Matthew Raiford's grandmother is known around their hometown of Brunswick, Ga., for her sweet potato pie. Raiford says growing up, he knew her sweet potato pie was the best. He was admittedly biased: This was his Nana's pie, so of course it's his favorite.
But Raiford says he's watched enough people try the pie and, overcome with a look of euphoria, sit down and mutter, "That's the best pie I've ever had," to know that there's something special about Nana's sweet potato pie.
"When you bite into the sweet potato pie, you can taste everything — the cinnamon, you can taste the sweet potato, you can taste the nutmeg," Raiford says. "And then you get this crunchy top part that you think is all sugar and it gives it this ... G.B.D. — Golden Brown and Delicious."
Nana, known around Brunswick as Miss Ophelia, will be 94 in November, and Raiford said no one had written down her recipe. So he set out to duplicate her sweet potato pie to carry it forward.
Raiford is a chef and farmer in Brunswick. He and his sister work a farm that's been in the family since 1864. He did his culinary training at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and thought it couldn't be that hard to figure out Nana's secret. So he whipped up a sweet potato pie of his own, brought a piece over to Miss Ophelia to try, and asked her what she thought.
"And what do I get?" Raiford says. "I get, lo and behold, 'Baby, let me show you how to make sweet potato pie.' "
So they set to work in the kitchen, and he realized that Nana's recipe was more art than science, though there were a few tricks, too. First off: Boil the potato with the skin on, so that the small fibers in the sweet potato peel off with the skin.
But then, she tastes the sweet potato itself to find the perfect one and figure out how the rest of the ingredients should come together.
"She kind of had this sweet potato guru look on her face," Raiford says. "It's all about feel, touch and taste. Just enough egg, not too much. Adds a little bit of sugar to it, a little bit of cinnamon, a little bit of nutmeg, and then she tastes it."
Another key to Nana's perfect sweet potato pies: Make them small. She uses tiny pie crusts so the pies can be eaten in about three bites. "When you eat sweet potato pie, you're supposed to have just enough," Raiford recalls her saying.
The piece de resistance — the key to the G.B.D. that tops it all off — is a coating of evaporated milk that cooks down to a beautiful, caramelized layer.
Afterward, Raiford told his Nana he'd try it on his own. Nana was dubious, but encouraging.
"I felt like I was back in culinary school almost, like I'm doing a practical in how to make sweet potato pie," Raiford says. "'Cause she actually sat there and savored it ... And then she said, 'Baby, couple of more years, and you'll have it.' "
You can find the recipe for Miss Ophelia's sweet potato pie below. The recipe will make a 9-inch pie, but if you want to make the small pies, you can use small pie shells.
Nana's Sweet Potato Pie
3 large sweet potatoes (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 stick unsalted sweet butter, at room temperature
1 can evaporated milk
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 9-inch pie shell
Boil sweet potatoes in their skin until they are knife tender (knife inserted into the potato slides off easily).
Drain the water off and allow sweet potatoes to cool. Peel and discard the skin. In a medium mixing bowl, add the sweet potatoes, eggs, butter, 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, nutmeg and 1 1/4 cups of the sugar, and whip until incorporated.
Add evaporated milk a little at a time until the filling becomes loose. Pour the filling into the pie crust.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Take the remaining evaporated milk, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and sugar and heat until the sugar is dissolved. Brush the mixture on top of the filling.
Place pie into the oven and bake for 50 minutes or until the pie is firm to the touch.
Remove pie from the oven and allow to cool slightly before eating.