My dad’s sweet-potato pie recipe has been in my family for generations. I made it for the first time and found it barely requires any prep.

Sweet potato pie.
Making sweet-potato pie for Thanksgiving is a long-held tradition in my family. Ashley Turner/Insider
  • I made my dad’s sweet-potato pie recipe for the first time.
  • My dad learned the recipe from his mother when he was a child.
  • Baking the pie with my dad was a nice bonding experience that will help keep our family tradition alive.

It’s common to see sweet-potato pies in Black and Southern homes during special occasions and holidays, particularly on Thanksgiving.
Family serving each other at a holiday dinner.
Sweet-potato pie has been a staple of many African-American holiday dinners for generations. Jose Luis Pelaez Inc
For a long time, family holiday dinners consisted of me, my mom, and my dad, and while we did have our favorite reoccurring meals, there wasn’t really much “tradition” where food was involved. My mom always did the cooking during the holidays, with one exception — my dad’s sweet-potato pies.

He would always make around three to four pies every Thanksgiving and Christmas, using a recipe his mother taught him.

Sweet-potato pie is a staple at many African-American family gatherings that stands through generations.

It was always a treat to see my dad working in the kitchen. As a child, I often would just sit and watch him wide-eyed as he would quickly create each pie, while not memorizing any of the processes, of course.

His recipe is relatively no-frills, much like the man himself. He said that since his family didn’t have the money or resources for intricate recipes, they remained simple, and my dad dislikes overly complex dishes to this day.

After my mom passed away, and as my dad grew older, it became more difficult for him to keep up with the tradition. It has been almost a decade since he’s made sweet-potato pie.

Reflecting on this made me consider that pie-making might be a beneficial activity for both of us, as a way to keep the tradition alive.

This foolproof recipe will likely take around an hour to an hour and a half to make. Due to its nature, measurements can be adjusted to your taste, and the ingredients can be easily modified.

My dad’s sweet-potato pie only requires a few ingredients.
Sweet potato pie ingredients.
All the ingredients you will need to make sweet-potato pie. Ashley Turner/Insider
  • 4 small sweet potatoes
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 small lemon
  • 1 tablespoon of butter
  • ¼ teaspoon of nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 4 tablespoons of evaporated milk
  • medium-sized pie crust 
  • 1 tbsp sugar/sweetener of choice 
  • whipped cream (optional)
The first step is to preheat the oven to 400 degrees and boil a pot of water.
A pot of boiling water.
Carefully fill the water in the pot, then place it on the stove. Ashley Turner/Insider
Fill a pot with just enough water to cover the potatoes and set it on the stove to boil.
While the water is heating up, wash and peel each sweet potato.
A peeled sweet potato
Make sure you cut off the ends of your sweet potatoes after you peel them. Ashley Turner/Insider
Remember to cut off the ends!
Next, place the sweet potatoes into the boiling water and let sit them for 15-20 minutes.
A pot of boiling sweet potatoes.
Don’t do what I did and fill the pot too high — the sweet potatoes will raise the water level once you put them in. Ashley Turner/Insider
Of course, my cooking skills being what they are, this was where my first mishap occurred. I had filled the pot too high, and once the potatoes were dropped in, the water threatened to boil over.

Stick the potatoes with a fork to check if they are soft enough to pierce through. If not, let them boil for a little longer, checking them every five minutes or so.

Once the potatoes have softened, take them out of the water and place them into a mixing bowl.

My dad is pretty particular about the method in which he mixes his ingredients.
Sweet potato pie mixture.
After the sweet potatoes are mashed, you can mix all of the ingredients together in a bowl (except for the whole lemon). Ashley Turner/Insider.
Truthfully, the next few steps could be done in any order. My father swears by following the directions “the correct way” (his way) for the most authentic cooking experience, but feel free to go about it how you see fit.

Begin by fully mashing the sweet potatoes. Then, add in the butter while the potato mash is still hot and mix. Cut the lemon in half, and squeeze the juice into the mash to taste (my dad likes just a hint of lemon flavor).

Measure out the vanilla extract, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Then, pour into the bowl and mix. Pour the evaporated milk into the sweet potatoes, and mix. Finally, add sugar or another sweetener of your choice to taste.

As you can see, that’s a lot of steps included in the “pour everything in a bowl and mix together” step. But my dad (and really, his father as well) is nothing if not by-the-book. This is a man that will not even go five miles over the speed limit.

Scoop out the sweet-potato pie mixture.
Scooping out sweet potato pie mnixture.
My dad always made sure the sweet-potato pie mash was fully mixed before putting it in the pie crust. Ashley Turner/Insider
Once all the ingredients are combined, spoon out the mixture into the pie crust and smooth it out into an even layer.
Place the pie into the oven.
A sweet potato pie baking in the oven.
Cook the pie for around 20 minutes at 400 degrees. Ashley Turner/Insider
Bake for 15-20 minutes or until the crust is golden brown.
Then comes the hardest step for me — taking the pie out of the oven and placing it into the refrigerator to cool overnight.
A sweet potato pie.
I’ve always loved the smell of a sweet-potato pie baking in the oven. Ashley Turner/Insider
The combined scent of the cinnamon, lemon, and vanilla together made my mouth water as a child, and it was very tempting to sneak a taste, even if the pie was still too hot. I was smart enough not to try with my mom around, however.

Before we began making the pie, my dad said it had been so long since he had made a sweet-potato pie that he had forgotten how. But it was clear, as we looked at my actually edible-looking pie, that wasn’t the case. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without his guidance.

 

I never had the chance to really cook with either of my parents before, but I understand now why so many families cherish passing down family recipes.
A sweet potato pie with whipped cream.
Let the pie cool overnight, and then it’s ready to eat the next day. Ashley Turner/Insider
Making sweet-potato pie with my father was a nice bonding experience for the two of us. It was a way to honor my family’s past and also create new memories together.

It’s also a testament to the importance this dish holds for many families, and I plan to continue passing it down so that its legacy in our family, as well as in our culture, will endure.