When Schwan’s Consumer Brands North America, Inc. asked the public in 2008, who makes the best pie, “mom” earned 27 percent in favor with store-bought brands following close behind at 26 percent. Poor “grandma” only got 17 percent of the vote. But the correct answer, according to the American Pie Council’s 2012 Championships, is Jennifer Nystrom. At least, in the category of amateur sweet potato pies.
Nystrom’s original recipe for her maple pecan sweet potato pie took home first place in April. Though she’s been competing at the event for almost a decade, it was the baking enthusiast’s first entry in the sweet potato category.
“Every year I do some kind of apple,” says Nystrom, who also usually enters four or five different categories each year. “I like doing apple, I like doing the berry pies.” In truth, she says, fruit pies are her favorite but she remembered trying a sweet potato casserole with a pecan topping and thought, “I like all of those flavors and I like them together so it would be good in a pie.”
The championships, which accept only original recipes, are held each spring in Orlando, Florida and coincide with the Great American Pie Festival in the nearby town of Celebration, in case competitors haven’t had their fill of pie for the weekend. “We have all our pie friends,” says Nystrom. “It’s like going to summer camp every year.”
After learning about the weekend on the Food Network, Nystrom and her sister decided to give it a try. No novice to the competitive baking scene, Nystrom entered her first contest around age 30. “I entered a cookie recipe contest and I won the grand prize of $10,000 and so I was hooked.”
For what has now become a sort of sisters’ weekend, Nystrom and her sister rent a place with a kitchen so they can cook the pies when they arrive (some people choose to bring the pies already made, but Nystrom says the journey from Morrow, Ohio, is a bit too far for that). Nystrom remembers her first year at the contest; “We went not knowing what we were doing at all. We just were going for the fun of it.” But the judges were impressed. Her first year out, she won third place in the amateur apple pie category. “I thought I had won the lottery or something,” says Nystrom. “It was great.”
Nystrom has been a bit of a baking queen since she got her first Easy Bake Oven as a kid. “I like to experiment,” she says of her constant forays into new flavor combinations. She jokes, “My husband, he just is so upset that he always has to taste these pies.”
Aside from the spring championship that she prepares for all year, holiday season is her favorite time of the year. With three grown kids, a son and daughter who live nearby and another son currently serving in Afghanistan, her house is the place to be for Thanksgiving. “My oldest son, he’s so funny. He was inviting one of his friends,” says Nystrom, “and he said, ‘You know this is my mom’s Super Bowl.’ And that’s kind of the way I look at it.”
Having spent years perfecting her pies, Nystrom says her best advice is to just not worry too much. She says, “The pie crust can be funky but I’ve learned, if it turns out looking kind of icky just call it rustic and you’re good to go.” There are a couple tricks that help, though. Nystrom stresses that ingredients for the pie crust should all be -just-out-of-the-fridge cold. She even uses ice water when recipes call for the liquid. And she adds a bit of vinegar (a couple teaspoons) to her ice water to help keep the crust flaky. “Then after I roll out the pie crust, if I have time, I prefer to put the rolled out crust in the pie tin back in the fridge for a few minutes before I fill it,” she says.
As for the filling, Nystrom says it’s all about your personal taste. For her first-place pie, she preferred canned sweet potatoes over roasting them herself. “It was a lot easier,” she says, “but you could also measure what you have more easily.”
Nystrom says they’ll be sticking with the traditional apple, pumpkin and pecan–her husband’s favorite–pies for her Thanksgiving table this year. Every now and then, she’ll throw in a new recipe, but, she says, “We’re pretty traditional. We just like the traditional stuff.”
3 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup butter (not margarine)
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/3 cup cold water
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour and the salt. With a pastry blender, cut in shortening until flour resembles cornmeal. Cut in butter until it resembles small peas.
In a small bowl, beat egg with a fork. Beat in water and vinegar. Quickly mix egg mixture in with the flour until flour just begins to hold together. Depending on the humidity, you may have to add up to an extra 1/4 cup flour. Separate dough into halves and form each half into a disk. Wrap each disk tightly with plastic wrap and let rest in refrigerate for at least an hour and up to two days.
Take one disk of prepared and refrigerated dough and roll it out and place in a 9 inch deep dish pie plate that has been sprayed with cooking spray.
40 oz can sweet potatoes, drained
14 oz can sweetened condensed milk
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup cream
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 large eggs
In a food processor, place drained sweet potatoes and process until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add maple syrup, sweetened condensed milk, cream, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, and eggs. Process until well incorporated and smooth, about 10 more seconds. Pour mixture into prepared pie pan. Cover edge with foil or pie shield. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes. While pie is baking, prepare topping.
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup quick oats
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1/4 cup butter, melted
To prepare topping, in a medium sized bowl, mix the brown sugar, oats, flour, and pecans until combined. Stir in melted butter until very well incorporated. Set aside until ready to use.
When pie has baked for 15 minutes, take out of the oven and remove pie shield. Turn the oven down to 375 degrees. Sprinkle topping over the top of the pie, spreading evenly. Replace pie shield and cover top very loosely with a piece of foil so topping does not burn. Put the pie back in the oven and bake an additional 45 – 60 minutes at 375 degrees. Check pie after 45 minutes. If a knife inserted in the center comes out clean (or almost clean), the pie is done. If not, return to the oven for another 10 – 15 minutes and check again.
3 tablespoons heavy cream
Scant 1/2 teaspoon maple extract
1 cup powdered sugar
While pie is baking, make the drizzle by mixing the maple extract with the cream then adding to the powdered sugar. With a fork, mix thoroughly until drizzle is smooth. Set aside.
When pie is done, remove to a wire rack and let cool completely. After pie is completely cooled, put the drizzle in a small zip top plastic bag. Snip off a very small corner of the bag. Squeeze drizzle over the pie.
Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving.
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here