The key is in the topping.

By Matthew Kassel
November 13, 2019

I have never felt that pumpkin is an entirely appropriate thing to eat on Thanksgiving. It strikes me as something that is better served earlier in the season, in soups and breads, when the leaves are just beginning to change and the weather is just getting autumnal. That may simply be because I associate pumpkins with Halloween. Whatever the reason, though, the point I am trying to get at is that sweet potatoes are the superior orange-fleshed ingredient to eat at Thanksgiving dinner. This is particularly true when it comes to pie

That’s not to say I don’t like pumpkin pie—on the contrary, I think it’s delicious. But I have been making a sweet potato pie with pecan streusel on select Thanksgivings for over the past decade, and it has never disappointed. Those who eat it always go back for seconds. Some of the pumpkin pies I’ve made, on the other hand, have failed to impress. 

Here’s the general gist of how you do it. You roll out one basic pie dough round, place it in a pie dish and then blind bake it in the oven at 350°, covered by a sheet of aluminum foil that is weighed down by pie weights or some alternative like dried beans or rice. You don’t want to bake it for too long, though. This step, though not always required in recipes, is just to ensure that when you pour in the filling—usually some combination of mashed sweet potato, cream, eggs, brown sugar and spices like cinnamon and allspice—the dough won’t get soggy because it will already be slightly baked and  browned. After the crust is blind baked, you pour in your filling mixture, sprinkle on your streusel—or crumbly topping—place the whole thing back in the oven and bake until set. (Note: You will want to check the pie after about 20 minutes of baking and cover with aluminum foil if needed to prevent over-browning.)

Now, you can use whatever base sweet potato pie recipe you like (this Brown Butter Sweet Potato Pie recipe is a great one), The thing that sets this crowd-pleasing version—which I’ve come to rely on as my go-to Thanksgiving showstopper—apart is adding that streusel topping. This recipe for Pecan-Streusel Topping is the perfect blend to sprinkle over top of a classic sweet potato pie to take it to the next level. 

Photo: Helen Norman; Styling: Heather Chadduck Hillegas

What comes out of the oven is a sugary bomb of rich fall flavor that is also visually stunning and texturally satisfying—if the dough is right, it’s somewhat firm on the bottom, then the filling is soft and creamy in the middle, and finally the streusel is a crispy, nutty finish on the top. A perfect bite. And in the end, the difference between pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie really comes down to texture, as pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie basically include the same ingredients. (In fact, you could even follow this pumpkin pie recipe and replace the pumpkin puree with sweet potato for an easy template.) 

Whereas pumpkin purée is slightly stringy and a bit watery, mashed sweet potato is rich and fluffy and creamy, qualities that make for better filling—and thus better pie.

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