This post follows in the footsteps of my collaborative series with Enrica of Cervellifuori called Soul Food Recipe Exchange. It’s a way for me to pay homage and to share some of my favorite soul food recipes all the while living in Italy. Back in February I offered to cook a soul food lunch for friends. And so, the following is a classic soul food dessert: sweet potato and pecan pie.
In Turin it can be a challenge to find sweet potatoes. Enrica tells me that in southern Italy, this kind of potato is very common. Turns out, sweet potatoes originate from Central and South America and they were brought to Europe by Christopher Columbus. Whereas the yam is said to have originated in Africa and Asia. The recipe for sweet potato pie goes back centuries, to the African slave trade. Blacks in America adapted their recipes from Africa using ingredients that were found in the “New World” of the south. Hence, sweet potatoes were substituted for yams and to this day, the same still holds true in Southern cooking.
Here in Turin, one can find patata dolce which literally means sweet potato. However, this is a completely different type of potato, similar to boniato, a tropical sweet potato or Cuban sweet potato. With that said, the only place I could find sweet potatoes/yams is just outside Porta Palazzo, the international open market of Turin.
My favorite recipe for sweet potato pie comes from I discovered it while I was searching for a special dessert recipe for Thanksgiving. The recipe is from O, The Oprah Magazine and Govind Armstrong who is an American chef with restaurants in Los Angeles and Miami. Years later, while studying at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary College in Miami I had the responsibility of organizing a fundraiser for Team Excellence, a competition team led by Chef Rami Cohen and Chef Morgan Nims during the Thanksgiving holidays. I chose this very same recipe for the fundraiser and was in charge of kitchen production for approximately 100 pies. The odds were against us in many ways. First off, we had to share a kitchen with another baking and pastry class during production time. Various members of the team worked diligently on production but I remained at school that day until 1 am along with 2 other colleagues, Brittney and Ricky. Yes, in the end there were only 3 of us working feverishly to finish while others had left hours earlier to work the night shift in various restaurants around town. But for those of us who work or have worked in the culinary field, the saying “make it happen” is what we stand by solidly and with whole-hearted integrity. In the end, we succeeded and then some!
Months later, while I was volunteering for one of Paradise Farms’ Dinner in Paradise series in Homestead, Florida, I had the honor of assisting with plating a meal that was presented by none other than Chef Govind Armstrong himself!! At the end of the dinner I had a chance to speak with him one and one and told him about the challenges I faced using his recipe for a pie fundraiser. He chuckled, gave me a very welcoming smile and then gave me one of those priceless looks as if to say, “Not bad at all!”
Here is a link for Govind Armstrong’s recipe taken from the November 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Tips: If you are unable to find maple extract, use maple syrup. It’s okay to leave out the dark corn syrup but be certain to use organic oranges for the zest. Also, I added the pecan mixture on top of the sweet potato mixture before placing it in the oven.
For the pie crust, I used my all-time favorite recipe which is from the book Local Flavors by Deborah Madison, whom I met while participating at Slow Food Nation in San Francisco in 2008. Tip: Instead of using a food processor to make the dough one can use a pastry cutter. Make the dough ahead of time and let rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.
If you would like to explore the above mentioned recipes in Italian, please visit Cervellifuori. Buon appetito!
Photos courtesy of Enrica Crivello.