15 November 2007

The Best Vegetable

Throughout my childhood, sweet potato casserole reigned king of the tubers at my family's Thanksgiving table. It's a ritual: a mere half hour before the meal my stomach will roil in need of that salty sweet perfume wafting up the stairs from the kitchen, but I have to wait, or burn my fingers on the oven-hot, sweet potato innards. My mom's recipe, one from Bette Haney – who originally had it from Mrs. Maggie Schenault of Alabama – clipped from a newspaper, is a dessert that needs no marshmallow fluff because it's really a pie without a bottom crust masquerading as a vegetable. My favorite Thanksgiving vegetable.

One year my mom tried to make baked acorn squash instead of my sweet potatoes. My whole family had been changing up the traditions for a few years, most memorably swapping one giant turkey – difficult to roast without drying it out – for a couple of capon chickens, and adding in my step-dad's carrot soufflĂ©. I love that soufflĂ© (another cleverly disguised dessert mingling with the dinner foods) and I did like the baked acorn squash (though I probably eye rolled through it that first year). Still, my sweet potatoes had that mythic cloak curling coyly about them from the time when adults went into the kitchen and feasts magically came out, all while I played with Barbies and half-listened to the parade on TV.

Bette Haney's Sweet-Potato Casserole with Praline Topping

(Halved for toaster oven convenience.)

Bought at the store:

Potato Mixture:

1 ½ large eggs (I know, half an egg, right? But if you pour it out and then divide half off to not use, it works.)

2 lbs sweet potatoes (Although if they've still got leftover sweet potatoes in the dining hall, they'd save you a bunch of steps and time. You'd just have to scrape off any offending marshmallow bits before use.)

1/3 cup sugar

1/3 cup melted butter

2 ½ Tablespoons heavy whipping cream

½ teaspoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon allspice


½ cup packed light-brown sugar (You'll want to do the packing, it'll give you more sugar if you cram the measuring cup full than if it's just loose.)

1 ½ Tablespoons flour

¼ cup finely chopped pecans

1 ½ Tablespoons softened butter

  1. Peel, boil until soft, drain, and mash the potatoes. Or clean 2 lbs of dining hall cooked sweet potatoes and start from there.
  2. Beat potatoes and eggs together (make sure you've got a big bowl for this). Mix in remaining Potato Mixture ingredients until you've got a smooth paste.
  3. For the Topping, stir sugar, flour, and pecans together. Work in the softened butter.
  4. Pour Potato Mixture into a greased baking dish. Sprinkle Topping evenly over everything.
  5. Bake 50-60 minutes at 350O F until the topping is browned and bubbling and sending out perfumed feelers.
  6. Arrange loose pecan halves in a pattern on top.



AJ Star said...

i feel so much better now that i know my mom wasn't the only person in the history of american thanksgivings to make multiple smaller nonturkey birds in lieu of actually roasting a turkey. she made cornich game hens. now that i am discussing this, i think that was for passover. damnit. oh, well, my other point was that pedro once told me his mom made a pumpkin pie with butternut squash. i am going to assert the notion that if i'm going to eat pumpkin pie, it should have pumpkin in it. and i like to eat pies made with things with "sweet" in the name. mmmm...

Anonymous said...

after seeing this recipe, i think i'll be a grown up and try making this for thanksgiving. looks yummy and so few calories!

Joshua Wolf Shenk said...

Sweet potatoes are king of the tubers at my house, too. Wait, after I wrote this I realized I don't know exactly what "tubers" are. Wikipedia explains that they are "different types of modified plant structures that are enlarged to store nutrients. They are used by plants to overwinter and regrow the next year and to reproduce." Cool.

This site lists the whole kingdom:
http://www.foodsubs.com/Tubers.html. It turns out that the tubers are plentiful, and go by many names. For example: "tropical yam = true yam = greater yam = cush-cush = mapuey = yampi = nam� = name = nyami = igname."

This site also speaks to a question I got from my girlfriend the day before Thanksgiving. She called me from the store to ask, "Are yams the same thing as sweet potatoes?" Here are the tuber experts on this question: "Americans use the word 'yam' to refer to a sweet, moist, orange-fleshed variety of sweet potato. To everyone else in the world, a yam is what Americans call a tropical yam, a firm tuber with white flesh. Varieties of American 'yams'(sweet potatoes) include the garnet yam ... and the jewel yam." I've also heard that "yam" is a southern euphemism for sweet potato. By any name, still king.