A Thanksgiving dessert trial run

by Brian Clarey

Here’s how I like to run my Thanksgiving dinner: I have my basics like the turkey, the mashed potatoes, the stuffing; I have my traditional favorites, like the stuffed mushrooms I like to make in honor of my Uncle Ralphie, who used to count ’em before they came out of the oven so he knew exactly how many he was entitled to; and every year I like to try something new.

This year I’m gonna bust out a new dessert. But I’ll be frank: I can saute like a demon; I can braise all day long; but I’m not much of a baker. So what I need is some advice and a trial run.

You don’t want to be the guy who screws up dessert on Thanksgiving Day.

I’ve decided to make a pie. A sweet potato pie. And because I don’t like to dick around with mixes, I head right for the Piedmont Triad Farmers Market, where Jack Carter of Jack Carter Produce gives me the lowdown on the flavorful, starchy tubers.

He’s got Old Henrys – white sweet potatoes – and Beauregards, which have a ruby-red skin and moist, orange innards.

“They’re pretty close the same,” Carter says. “The white’s a little drier. A lot of old-timers, they ask for the white ones, you know, for pies on the holidays. I guess they make pies a little better.”

But dammit, my very first sweet potato pie cannot be beige. There’s something aesthetically wrong about that.

So I sort through the Beauregards, get a nice big one. Jack talks me down.

“I think the bigger ones are stringier,” he tells me.

I select three thin ones.

A couple days later I seek out Alex Amoroso at Cheesecake’s by Alex on downtown Greensboro’s Elm Street for some more sage counsel.

“You gonna boil ’em or bake ’em?” he asks immediately.

“I don’t know.”

“Bake ’em,” he says. “Like a baked potato, about 325 degrees, at least an hour. Then scoop ’em out and season ’em.”

“How about a crust? I’m gonna make my own crust.”

“You should just buy one,” he says. “Get the flat sheets.”

“What about graham cracker?”

“Oh yeah, that would be good,” he says. “Ginger snaps would be better. And be sure to season your crust. A little cinnamon would be good.”

And that’s exactly what I do – drop a half teaspoon of cinnamon right into the graham cracker mixture while the yams are cooking off in my oven. I don’t like ginger snaps.

I’ve got the potatoes timed to cool off just as the crust bakes and sets, and once I pinch off the skins I quickly add brown sugar, more cinnamon, condensed milk, vanilla, three eggs, a touch of mace and just a pinch of salt to tie it all together.

Mace, by the way, is the newest addition to my spice cabinet. It’s made from the lace-like shell surrounding the nutmeg shell, according to the McCormick “Enspiceclopedia,” and tastes a bit like nutmeg but with a bit more astringency.

I fill the crust and then it’s into the oven with it, like 45 minutes at 400 degrees.

It gets pretty crazy in my kitchen, as I’ve got a crock pot of split pea soup bubbling off on the counter and a baby girl with a stomach virus who’s walking around the house with a Tupperware bucket and doesn’t understand why she can’t hang out with Daddy while he’s cooking. But after nearly three hours prep and cooking time, the pie is done.

I’m pleased with the results, as are the wife and kids. Visually it’s beautiful, a smooth custard pie wearing an autumnal shade of orangey brown. After it cools, the filling holds up well to the knife and the graham cracker crust does not disintegrate as badly as it might have.

And the taste is just fine.

The condensed milk added a thick sweetness, which was good, but I think I’ll try some cream on gameday to make it, you know, creamier. And maybe put a streusel on top (which was Amoroso’s idea).

Also: I think I cooked off the crust a bit too much before I filled it, as it tasted… toasty. And a quarter teaspoon was too much cinnamon; the seasoning on the crust was approaching fireball hot.

And that is precisely why I gave myself a mulligan. On Thanksgiving Day, I’m gonna blow ’em all away.

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