits from scratch, for instance, I pour some flour and butter and salt and milk (buttermilk if I have it) together and start kneading—then, depending on the texture I might add more flour, or more butter, or more milk and so on until it feels right (you add the baking powder last so it doesn’t start doing its thing while you’re still mixing).
So, I’m going to describe how I make it, taking my best guess as to the relative quantities of the ingredients.
1 pie crust
2 large sweet potatoes
2 eggs plus 1 egg (or the equivalent egg whites)
1 can of evaporated milk
1/2 stick of butter, melted
3/4 cup brown sugar
1-3 tablespoons molasses
1-3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon*
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg*
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves*
1/8 teaspoon ginger*
*if you have pre-mixed pumpkin pie spice, just do a teaspoon of that
1. Lightly rinse the sweet potatoes, then put them in a large pot with enough water to fully immerse them. Add a pinch of salt to the water and put over medium heat. Let it come to a boil, then let it boil for at least 20 minutes. Test for doneness by sticking a fork in one of the sweet potatoes. Try to push it in the full length of the tines. If the fork goes in real easy, they’re done. If it goes in a little ways easy then you feel resistance, let it keep boiling another 10 minutes, then check again.
2. Once they are done, turn off the burner and position a colander in the sink. Pour the pot out through the colander. While the potatoes are still hot turn on the cold water. Let the cold hit one of the potatoes for no more than half a minute, then move the faucet over so the water is still flowing, but not flowing on the potatoes. Pick the partially cooled one up and put it and your hands immediately under the cold water. Now start rubbing with your thumbs. The skin (and a thin, slightly darker colored layer of the potato) will simply rub off. This is infinitely easier than trying to peel them before you boil them, I assure you. Drop the peeled potato into a large mixing bowl. Pick up the second potato and do it again.
3. This is usually when I turn on the oven so it will be preheated by the time we are done with the rest.
4. With a potato masher, start mushing the potatoes. Pour in the evaporated milk, mash/stir some more, then the butter, then the sugar, then the molasses and spices.
5. Note that I have listed variable amounts of vanilla and molasses. Unfortunately, this is one of those places where I adjust. What I do at this point, is pour in (eyeballing it, not measuring) a little bit of molasses, then mix, and once it’s mixed in, if the color isn’t right, I add more. Similarly with the vanilla, I pour in about a teaspoon, then stir it around, and if it smells right, I don’t add more, but if not, I add more.
So I will suggest that you add a bit of molasses and vanilla, stir it in, and take a taste. If it tastes like sweet pie filling, then you’re good. If you think you want a little more of the molasses bite, add some. If you want more of the vanilla mellowness, add some.
6. Now, the eggs. If you’re using actual eggs, crack two of them and dump them into the filling. Then crack the third and separate the yolk from the white, and add the third yolk to the pie. Put the third egg white in a small container for later. The white will be used with the crust in a minute. If you’re using egg beaters or packaged egg whites, measure out whatever they say is the equivalent of two eggs and put that the filling, then stir up.
7. Once all of those ingredients are in, set the filling aside for a few minutes to breathe. I honestly don’t know if the filling actually breathes, but that’s what Great-grandma said is happening.
8. The oven should be pre-heated by now. I usually just buy frozen pie crusts. I used to always make my own crusts from scratch (another recipe I learned from my grandmas), but honestly, I can’t taste the difference, so I don’t do that any more. Whether you made the crust yourself or are using frozen, coat the crust in its pan with the egg white reserved back at step 6 using a pastry brush (or just more eggbeaters/white from the package). With a fork, punch a bunch of holes in the bottom of the crust (if you’re using one of those aluminum pans, don’t poke through the foil!). Stick the crust in the oven for at least five minutes. You want it to dry out a little, but not to fully cook, yet.
9. Take the dried crust out of the oven, pour in the pie filling. you may have too much from your crust/pan, depending on the size of the potatoes. I like to put the excess in ramkins and cook them separately as little tarts.
10. Put the pie into the oven and cook for at least 2 hours. Check for doneness by sticking a tooth pick in. If the toothpick come clean, it’s done. If you see any of the filling clinging to the toothpick let it bake some more. I usually check at 15 minute intervals starting at the 2 hour mark.
Once it’s done, let it cool. Later, serve with whipped cream. Lots, and lots of whipped cream.
This article gives a nice overview: Why Sweet Tea Is the South’s Quintessential Drink.
In the movie version of Steel Magnolias Dolly Parton’s character observes that “sweet tea is the house wine of the south.” Which is true, though there can be weird nuances. For one thing, there are people who disagree about which parts of the country constitute the south. Seriously! I once had a temporary co-worker from Georgia sniff very disdainfully at I and another co-worker after we mentioned that our families came mostly from Oklahoma and Texas, that “those aren’t part of the south, those are in the West.” I have also heard people from North or South Carolina insist the Florida is not part of the south. I’ve been told by one acquaintance who grew up in New Orleans that “N’Orleans doesn’t really do sweet tea!” Whereas a friend whose family comes from other parts of Louisianna once commented after sampling my sweet tea, that I didn’t have nearly enough sugar in it. Some people insist that Sweet Tea states should get their own designation, with arguments about whether the “tea line” encompasses all of Texas, or only East Texas, for instance.
I grew up on sweet tea, and I learned how to make it from my mom and various grandmothers and one grandfather, and each of them had a slightly different recipe. They were all good in their own ways, but they were also very different. Many families guard their sweet tea recipes, sometimes referring to them by names like, “Great Aunt Pearl’s Sweet Tea.” So, before we get any further, I’m going to warn you right now that no, I absolutely will not tell you my Great-grandma S.J.’s Sweet Tea recipe, nor Great-grandma I’s, nor my Nice Grandma’s Sweet Tea recipe nor her Sun Tea recipe (which is a different beast altogether).
What I will do is tell you my Evil Grandmother’s Sweet Tea recipe. One reason why is because she frequently told it to other people outside the family. Another reason is because I don’t think hers was the best, but it will give you an idea of how these go.
My Evil Grandma insisted that Sweet Tea was best made in an aluminum pitcher. She had a 2-quart aluminum pitcher for just that purpose. To make her tea, you fill a whistling tea pot with water and set it to boil. While it is going, you measure out four and a half cups of sugar into the bottom of the aluminum pitcher, then you add a half teaspoon of baking soda. You let the kettle get to a loud whistling, then pour the still boiling water into the aluminum pitcher. Stir furiously until the sugar dissolved, then count out fourteen Lipton flow-through tea bags, put them in the pitcher, stick a lid on it, and put it into the fridge for one hour. Then, take the pitcher out, pull out the tea bags, but make sure you squeeze them so all the dark tea gets into the pitcher. Top off the pitcher with however much tap water is needed to fill, and stir some more (because some of the sugar probably precipitated out). Put it back in the fridge for at least another hour. Now, you can serve it over ice.
Now that you’ve read the one recipe that I am willing to disclose, we can analyze it a bit. Most of the sweet tea recipes I have acquired over the years use tea bags, not loose tea. And very often people have strong feelings about which ones to use. I have seen, for instance, recipes that call for specific brands and varieties of tea bags–specifying X bags of specific brand of black tea plus Y bags of a specific brand of mint tea plus Z bags of a specific brand of orange pekoe, for instance.
I will neither confirm nor deny having witnessed two relatives almost come to blows over an argument about whether an Earl Grey tea is ever suitable for sweet tea (with a third relative opining that Earl Grey is all right in a sun tea as long as you have a few other kinds with it, but really should only go in to sweet tea if you have nothing else).
Why do some recipes include baking soda, you may ask? Tea leaves contain tannic acid which is very bitter. When you steep most teas for more than, say, 2 minutes, you can get a lot of tannic acid in the tea. Some people swear that a small amount of baking soda (which is an alkaline compound and will neutralize an equal amount of acid) mellows out the tannic acid flavor. I’ve also heard people claim that the baking soda helps with dissolving more sugar into the water.
Many recipes specify how to boil the water. There are people who insist the sugar must be in the pitcher that the hot water or hot tea is poured into. Others say that most of the sugar should be mixed with the water as it is brought to a boil.
My Evil Grandma’s sweet tea was very dark, nearly the color of coffee. A lot of people say that is two strong, the tea should have more of a rich reddish color than a deep brown.
Because most of my life has been lived outside of the sweet tea states, I got used to drinking the rather weak and completely unsweetened tea served here. Also, in my late twenties when I realized just how rampantly adult-onset diabetes stampedes through my dad’s family, I made the decision to mostly stop sweetening my tea or coffee. And now that I am diabetic, I don’t make sweet tea ever.
And while we’re on the subject of diabetes, I want to point out that all of the sweet tea recipes from my mother’s side of the family called for way more sugar than any that I learned from Dad’s side, yet Dad’s family is where almost all the diabetes is. So don’t come at me on that.
While I don’t make sweet tea, I still make and drink a lot of tea and have many fond memories of sitting down with friends and family, everyone with a frosty glass of tea, on hot summer days. So the last few weeks, after my husband brought home a one gallon glass jug, I’ve been experimenting with sun tea recipes, based only loosely on my Nice Grandma’s. Put the collection of specific tea bags in the water, set it out in the sun for an hour, then remove the bags and let the jug chill in the fridge. The one thing to remember about sun tea is that since the water is never brought to a boil, it is more susceptible to bacterial contamination, so you want to finish off the whole batch in no more than two days.
It’s not quite the same, but drinking the cold, unsweetened tea that I’ve made this way, brings all those fond memories back. As Fred Thompson observed in his book, Cornbread Nation,
“Sweet tea—your mother’s sweet tea—means you are home.”
Such a process recipe is my recollection of Grandpa’s cornbread. Approximately equal amounts of corn meal and flour, with some sugar, baking powder, salt, an egg or two (depending on how big a batch you’re making), some butter and some milk. Mix the dry ingredients thoroughly first, soften the butter, add the eggs, milk, and butter, blend. If the texture and thickness isn’t right, add some more cornmeal, or some more milk. Pour into a greased pan and bake about 20-25 minutes at 400-ish degrees.
Anyway… Read More…
Most of her recipes began with the sentence: “First, chop an onion.” Most of her childhood was in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, but she also lived in Texas at several points, and her accent sounded more coastal Texan than Missourian. Her oldest brother, who was born in Kansas, often teasingly called her the family’s Texan transplant. I have sometimes labeled homemade chili’s I’ve made from Grandma’s recipe as “Grandma’s Texas Chili,” because of this.
As I mentioned above, her recipes are never strict. I must have eaten her chili hundreds of times, and helped her cook it dozens of times, and I suspect that no two of them were ever exactly alike. Her chili recipe differed from her others because, it begins with, “While the bacon is cooking down, chop an onion and your peppers.”
Among all the variants of Grandma’s chili I ever had, the only three constants were: onions, beans, and bacon. Usually there were several kinds of peppers, but if she didn’t have peppers, she’d just sprinkle in some (or, depending on her mood, and whole lot of) cayenne or even paprika. She favored ground beef, but would substitute pork sausage, ground chicken, or sometimes chopped meatballs or even chopped bologna, if that’s what she had. There might be tomatoes, or not. Frequently the tomato component would be generous dollops of her homemade green tomato relish (which was always spicy), because she almost always had many jars of it in the pantry. Even if she didn’t cook the relish in the chili, she’d usually set out a jar so you could add some to your bowl to spice it up.
She wasn’t particular about the beans. When I was younger, she almost always started with dry beans that soaked overnight. Later she was more willing to use canned beans, since they were more convenient. Any beans would do. I remember more than once she used Van Camp’s Pork & Beans.
The basics of the recipe were:
- Cook some bacon until it is very crisp, set the bacon aside.
- Chop your onions and peppers up while the bacon is cooking. Saute the onions and peppers in the bacon grease.
- Add your meat. Yes, even if it is extremely non-lean hamburger, cook it in the bacon grease. The bacon is very important!
- Season liberally with salt. Optional spices to throw in while satueing include pepper, chili pepper, cayenne, paprika, garlic, or pickled hot vegetables.
- Add tomatoes or tomato relish or tomato sauce if you are doing tomatoes.
- Depending on how you’re doing the beans and what kind of pan you’re cooking the onion, peppers, either add the beans and some liquid to the pan, or start the beans cooking in a pot and add the meat, onions, et al, to them.
- Crumble up the bacon and stir it in.
- Get the chili to a boil for a while, tasting and adding seasoning, until everything tastes right.
- Serve with grated cheese if you have it, and/or green tomato relish, or some salsa, or…
I mention the hot pickled vegetables because she almost always had some of those around the house, too. I was one of the few members of the family who loved eating those as much as Grandma (later, when I started regularly making haberno salsa to bring to family dinners, Grandma always asked to take the leftover home, so I started bringing a separate container of it just for her to take). One time, when she didn’t have any fresh peppers and didn’t have any cayenne, she fished all the pickled peppers out of a jar of the hot veggies, and poured some of the hot pickle brine into the pan with the sauteing bits.
Even with the wildest substitutions, by the time Grandma was finished, it was always Grandma’s Chili. And it was always great.
I’ve only gone all out on Grandma’s Chili a few times in the seven years since she died. I make chili all the time, but it’s not Grandma’s. When making “ordinary” chili, I am as prone to substitutions as Grandma was, and almost never use bacon. When I make chili that I call Grandma’s Chili, I always soak beans overnight, spend too much time choosing bacon, always get some fresh peppers, and onion (usually a sweet one). I try to steer the taste to the milder end, since my husband (and most of our friends) can’t take the kind of chili that Grandma or I would call hot. Sometimes I make some haberno salsa for myself and the brave souls.
I didn’t pick up any really hot peppers. I stuck to mostly sweet ones, since as far as I know it will only be Michael and I eating my chili tomorrow while I watch the Superbowl.
I’ll post a follow-up on how it came out.