I encountered sweet potatoes at my first Thanksgiving, a few months after I moved to the U.S. I watched from the sidelines as my ex-husband, his sister and her boyfriend woke up with the first rays of sun to start the vigorous and detailed preparation for this, for me an unknown holiday. Roasted turkey and mashed potatoes were the only two dishes made from scratch. The rest arrived to the table straight from the can or a box. For years I participated only as a menial laborer – stirring, dicing, mixing, and washing dishes, fearful not to upset the feelings of a traditional holiday meal.
And for years I did not see the appeal of gorging on processed and semi-processed food three times a day, only to collapse on a couch and watch an interminably long game that held absolutely no interest for me. My ex-husband’s ancestors arrived to this country on the Mayflower and I bowed to the traditions as a newest family member. I wanted to feel the goosebumps and excitement of sharing the familial table, experiencing the closeness, support, and love, but there was no pay-off to the hours of hard work, as everyone scarfed the food down in minutes and migrated to the living room, whining and patting their engorged bellies.
I am an adventurous eater, not afraid to try new and unknown dishes, but grayish spears of green beans baked with a can of cream of mushroom soup and mealy sweet potatoes poured into a pan from a huge can and roasted with marshmallows on top left me uninspired and disappointed. I was not a food snob, but I was raised on dishes prepared from scratch, fresh produce, and meat raised humanely and ethically. I accepted the fact that creativity was not welcome at this holiday, and went along with family traditions presented to me.
After my divorce, I sent my daughter and my mother to my ex-husband’s family for Thanksgiving and I enjoyed the holiday on my own, watching movies, drinking wine and eating crackers and cheese. I really liked my new holiday tradition and did not miss the gloopy jellied cranberry sauce plopped on a platter, still bearing the markings of the can that housed it, nor the gravy mixed hastily from an envelope.
My second husband hailed from the south and even though he pined for green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and jellied cranberry sauce, he introduced a few innovative and to me appealing dishes: southern dressing and giblet gravy. I embraced both, appreciating the efforts that went into preparing them, relishing the idea that there were no cans or boxes necessary for preparing them. All of a sudden, Thanksgiving started to shape into a different kind of holiday, a day that I would look forward to, a family event that made us all excited. It might have had something to do with a fact that my second husband could care less about sports of any kind, and enjoyed sitting at the table for hours, talking and sipping wine, surrounded by piles of dirty dishes and platters still filled with food.
There was no sister-in-law nor mother-in-law to reign over the kitchen and impose the habits that I would have to accept unconditionally. My husband craved certain tastes that brought him close to his childhood and I obliged him with every dish I prepared for Thanksgiving, but I refused to build my children’s traditions on cans and boxes. From our first holiday, everything I prepared was from scratch.
Our Thanksgiving table’s theme is mostly southern. Turkey is roasted unstuffed, with cornbread dressing baked on the side and hearty giblet gravy to spoon on top. My cranberry sauce is chunky and simple, dinner rolls soft and buttery, green beans blanched and tossed with diced tomatoes and garlic. There is always a pecan pie, rich and boozy, decadent and oh-so-satisfying.
But one dish that is all mine and that fits beautifully in my adopted southern Thanksgiving tradition is candied southern sweet potatoes. This simple dish allows the taste of mashed sweet potatoes to come forward, accentuating their soft texture and elevating them to a higher level with a crunchy topping of melted butter, chopped pecans, brown sugar, and a hint of nutmeg. When I feel inspired, I stir in a glug of bourbon just to cement it firmly south of the Mason-Dixon line.
This November marks a third anniversary of our Food Bloggers LA group that ideally meets once a month. On Sunday, more than twenty of us showed up in Santa Monica at Andrew Wilder‘s place, bringing our favorite Thanksgiving dish. I am happy to say that my southern sweet potatoes disappeared and I brought an empty dish home. The best compliment came from my friend Christina from Christina’s Cucina, who brought this insanely good Pumpkin Cheesecake and Chocolate Mousse Cake with Ganache topping. She does not like sweet potatoes, but said that done my way, they can grace her family table any time.
I hope you all have a great holiday with family and friends. I know that I have only a few more years to train my daughters’ sensitive palates and develop culinary traditions that will bring them home once they fly away and make their own nests. And I hope these sweet potatoes are going to be a part of their family celebration.
CANDIED SOUTHERN SWEET POTATOES
- 2 lbs of sweet potatoes (2 big ones)
- 2 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 Tbsp butter
- 2 Tbsp Bourbon (optional – but why not? It’s the holidays!)
- 1 Tbsp butter
- 3 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1/3 cup chopped pecans
- ¼ tsp ground nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 400F. Pierce the sweet potatoes with a fork in a few places to make sure they bake evenly. Place in the heated oven and bake for 45-60 minutes. If the knife goes in easily, the potatoes are done.
Turn the heat down to 350F.
Cool the potatoes, peel an place into a large bowl. Add brown sugar, egg yolk, butter and bourbon if using and mash with a hand=held mixer for a few minutes until fluffy and combined.
Melt the butter fir the topping and combine it with the rest of the topping ingredients. Spoon on top of mashed sweet potatoes.
Pour into an oven proof dish and bake for 35-40 minutes. Let it rest for a few minutes before serving.