Food is about so much more than nutrition—it's one of the most personal expressions of our cultures, values, and traditions. Our new series, Behind the Recipe, profiles a different healthy cook every month to explore the personal, untold stories of their favorite dishes. Our first column comes from Monique Johnson, who shares her great-grandmother's famous sweet potato pie recipe—and the loving legacy baked into each crust.
It's fitting that my Great-Grandma Gertie was known for making pies because she truly was the sweetest. She and her sister, my Great-Auntie Evelyn, used to make pies together and sell them on St. Charles Street in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where they lived. She of course made them at home, too.
Great-Grandma Gertie and Great-Auntie Evelyn just made pies as a hobby. Great-Grandma Gertie's actual job was to clean houses, but everyone knew the two sisters made the best treats in the South. They made fudge, pecan pralines, and of course, pies. Once news spread about how good their desserts were, they started selling them to anyone who wanted a taste. This was the Deep South in the 1960s—it wasn't exactly an easy place for a Black woman to live. But Great-Grandma Gertie always treated everyone with kindness, regardless of how they treated her.
I started baking with my mom after school when I was a little kid. It was just something fun we did together. It didn't matter how bad of a day I had at school, all those troubles went away when I was baking with my mom in the kitchen. And of course having something delicious to dig into when we were done definitely brightened up the afternoons, too. My mom had grown up baking with Great-Grandma Gertie (who passed away on April 15, 2002), and now I got to be part of the tradition, too. It felt special. It was special. After I graduated high school, baking with my mom pretty much came to an end when I went off to college. But in 2018, when the spring of senior year rolled around and I needed money to fund my big dreams of moving to New York City, the solution came to me in one word: pies.
I started baking pies with my mom again and we would sell them, saving the money for my New York City dreams. Often, the pies we would make were Great-Grandma Gertie's recipes—she really did make the best pies. We started selling them around the neighborhood, just like she and Auntie Evelyn did all those years ago. In the fall of 2018, I was able to move to New York City.
Then COVID-19 hit and I moved home to Louisiana. You know how everyone else started baking during the pandemic? My mom and I did too. We decided to really focus on turning our pie-making into a business. I took on the marketing side, building a website, Facebook, and an Instagram account. Now we were legit, y'all! We named our business Gertie Kay Sweets, after Gertie and my mom, whose nickname is Kay, and officially launched on June 8, 2020. As soon as the social accounts were up and running, orders from all over the country came flooding in. My mom and I were floored.
All the pies we make are truly connected to my great-grandma. Even the recipes we've tweaked to be keto or vegan, I can just feel her spirit in it. The sweet potato pies that we sell are Great-Grandma Gertie through and through, just adjusted to be a little lower sugar. Her husband, my Great-Paw Paw Albert, liked his sweet potato pies right out of the oven, not even waiting for them to cool before sticking a fork in. When I think about the way my mom and I are able to share her pies with so many people, it makes me think that she must be up in heaven having a little party, just so happy that her love is being shared in such a big way.
You can't be in a bad mood when you're eating sweet potato pie. They're also too big to eat all by yourself. Sharing them with others is a big part of what makes them special. In the end, that's what it's all about, really: love.
Gertie Kay Sweets's sweet potato pie
Makes 1 pie
For the filling:
2 cups cooked and mashed sweet potato or yams
1 cup of coconut sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground ginger
Small pinch of salt
1/4 cup oat milk or evaporated milk
1/4 cup of low-fat whipping cream (or dairy-free whipping cream)
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 large egg whites, mildly beaten
For the dough:
2 cups of gluten-free flour blend
1/2 tsp of xanthan gum
1 large egg
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup of coconut sugar
6 Tbsp of unsalted butter, chilled and chopped
1/2 cup of ice water
Ice water by the teaspoonful, as necessary
1. Mix dry ingredients in one bowl and set aside.
2. Blend the coconut sugar and butter (or coconut oil) together. Then, add the egg.
3. Slowly add the dry mixture and mix together.
4. If the dough is still dry or too crumbly, add two tablespoons of water. Add more until the dough can hold together. You should be about to hold it without it sticking to your fingers.
5. Dust the dough with the flour blend and form into a ball.
6. Place the dough on wax paper and roll out into a pie tin. (It should not be too thick or thin, but just right for you to pick up.)
7. Lift it from wax paper and place in a pie tin. Chill for about 10 minutes in the fridge.
8. Optional: Fold or crimp the edges to make a pretty design.
9. In another bowl, add the peeled sweet potatoes, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. Stir, then add the remaining ingredients and stir again. Set aside.
10. In a small bowl, add sugar and water. Stir together and add pecans to the mixture. Cook on the stove in a medium size sauce pan for about five minutes on medium high heat. Once coated, turn off the heat and place the pecans on wax paper to cool.
11. Grab your pie crust out of the fridge and fill it with potato mixture. Spread evenly.
12. Sprinkle the pecans on top.
13. Bake the pie in the oven at 350°F for 35 minutes or until mixture is firm and dough is golden brown.
14. Let it cool for five to 10 minutes. Enjoy and spread the love with others.
As told to Emily Laurence.
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