Thanksgiving is the perfect time for soul food to shine, and one Southern chef has refined the traditional Sweet Potato Pie with another soulful seasonal favorite.
Since Chef Teresa Thomas launched her restaurant called Southern Caviar in 2008, diners around Myrtle Beach, S.C., have been thrilled with her upscale versions of down-home Southern cooking. She learned her craft classically at Johnson & Wales University when it was still in Charleston, and then her Southern senses were honed at Charleston's famed soul food Mecca called Jestine's Kitchen.
Now her signature Sweet Potato Pecan Pie is quickly becoming a regional favorite.
But it wasn't at Jestine's where the chef learned her way around sweet potatoes in pies; she says the restaurant didn't even have the classic Southern favorite on the menu. Her first experience with sweet potatoes in pies was at a restaurant in Virgina, and she banished it from the menu.
"I got the recipe [for Sweet Potato Pecan Pie] from where I used to work at, a restaurant called Southside 815 near Alexandria, Va.," she said. "When I became the chef there I got rid of the pie because I didn't like the taste. I liked the idea, but they didn't execute it well."
Fast forward a few years to Longs, S.C., where Chef Thomas and her partner, Kevin Keefer, opened Southern Caviar. Before their first Thanksgiving in business, Keefer had an idea.
"Kevin likes to come up with all these ideas while I'm gone from the restaurant," she said. "One day I come back and he says, 'We're making Sweet Potato Pecan Pie,' and we had 20 orders.
Since people liked the idea so much, the chef decided she had better fulfill their expectations. She already had a popular mashed sweet potato side dish on the menu, so she started by putting that in a traditional flaky pastry crust. Then she simply put a traditional pecan pie filling on top. After experimenting a little with to ensure the pie would hold its shape and still taste great, she had a winner.
Coming up with a sweet potato pie that locals were willing to pay for was no easy task, because the restaurant is in the middle of a national sweet potato growing hot spot. Just a few miles away, over the state line in Tabor City, N.C., the North Carolina Yam Festival is held every October. The festival's sweet potato culinary competition always has dozens of entries, and bragging rights for the winners are coveted.
So this is a population with plenty of sweet potatoes, and area home cooks know what to do with them. It is really saying something positive when a chef new to the area who does not have a lot of experience baking pies, much less sweet potato pies, comes up with a hugely popular version people are willing to pay for.
"I have no idea why I have a relationship with this pie, but I do," Chef Thomas said. "I had Pumpkin Pie and Chocolate Pie while growing up right outside the D.C. area. Jestine's had Pecan Pie, but I didn't even make Pecan Pie until I came here. I actually try to stay out of the sweets world because I really have a hard time following recipes. I'm really lactose intolerant and I don't even taste half my food, but something goes on with my nose, and I can smell ingredients and tell what goes together, then I change my recipe all around. A lot of people cook that way, with their noses, especially with sweets."
Her nose is leading her down a prosperous path, because these days she often receives calls specifically requesting whole pies. As for any customers who see it on the menu and express doubts, there's a sure way to turn them into believers. She gives them a piece and says, "Just try it."
The flavors of the pie are delicious, but it is the texture that makes it exquisite. Chef Thomas' Sweet Potato Pecan Pie is a sandwich of buttery pastry, velvety smooth sweet potato mash and crunchy/chewy pecans that makes each bite an intensely pleasurable sensory experience.
Thanksgiving turkeys might have to play a supporting role to this unconventionally traditional dish.
Sweet Potato Pecan Pie
Teresa Thomas, Southern Caviar, Longs, S.C.
Makes 1 pie
¼ cup butter
¼ cup brown sugar
3 ½ ounces corn syrup
1 ¾ ounces honey
1 ¾ ounces molasses
5 eggs, well beaten
1/3 teaspoon vanilla
1/3 teaspoon salt
1 cup mashed sweet potatoes
1 pre-baked 8-inch pastry pie shell
1 cup whole pecans
Melt the butter and brown sugar together. Blend in the corn syrup, honey and molasses. Add the eggs, vanilla and salt, and mix until barely incorporated. Reserve this until needed, but mix well before using because eggs will separate. Place mashed sweet potatoes in pie crust. Place pie filling on top of sweet potatoes. Top with pecans; you don't have to press them in, just lay them on top. Bake at 300 degrees for 40 minutes, or until there's no more wiggle.