That hackneyed saw about old dogs and new tricks has never felt more depressingly true than it has in my kitchen over the last few months.
The pandemic lockdown might, for some, have been a challenging adventure into previously unexplored culinary avenues. But let's face it, most of us are really not all that adventurous. For every undauntable wanderer there are probably a dozen or more of us who'd just as soon stay in with a good book and cup of tea.
This tired old dog is one of the latter. I settled into a nest lined with an endless cycle of repeated comfort food favorites, emerging only when forced into dipping my toes into new territory out of necessity to keep my newspaper column interesting.
The end of the column brought with it an end to any motivation to go exploring.
But this inward turn hasn't been without compensations. One of them was the rediscovery of old comfort favorites that had been neglected. The other was a better appreciation for the sadly underrated joys of simplicity.
One neglected favorite was my grandmother's sweet potato custard pie, a staple on our holiday sideboard from Thanksgiving through Christmas. It's an ultimate winter comfort in my family, and yet, I'd not made it in several years.
When a craving for its comfort caused me to take out my version of MaMa's recipe, the years away had given me a wholly different perspective, and I realized that the elegant simplicity of her pie had been buried under added steps and ingredients that really hadn't done a thing for it.
Working backward from a remembered flavor and texture, I began peeling away layers of culinary conceit to reconnect with the simplicity of her kitchen. It was humbling, but when the first bite brought back a flood of happy memories, also reassuring.
In the end, maybe the biggest adventure is the rediscovery of the things that are the most familiar to us, of taking a fresh look that makes us realize that the things we've most taken for granted are the very ones we've never really understood at all.
MaMa's Sweet Potato Custard
Makes 1 9-inch pie
1½ pounds (2-3 medium-to-large) sweet potatoes
1 prepared 9-inch piecrust
½ cup sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon, optional
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, optional
1½ teaspoons Homemade Bourbon Vanilla or ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
About ¼ cup heavy cream or evaporated milk
Bourbon Whipped Cream (optional, recipe follows)
1. Scrub the potatoes well under cold running water. Put them in a large, heavy-bottomed pot and add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to a steady simmer, loosely cover, and cook until the potatoes are very tender (easily pierced with a fork or knife). How long will depend on the size and density of the potatoes, so watch the pot, not the clock. Drain, let cool enough to handle, then peel and leave them to cool completely.
Alternatively, the potatoes can be cooked in a microwave: Wrap them well in plastic wrap and microwave on high for three minutes. Turn them over and microwave 2 minutes longer. Check for doneness and cook at 1 minute intervals until they're very tender. Let them cool slightly, unwrap, and then cool enough to handle. Peel and let them cool completely.
2. Meanwhile, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 375° F. Put the potatoes into a large mixing bowl and mash them well with a fork or potato masher. Mix in the sugar, stirring until the potatoes absorb it, then stir in the eggs, a small pinch of salt, the optional spices, and vanilla. Stir in enough cream or evaporated milk to make the filling smooth and barely pourable—it should still be quite thick and not at all soupy.
3. Pour the filling into the prepared pastry, smooth the top, and bake in the center of the oven until the filling is set at the center and the pastry is nicely browned, about 40 minutes. You may need to turn the pie midway if its crust isn't browning evenly.
4. Transfer the pie to a wire rack and let it cool completely. Serve either at room temperature or chilled. If you want to dress it up, garnish each serving with a dollop of Bourbon Whipped Cream, either on top or on the side.
Bourbon Whipped Cream
Makes about 1 cup
¾ cup chilled heavy cream
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon bourbon
1. Chill a medium mixing bowl and whisk (or the whisk attachment of a hand mixer) for at least ten minutes in the refrigerator. Pour the cream into the bowl and by hand or at medium speed with the mixer, whip until the cream is very frothy and beginning to thicken.
2. Sprinkle sugar to taste over the cream and continue vigorously whipping (raise the speed on the mixer to medium high) until it is fluffy and light but not too stiff. Fold in the bourbon, cover, and chill until needed. You can make it an hour or so ahead.
Recipe adapted from Essentials of Southern Cooking: Techniques & Flavors of a Classic American Cuisine, Lyons Press, copyright © 2013 by Damon Lee Fowler, all rights reserved.