Louisiana pies

If you bake pies you may have experimented with different recipes to find your ideal crust. I know I have. I can’t begin to remember how many ingredients, combinations of ingredients and techniques I’ve tried over the years. I’ve used lard, shortening, butter and various combinations of the same. I’ve worked with different flours, frozen the fat, used orange juice in place of water, made the crusts by hand and in the food processor, and on and on.

Only recently, I found a combination that yields the best crusts I’ve ever been able to make. The magic ingredient is a small amount of White Lily self-rising flour, which produces a lighter crust. As an added bonus, the rising agents in the flour help the bottom crust to brown – as the pie bakes, the gases created by the baking powder press the crust against the pie pan, which aids in browning.

White Lily, of course, is the Southern flour made from soft winter wheat that’s fabled for producing extremely light biscuits. I must admit that I’ve come to use and appreciate this flour late in life but, like all converts, I’m now an ardent fan. Just remember that soft-wheat flour is excellent for some purposes and disastrous for others. For example, don’t use it for bread or pizza dough.

This crust can be used for any kind of pie but in the fall – and especially for Thanksgiving – sweet potato pie is what I crave. I dearly love sweet potato pie but many versions contain cinnamon and other spices that make them virtually indistinguishable from pumpkin pie. I have nothing against pumpkin pie (in fact, I like it) but when I eat sweet potato pie, I want it to taste like sweet potatoes. So I developed this recipe using cane syrup to create a pie in which one can taste the two principal ingredients. The flavor will be familiar to anyone who has eaten sweet potatoes drizzled with butter and cane syrup. I would maintain that this pie is about as “Louisiana” as a pie can be.

I like to serve sweet potato pie with whipped cream but I would rather have it plain than with a nondairy whipped topping or something out of a can. I’m always surprised what a special treat real whipped cream is for people who never make it. It is a shame not to have the real thing, because whipped cream is the simplest thing in the world to make and it does wonders for a slice of pie.

In addition to sweet potato pie, I’m inordinately fond of fried pies, including those filled with sweet potatoes. Not surprisingly, many fried pies are made with pie dough and while I wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to enjoy one, I prefer those made with biscuit dough. I use slightly sweetened biscuit dough made with White Lily flour, butter and milk, which produces a tender, feather-light crust.

Fried pies can be filled with most any fruit or jam but this time of year persimmons are unrivaled as the star ingredient. The problem with using persimmons is that the pulp is very liquescent and difficult to contain in a fried pie. You can cook the fruit to thicken it but the flavor of persimmons is so delicate that it’s a shame to do that. The best method I’ve come up with is to fortify the persimmon pulp with a bit of unflavored gelatin. Once the fruit has had a chance to thicken under refrigeration it’s easy to fill the little pies. Since persimmons are one of my favorite fruits, I’ve even taken to freezing some each fall so I can make fried persimmon pies throughout the year.

Pie Crust
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup White Lily self-rising flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound very cold unsalted butter
3 tablespoons ice-cold water

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine flours and salt. Pulse 3 times to mix. Cut butter into 8 tablespoon-size pieces and then quarter each one. Add to bowl of food processor and pulse 2 or 3 times until mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. Add water and pulse just to combine. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and form into a ball. Place ball between 2 sheets of waxed paper and press into a disc about 5 inches in diameter. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or more. Roll out dough, position in pie plate, trim and crimp edges as desired.

Louisiana Sweet Potato Pie

You can simplify this recipe by not separating the eggs, however, the pie is much lighter and more elegant when the egg whites are whipped and folded into the filling.

2 cups baked, peeled and mashed sweet potatoes
3 eggs, separated
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup Steen’s cane syrup
2 pinches salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 unbaked pie shell (previous recipe)
whipped cream (recipe follows)

Place an inverted, heavy-duty baking sheet on a shelf in the middle of oven and preheat oven to 450 degrees. (The baking sheet and high temperature help produce a brown crust.)

In a mixing bowl, place mashed sweet potatoes, egg yolks and cream. Mix until light and fluffy. Add syrup, salt, vanilla and lemon zest and mix until thoroughly combined. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Fold into sweet potato mixture. Turn mixture into unbaked pie shell and smooth surface with a rubber spatula.

Place pie on inverted baking sheet and bake at 450 degrees for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and bake until pie is set in the middle, about 30 minutes. Serve with whipped cream. Serves 8.

Whipped Cream
1/2 pint very cold heavy cream
3 tablespoons powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Whip cream until it begins to thicken. Add sugar and extract and whip until soft peaks form. Makes about 2 1/2 cups whipped cream.

Fried Persimmon Pies
For filling:
3/4 cup peeled and mashed persimmons
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons boiling water
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin

For dough:
2 cups White Lily self-rising flour
1 tablespoon sugar
4 tablespoons cold butter
2/3 cup milk
For assembling, frying, and finishing:
all-purpose flour
vegetable oil
powdered sugar

Combine persimmon pulp and sugar in a bowl, and stir to dissolve sugar. In a small bowl, combine boiling water and gelatin and stir until gelatin dissolves. Add to persimmons and stir to mix well. Refrigerate for a few hours (or place in freezer for a shorter period) until persimmon mixture thickens.

Add White Lily flour to bowl of food processor fitted with metal blade. Cut butter into small pieces and add to bowl. Pulse a few times until flour resembles coarse cornmeal. Add milk and pulse briefly so dough pulls away from sides of bowl. Turn dough onto a surface lightly dusted with all-purpose flour. Knead dough once or twice and then divide into 14 portions. Roll one portion into a round about 4-to-5 inches in diameter. Place a teaspoonful of persimmon mixture in the center. Moisten edge of half the dough with water, fold the other half over and press with fingertips to seal. Repeat with remaining portions of dough.

In a large skillet over medium heat, add equal amounts of butter and oil to a depth of about one-quarter inch. Cook a few pies at a time, avoiding overcrowding, until they’re browned on one side. Turn and brown on the other side, then remove and drain on paper towels. Continue cooking pies in batches, adding more butter and oil as necessary and drain when done.

Transfer pies to plates or platter and dust generously with powdered sugar. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature. Makes 14 pies.

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