I grew up eating pumpkin pie; it was a family favorite made by my mom over the fall holidays (never store bought). In the years since then, pumpkin pie has erupted into the mainstream consciousness in a completely different way, spawning the ubiquitous raft of ‘pumpkin spice’ products, from lattes to lip balms to… hummus. It’s impossible to avoid and has become a North American cultural touchstone of the entire fall season, growing into a polarizing ‘love it or hate it’ phenomenon.
Last year, though, I made a sweet potato pie for the first time (I used this recipe from The Kitchenista). It converted me. It does everything that pumpkin pie does, then goes and does it better. The sweet potato is sweeter than the pumpkin and, consistency wise, it gets creamier and silkier than the pumpkin. Which, for a sweet, custardy pie, is a very very good thing.
Sweet potato is not a common dessert ingredient here in Canada, but it is in the southern United States. While desserts such as sweet potato pie likely came via Europe to white plantation owners’ kitchen tables, the sweet potato pie is now deeply rooted in Black communities in the South.
Adrian Miller writes that the sweet potato pie is “a taste of home. It’s a taste of church. It’s the taste of family reunions. You know those settings where you can kind of escape from everything else that’s happening in the world. You’ve got this bond, you’re feeling the love.” It’s a taste of belonging, of family, but also one of resiliency, adaptability, and survival.
Sweet potatoes are often mistakenly called yam because the recently arrived slaves noticed the similarities and called the sweet potatoes ‘nyami’ or the shortened ‘yam’. So, not only would the Black slaves have been the ones to originally do the cooking for those plantation tables (as enslaved peoples), but there would have been some familiarity for many of the slaves, who often originated from West Africa where they would have used yams, cassava, and other tubers for cooking. They adapted, using the ingredients of their new place, despite the violence and trauma of slavery.
And it is important to not obscure this dessert’s connection to Blackness, especially in relation to the broader food phenomenon that has colloquially come to be known as ‘Southern Food’ or ‘comfort food’.
From Paula Deen and her “fucking bad for you” food, to more recent Southern celebrity chefs that are part of the artisanal, craft food movement (such as Sean Brock or the many celebrated white BBQ pitmasters), it has often been white chefs and cooks that have been taken up as the champion of ‘Southern food’ or ‘comfort food’ in the American South, despite the long history of Black cooking that stretches back to those enslaved chefs making sweet potato pie for the masters. This is Black cuisine, it’s Southern cuisine, and it’s American cuisine – all wrapped up in a complex ball of slavery, race, nation building, and power.
The legacy and the rootedness of Black cooking traditions in the South (that are also connected to Africa) have often been erased in favor of the ‘more inclusive’ Southern or ‘comfort food’ moniker. But, as Lauren Michele Jackson writes, you can’t have the pleasant, rich, storied, flavorful American South, without the Black and brown people who made the south the South. You can’t have sweet potato pie without recognizing the Black families (particularly, the women) who have kept the traditions and flavors alive and flourishing.
This recipe has the flavors of the sweet potato pie: a rich, creamy, custardy ice cream laden with sweet potato and flecked with fresh nutmeg and Ceylon cinnamon. The cranberries, another typical fall and Thanksgiving staple, break through the slick sweetness with a burst of tartness that gives it a crunch and a fresh feeling. Served with some graham cracker bits or some wafer cookies and it completes the illusion of the sweet potato pie. It’s luxurious and creamy and undeniably embraces the fall flavors in a way that makes ice cream a perfectly acceptable fall dessert!
Sweet Potato Pie and Cranberry Ice Cream
Sweet potato pie is a classic Thanksgiving and autumnal dish in the American South, especially among Black families. It's similar in flavor and texture to pumpkin pie and, my guess is, if you had a sweet potato pie for the first time you would think it was pumpkin! This ice cream harnesses the seasonal goodness into a creamy, custardy ice cream and then adds another seasonal treat - cranberries - for some tart, crunchy freshness. It's luxurious without feeling too heavy, and is undeniably all about the fall flavor!
- 1 cup milk
- 3/4 cup white sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon Ceylon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1 cup sweet potato puree
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 3/4 cup chopped frozen cranberries
To make your own sweet potato puree: slice a large sweet potato in half, lengthwise, and place skin up on a cooking sheet. Bake at 425F for approximately 45 minutes, until the flesh is tender. Scoop out the flesh and blend until smooth.
For the cranberries: you can chop them while fresh, which will be easier, and then freeze them until you need them; or, you can chop frozen cranberries, just be sure to watch your fingers as they are a little tricker to cut!
For the ice cream: In a medium saucepan, add the milk, sugar, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt; heat over medium until the milk reaches a slight simmer and the sugar has dissolved.
In a medium mixing bowl, beat the egg yolks together well. Next we're going to temper the milk mixture by whisking about 1/4 cup of the warm milk mixture into the egg yolks. Mix well and then add the remainder of the warm milk to the egg yolk mixture and whisk. Now return the entire mixture back to the saucepan and place over low heat. Cook the milk and yolk mixture, stirring constantly, until the thermometer reads 170 to 175 degrees F and the mixture appears thick and coats the back of the spoon.
Remove from the heat stir in the heavy cream and the sweet potato puree, mixing until is a consistent texture. Wrap the bowl in plastic and transfer it to the fridge until room temperature or cooler.
Churn the mixture into the bowl of your ice cream maker, according to your ice cream makers' instructions. Transfer to a freezer safe bowl, and then mix in the chopped, frozen cranberries. It can be eaten as is, close to a soft serve texture, or place the container into the freezer to make it firmer. Take it out of the freezer a few minutes before you want to serve it, scoop, top with some crumbled graham crackers or wafer cookies (optional), and enjoy!
Using fresh and quality spices always improves the final product, but if what you have is ground nutmeg and the more common cassia cinnamon (if you don't know what you have, it's cassia) - they'll work just fine and the ice cream will still taste great!