Magazine Street really exploded into THE STRIP after the flood. Blocks and blocks of busy shops and restaurants appeared, while just five minutes away, the formerly bustling South Claiborne Avenue looked like a ghost town. Yes, the strip had its share of blinking traffic lights. The crazy drivers of New Orleans impressively learned to treat each intersection like a four-way stop sign. But besides damaged roofs, most of the buildings in the Strip bubble were unscathed.
We strolled the Strip “30 minutes each day, no excuses!” we shouted. Not to get all Confederacy of Dunces, but the daily sightings of neighborhood characters (henceforth referred to as “stripsters”) was comforting. There was an older man with a gray beard and long dreads who dutifully hobbled the Strip with his walking stick, greeting us cheerfully “Hey ladies, how y’all doing? God bless y’all!” There was the pixieish blond girl, always clothed in a vintage sheath dress. She disdainfully sighed at the clothes I dared to sell at her second hand clothing store. And there was also a small child of about ten years old, shilling miniature pies outside the neighborhood A&P. His life’s story was mapped out in my mind, that his mother had no choice but to bake delightful miniature pies to make ends meet. More likely, he was just annoying, so she sent him out to burn off his energy. “Pies! Do y’all want pies?” He yelled, “We got pecan, lemon chess, sweet potato…”
Sweet potato! It sounded so exotic to me. That particular pie has loomed large in my imagination ever since I was a middle schooler in Rhode Island listening to Domino sing his underreated 90′s rap classic “so break me off a piece of that sweet potato pie” (the innuendo was lost on me at the time). The sweet potato pie was everything I had dreamed it would be. An electric orange, slightly warm, cloying, and dense custard– pretty much the perfect dessert in my mind. It was not heavily flavored with spices, so the tuber’s natural earthy sweetness stole the show. Of course the smooth filling was cradled in a tender, homemade butter crust.
Do you think that little boy, who is probably in high school now, is still selling pies? Am I the real stripster in his mind? Do you think he remembers me at all? Probably not. Life keeps moving, and Magazine Street isn’t just a freeze frame from that dizzying, drunken time. Which means I have to make my own sweet potato desserts.
Here’s a treasonous secret I never revealed to the pie boy: I prefer French tart crusts to regular pie. That shortbread quality gets me every single time. This particular tart crust from David Lebovitz is the best. thing. ever. It’s a bizarre, yet foolproof technique that results in a slightly salty caramelized crust.
The key is to puree all of the ingredients in the food processor. It results in an extra-smooth and fluffy filling that plays off the textural contrast of the crunchy pecans and crisp butter crust. I throw a generous pinch of dried ginger into the filling, but vanilla bean is key. Those tiny black seeds dotting the orange custard leave behind a haunting floral note.
Please don’t add cinnamon and clove. Yes, pumpkin pie has its righteous yet rubbery place at the Thanksgiving table, but it has no place here. Get over it.
Sweet Potato Tart with Pecans
1 recipe French tart dough
90 g (3 ounces) unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 tablespoon vegetable oil (I used canola)
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
150 g (5oz, or 1 slightly-rounded cup) flour
Sweet potato filling
1 medium sweet potato
1/2 vanilla bean, scraped
1/2 teaspoon dried ground ginger
2 tablespoons melted salted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons salted butter, softened and cubed
1. Poke holes in the sweet potato, and roast it in the oven at 410º F. In the meantime, gather your ingredients for the tart dough. You should be able to pierce it with a fork after 30 – 45 minutes. At this point, remove it from the oven and allow it to cool.
2. Leave the oven on and follow the ingredients to make the tart dough. Do not bake it– just set your dough lined tart pan aside.
3. Turn the heat down to 375º F. Using a fork, scrape the orange flesh of the sweet potato into the food processor, along with the seeds of the vanilla bean. Add the dried ginger, melted butter, sugar, milk, and cracked egg. Puree the sweet potato mixture for 30 seconds. Scrape the sides of the bowl, and then puree it again until completely smooth and the filling has formed a uniform texture.
4. In a small bowl, combine the pecans, butter, and sugar. Using your fingers, incorporate the ingredients so that the pecans are evenly coated with the crumbly sugar mixture.
5. Pour the sweet potato into the prepared tart shell and use a spatula to smooth the surface. Evenly scatter the pecans over the top. Bake at 375º F for 25 – 30 minutes. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.