Sweet potato pie, and chicken and waffles – food for the soul
By ANN EVANS
and GEORGEANNE BRENNAN
Sweet potato pie is the only item on the dessert menu of Brown Sugar Kitchen that is served every day. Executive Chef and owner Tanya Holland says you’d be surprised how many people have it for breakfast. We’re fans of Holland, her restaurant and her new cookbook with Jan Newberry, “Brown Sugar Kitchen – New Style, Down-Home Recipes from Sweet West Oakland” (Chronicle Books, 2014).
She and her husband, Phil Surkis, who calls himself the “accidental restaurateur” and among other things, creates the play lists for their restaurants, opened Brown Sugar Kitchen in 2008 and then followed that with B Side BBQ in Oakland. On a recent Saturday, Ann went for lunch. At 11:15 the line already snaked around the sidewalk. Musta’ been the chicken and waffles, or sweet potato pie, or Tanya’s friendly smile and warm words for everyone as she worked the room greeting her friends and customers. One felt back home.
Holland’s recipes and restaurant offer up the best of southern food as it moved with the Great Migration of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West between 1910 and 1970. This story was captured so eloquently by Isabel Wilkerson whose book, “The Warmth of Other Suns – The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” was the UC Davis Campus Community Book Project for 2012-13.
Southern food gradually became soul food as it was cooked outside of the south.
In Adrian Miller’ storied history book “Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine,” he traces the evolution of foods first from Europe and Middle Eastern trade roots or cultural practices to the rural south and then with the Great Migration from southern food to soul food as black Americans took their knowledge of food with them and sought to have some southern comfort far from home.
Yet Tanya puts a California and southern French spin on her soul food. Her sides are all vegetarian – healthy, she says. She brings North African foods and flavors from Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia such as couscous as well as African originated ingredients such as yams and sesame seeds into her dishes. She tells their histories, reminiscent of those found in another cookbook we love and use — Jessica B. Harris’s The Africa Cookbook – Tastes of a Continent (Simon and Schuster, 1998.)
Born in Connecticut and raised with a southern grandmother attending a southern Baptist church, Tanya attended cooking schools in New York and in Burgundy, France, before and after working in a variety of restaurants. In her book as well as the restaurant, she gives a southern riff to many a bistro dish, like her classic French Onion Soup turned Vidalia Onion Soup with Cornbread Croutons, Andouille Gougères, and Croque-Monsieur with Virginia Ham and Fried Apple.
Holland offers great food at a reasonable cost; yet she does more. She infuses community into the soul of her kitchen. Local artisans worked on the interior art, design and fixtures, she buys locally and returns kitchen scraps to Oakland’s City Slicker Farms whose mission is to empower West Oakland community members through organic backyard gardens and high-yield urban farms.
Her cookbook features her customers, their stories and their regular orders. They come from all parts of Oakland, the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. For some a pilgrimage, for others, daily morning sweet potato pie with coffee. Everything is made from scratch in the restaurant, except the pineapple juice, plum tomatoes and evaporated milk.
We first met Tanya Holland through an organization we are all members of Les Dames d’Escoffier’s San Francisco Chapter, of which Tanya is co-president. At a recent Les Dames event, Ann asked Tanya if there was a particular area of the south that Tanya was influenced by. She said perhaps more than other states, Louisiana, where her mother and mother’s family hail from. The recipe for beignets might have been the giveaway on that one – linking it all together – her love of food traditions from southern France and our own rural south.
If you can’t get down to West Oakland soon, try her recipe for Sweet Potato Pie – maybe even for Thanksgiving.
Down Home Sweet Potato Pie
Recipe by Tanya Holland, Brown Sugar Kitchen
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp kosher salt
6 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into cubes and chilled
½ cup sour cream
Sweet Potato Filling
1 lb orange-fleshed sweet potatoes
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
1 tsp salt
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup orange juice
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
To make the crust: In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the chilled butter and use a pastry cutter or two knives to cut the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the sour cream and stir just until the dough comes together.
Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Knead lightly, form into a disk, and wrap with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a circle slightly larger than a 9-in pie pan. Fit the dough into the pan and trim excess from the edges. Line the dough with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake for 15 minutes. Remove the crust from the oven and carefully remove foil and weights. Let the crust cool on a wire rack.
To make the filling: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Prick each sweet potato several times with a fork and put on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until tender when pierced with a fork, 40 to 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature.
Reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees F. Scoop the flesh from the sweet potatoes and puree in a food processor. Transfer to a large bowl.
In a small bowl, combine the brown sugar, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and salt, stirring to brake up any lumps. Stir the brown sugar mixture into the sweet potatoes. In the same small bowl, whisk together the eggs and cream, add to the sweet potato mixture, and stir to combine. Add the organic juice and the melted butter, and stir to combine.
Pour the filling into the blind baked crust and bake until set in the center, about 45 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to let cook completely. Serve at room temperature. (To make ahead, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days.)
Ann M. Evans writes and draws in Davis, and watches over her beehives, chickens and garden. www.annmevans.com.
Georgeanne Brennan lives in Winters, where she writes and oversees her new entrepreneurial adventure, La Vie Rustic – an on-line store with kitchen and garden products in the French style. www.lavierustic.com
Together they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Follow their blog, Who’s Cooking School Lunch? (www.whoscookingschoolunch.com) Or reach them at email@example.com.