After two recent smoldering home-cooking failures, I was eager to boost my flagging self-esteem in the kitchen. I wanted something easy, autumnal and sweet. I didn’t want to go down the pumpkin rabbit hole just yet because once I get on a pumpkin bender it’s hard to bounce back. Pumpkin, your time will come, but it is not quite yet.
I settled on something orange and sweet but not pumpkin: a Louisiana Yam Pie, except I didn’t use yams. I used sweet potatoes.
What, exactly, is the difference between a sweet potato and a yam? I’m glad you asked and even if you didn’t, I’m going to tell you. A sweet potato is not a tuber, like a potato, but is considered a root vegetable, like a carrot or parsnip. More specifically, a sweet potato is a root tuber, while a yam is a stem tuber (as is a potato). Yams have rougher skin, like bark, and the inside is very starchy and not especially sweet. Yam skins can be light brown or dark pink and the insides can be white, yellow, pink or purple. A sweet potato has smoother skin and a more slender body with tapered ends. The outsides can be pink, purple, reddish or copper-colored and the inside can be orange, white or purple. Clear as mud?
It’s confusing, I know. Case in point: My Southern grandmother always made candied yams for Thanksgiving, but what she really made was candied sweet potatoes. I’ve been interchanging “yams” and “sweet potatoes” my whole life, but I’ve been doing a disservice to yams, which are cultivated in many countries — especially West Africa, which grows 95 percent of the world’s yams. Yams are an important food source because they can be stored for a long time without getting moldy, as sweet potatoes tend to do in the bottom of my vegetable crisper, eventually turning to mush. (Fortunately, they were contained inside plastic, so no other vegetables were harmed as I cultivated my moldbag.)
But back to pie. I don’t know why it’s called a Louisiana Yam Pie. Is it supposed to be made with yams from Louisiana? Or is the recipe from Louisiana, and the yams can come from anywhere? And since I’m not using yams at all but sweet potatoes, does it matter if they’re from Fred Meyer? Maybe it would be more accurate to call it Fred Meyer Sweet Potato Pie, but it loses some of its down-home vibe.
No matter how you slice it, this pie is crazy good, even if it did result in hilarious sweet potato-based hijinks along the way (I’ll get to that). You can have it for dessert and you can have it for breakfast with a cup of coffee, but technically you can have anything for breakfast with a cup of coffee, so I guess that’s not saying much.
First, I baked two large sweet potatoes. (You can boil or microwave sweet potatoes, but baking gives them a toasty flavor.) I put the sweet potatoes on a pan because they leak while baking and believe me, I already have enough burnt, crusty stuff on the bottom of my oven. I usually bake them at 350 degrees for an hour, but I had some errands to run, so I set the oven at 200 degrees and went about my day.
What should have happened is that I removed two squishy sweet potatoes from the oven, let them cool, easily peeled off the skins and mashed them with a potato masher. What did happen is the sweet potatoes weren’t nearly soft enough, but by that time I was in a rush so I raised the temperature to 350 and let them roast for another half-hour. I took them out and tried to take the peels off while they were still 350 degrees and it was exactly as problematic as you imagine.
After getting the steaming sweet potatoes in the bowl, I tried mashing them but they still weren’t soft enough and I only succeeded in lumpifying them. I ran them through the blender, but by then I was really in a hurry so instead of taking the time to find a spatula I scooped sweet potato out of the blender with my hands and I burnt all my fingers a second time.
In a large bowl, I combined the pureed sweet potatoes, 1 cup firmly packed brown sugar, 1 cup cream, ½ cup milk, 3 eggs, ½ teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ginger and ½ teaspoon nutmeg. I poured the mixture into my 9-inch store-bought pie crust and then remembered that the recipe is for a 10-inch pie. No matter. I saved the remaining filling and will bake it, crustless, in little ramekins. I was supposed to bake it at 350 degrees for 1 hour, but because it had less filling I thought I’d better bake it for 50 minutes. No, of course it wasn’t done! I baked it for 10 more minutes and it was perfect.
You might think that all this incompetence is staged for your entertainment. No one, you say, could be that inept in the kitchen. Au contraire, my friends. This is truthfully how I stumble through every area of my life, not just the kitchen.
The recipe also offers instructions for a vanilla sour cream topping instead of whipped cream. Combine two cups of sour cream, ½ cup powdered sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and a splash of maple syrup. Alternately, you could do what I did and accidentally add lemon extract instead of vanilla. It wasn’t half bad. It was only about 3/8 bad.
I see no reason why you couldn’t make this pie with actual yams, seeing as it is, after all, a recipe for yam pie. You could even drive across the country to Louisiana and get some yams right out of the soft Louisiana soil to ensure an extra degree of authenticity. If you want to bypass yams and sweet potatoes altogether because it’s October and, darn it, you just can’t wait for pumpkin, I won’t blame you one bit if your Louisiana Yam Pie becomes a Clark County Pumpkin Pie. Just save me a slice for breakfast.