This past August I took a road trip down to Asheville, NC for the Transfigurations II Music Festival, which celebrated 10 years of Harvest Records-- the great independent shop in West Asheville. What really sealed the deal for the trip was that I would finally get to meet and see my pen pal (and fellow pie lover) Michael Hurley play, but there were some other fine reasons as well-- seeing a mess of my current favorite bands, spending time with some dear friends, and meeting Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Baking.
It turned out that Tara and her partner Joe were going to the festival too, and we ran into each other in the food lines there on late Saturday afternoon. Between band sets, we chatted briefly and made plans for me to visit the bakery on my way home Monday morning.
Smoke Signals, just outside of Marshall, NC, was basically right on my way, just a short drive along some winding mountain roads off of Highway 40. I pulled up to the driveway, greeted by the bright blue door of the bakery, and found Tara in her breezy kitchen, listening to jazz and (surprise, surprise), tending to two beautifully decorated apple pies in the oven.
While we waited for the pies to cool, Tara gave me a tour of the bakery with its outdoor wood-fired oven. It's where she prepares all of her pies, breads, pizzas, and other baked goods for the bakery, markets, and Saturday pizza nights, and where she's been leading wildly successful pie classes (judging from the photos and sold-out status) this fall.
Back in the house, Tara served us both pie slices with a dollop of yogurt and we took it and our mugs of coffee out on the porch to gab. We found that there was so much to talk about, so many complicated ideas to unpack on topics we've both been working around and through-- creativity, labor, feminism, small business, life trajectories. It was both familiar and exciting, though even after a couple of hours of chatting, it felt like we'd only just scratched the surface. But that's a good way to feel after a visit with a friend, whether new or old. It means there's more to come.
Tara's approach, to both life and baking. Is simple yet smart. Hearty, yet whimsical. Practical, yet beautiful, adorned. Both spiritual and grounded. Take a look at her pie crusts and you'll know what I mean. Same goes for her pie recipes. This Sweet Potato Pie with Cornmeal Crust has no real surprises, doesn't stray too far from the classic. Yet its twists are rather visionary: coconut milk instead of sweetened condensed with a dash of whole grain cornmeal in the crust to complement the silky smooth filling. While I haven't yet tried my friend April McGreger's recipes from her new Savor the South book Sweet Potatoes (next on my list), I'd say this is the best sweet potato pie filling I've ever had.
Adapted only slightly from Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Baking via Food & Wine
For the cornmeal crust:
1 1/4 cups pastry flour
1/4 cup fine cornmeal (I used Salamander Springs Kentucky heirloom cornmeal)
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1 stick + 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
1/3 cup ice water
For the filling:
3 cups (2 3/4 lbs.) sweet potatoes
4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/3 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
1/3 cup unsweetened coconut milk
1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 large egg beaten with 1 Tablespoon heavy cream, whole milk, or water
Turbinado sugar, for sprinkling
Unsweetened whipped cream
For the crust:
1. In the bowl of a food processor, pulse pastry flour, cornmeal, salt, and sugar. Add the butter and pulse until the mixture resembles cornmeal and peas. Sprinkle the water on top and pulse until the dough just begins to come together. Scrape the dough out onto a clean, floured work surface, gather up the crumbs and pat the dough into a disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, about 1 hour.
2. On a lightly floured work surface, roll dough into a 13-inch circle, a little under 1/4 inch thick. Place dough into a greased and floured 9-inch pie pan. Trim the overhang to 1-inch and fold under itself. Crimp crust decoratively and chill until firm, about 15 minutes. Reserve any remaining dough for crust designs, if desired.
3. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line the crust with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake on the lower rack of the oven, about 20 minutes, until crust is lightly browned. Remove from oven and let cool.
For the filling:
1. Poke sweet potatoes all over with a fork and place them on a large, foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour until tender. Let cool completely, then peel and coarsely mash. Measure out 3 cups of mashed sweet potatoes & reserve the rest for another use.
2. Increase oven temperature to 400 degrees F. In a food processor, combine butter with the granulated sugar and purée until smooth. Add the 3 cups of sweet potatoes and purée until very smooth. With the machine still on, add the eggs one at a time until each is incorporated. Add coconut milk, ginger, salt, and cloves, and pulse until no streaks remain.
3. Scrape the filling into the cooled pie crust. Add any decorative crust pieces, sealing with the egg wash. Brush entire crust with egg wash and sprinkle with Turbinado sugar. Bake for 45-50 minutes until the filling is just set but still slightly jiggly in the center; cover the crust with strips of foil if it becomes too dark. Let the pie cool completely, then cut into wedges and serve with unsweetened whipped cream (add a dash of bourbon to it for a kick!).
Decorative Crust with Tara Jensen of Smoke Signals Baking
Pumpkin and Chai Spice Nut Butter Pie
Sweet Potato Pentagram Pie
Sweet Potato Speculoos Pie