Sweet on Sweet Potatoes


By APRIL McGREGER
Photos by Hector Manuel Sanchez Prop styling by Ginny Branch Food styling by Catherine Crowell Steele

I WAS BORN IN Vardaman, Mississippi, the self-proclaimed "Sweet Potato Capital of the World." Since my current home state of North Carolina grows far more sweet potatoes—about as much as Mississippi and the other top-producing states of California and Louisiana combined—it seems that Vardaman should consider relinquishing this title. Locals maintain, however, that what they lack in quantity, they make up for in quality. In fact, one Vardaman farmer recently reported that visiting farmers from North Carolina State University went home with Mason jars filled with soil to decipher the secret to the silky sweet taste and the smoother, tighter skin of Vardaman sweet potatoes.

It's true that sweet potatoes are about the only thing happening in my hometown of about 1,300 people. In Vardaman, sweet potatoes are not just an iconic Southern food but a network of ties to community, economics, and identity. The annual Sweet Potato Festival, held on the first Saturday in November, kicks off a weeklong celebration of the harvest with cooking contests, tasting booths with everything from sweet potato sausage balls to sweet potato bonbons, and, in true Southern fashion, a Sweet Potato Queen.

In my family, we do not limit sweet potatoes to the usual Thanksgiving pie and casserole. Our Sunday roasts are cooked with them too. Our biscuits are often orange. We do not eat carrot cake so much as sweet potato cake.

Trust me, then, when I say that sweet potatoes can be prepared in countless ways. They're best when roasted low and slow, which allows ample time for the starches to be converted to sugars that bubble and caramelize. Follow my grandmother's lead and bake as many as your oven will hold; then freeze or refrigerate them, and save and savor these leftovers for later.

Brown Butter Sweet Potato Pie

Browning the butter with spices lends a deep, nutty flavor to this Southern classic.

Active | 15 min. Total | 3 hours, 15 min. Makes | 2 (9-inch)

  • 1 (14.1-oz.) pkg. refrigerated piecrusts
  • ½ cup (4 oz.) unsalted butter
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 4 cups mashed roasted sweet potatoes
  • 1 (14-oz.) can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 4 large eggs, beaten
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. fresh lemon juice
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Fit each piecrust into a 9-inch pie pan. Prick the bottoms of the piecrusts several times with a fork. Line piecrusts with parchment paper, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake in preheated oven until slightly golden, about 15 minutes. Remove weights and parchment, and cool completely, about 1 hour.
  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium. Add cinnamon stick and cloves; cook, stirring occasionally, until foam subsides and butter begins to darken and smell fragrant, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat, and pour through a fine wire-mesh strainer over a bowl. Discard cinnamon stick and cloves.
  • Beat brown butter, sweet potatoes, condensed milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla, lemon juice, and salt with an electric mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes. Divide mixture evenly between 2 piecrusts. Bake on middle rack in preheated oven until filling is slightly puffed and set, about 45 minutes. (If the crust gets too dark, loosely cover with aluminum foil.) Cool at least 1 hour before serving.

Note: If your sweet potatoes are at all stringy—which can happen sometimes, especially with larger sweet potatoes—you will need to pass them through a food mill or sieve.

Sweet Potato and Chorizo Sausage Bites

Active | 20 min. Total | 1 hour, 20 min. Serves | 12 (serving size: 4 sausage balls)

In my hometown, you'll find a local twist on sausage balls, the ubiquitous Southern nibble. Sweet potato farmers' wives often mix a bit of roasted sweet potato into the dough. I've switched out breakfast sausage for peppery Mexican-style chorizo.

  • 1 lb. fresh Mexican chorizo sausage, casings removed
  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose baking mix (such as Bisquick)
  • 1 (8-oz.) pkg. pre-shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese
  • ½ cup chilled mashed roasted sweet potato
  • ⅛ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ⅛ tsp. kosher salt
  • 6 Tbsp. plum jam or scuppernong jelly
  • 2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

  • Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease a baking sheet.
  • Stir together sausage, baking mix, cheese, mashed sweet potato, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl. Roll into 48 (1 ½-inch) balls, and place about 1 inch apart on prepared baking sheet. Bake in preheated oven until sausage balls are cooked through and deep golden brown, about 20 minutes.
  • Stir together jelly and mustard in a small bowl until well blended. (If your jelly is too stiff to blend, microwave mixture at HIGH in 15-second increments until soft enough to stir.) Serve with sausage balls.
  • Note: Sausage balls can be frozen on baking sheet and transferred to ziplock plastic freezer bags for storage. Bake from frozen. (You may need to add 1 or 2 minutes to baking time.)

Twice-Cooked Sweet Potatoes with Citrus and Honey

Active | 15 min. Total | Serves | 6 (serving size: 1 potato boat)

Tamari, a darker, richer soy sauce, is optional in this recipe, but its savory flavor makes the dish more interesting.

  • 4 medium-size sweet potatoes, unpeeled
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tsp. black pepper
  • 2 ½ tsp. kosher salt, divided
  • 4 Tbsp. salted butter, softened
  • 2 Tbsp. heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. orange zest
  • ½ vanilla bean, split lengthwise, seeds scraped and reserved (or ½ tsp. vanilla extract)
  • 2 Tbsp. honey, divided
  • 1 tsp. tamari (optional)
  • 2 large eggs
  • Freshly grated nutmeg

  • Prick the sweet potatoes in a few places with a fork. Rub all over with the oil; sprinkle with pepper and 2 teaspoons of the salt. Place potatoes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or aluminum foil in a cold oven. Set oven temperature to 350°F, and bake sweet potatoes until the potato flesh has pulled away from the skins and potatoes are completely soft, 1 to 1 ½ hours. Remove potatoes from the oven, and cool 15 minutes. Increase oven temperature to 400°F.
  • Cut sweet potatoes in half lengthwise. Carefully scoop pulp into a bowl, leaving shells with ¼ inch of flesh intact. Place 6 shells in a single layer in a 13- x 9-inch baking dish; discard remaining 2 shells.
  • Process sweet potato pulp, butter, cream, orange zest, vanilla bean seeds, 1 tablespoon of the honey, remaining ½ teaspoon salt, and, if desired, tamari until smooth, about 1 minute. Add eggs, and process until blended, about 1 minute. Spoon filling into reserved skins.
  • Bake sweet potatoes at 400°F until filling is puffed and golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes. Drizzle sweet potatoes with remaining 1 tablespoon honey and a very light dusting of freshly grated nutmeg, and serve.

Sweet Potato Bread with Buttermilk-Lime Icing

Active | 20 min. Total | 1 hour, 20 min. Serves | 16 (serving size: 1 slice)

Try this spicy treat as an alternative to pumpkin bread. Serve it unadorned for every day or topped with this tangy icing for something extra special.

BREAD

  • Salted butter, for greasing pan
  • 1 ¾ cups (about 7 oz.) self-rising flour
  • 1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp. ground nutmeg
  • ½ tsp. ground ginger
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ⅛ tsp. ground cloves
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 ⅓ cups packed light brown sugar
  • 1 cup mashed roasted sweet potato
  • ¾ cup vegetable oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature

ICING

  • 2 ½ cups (about 8 ½ oz.) sifted powdered sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. buttermilk
  • 1 Tbsp. fresh lime juice
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • Pinch of kosher salt

  • Prepare the Bread: Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-inch loaf pan with butter, and set aside. Combine flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, baking powder, cloves, and ½ teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Whisk together brown sugar, sweet potato, oil, and 1 teaspoon vanilla in a separate bowl until well blended. Add eggs, 1 at a time, to brown sugar mixture, whisking to combine after each addition. Slowly add brown sugar mixture to flour mixture, whisking constantly until well combined.
  • Transfer batter to prepared loaf pan. Bake on middle rack in preheated oven until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Remove bread from oven; cool in pan on a wire rack 15 minutes.
  • Prepare the Icing: Whisk together powdered sugar, buttermilk, lime juice, ½ teaspoon vanilla, and pinch of salt in a medium bowl until smooth.
  • Remove bread from pan, and cool on wire rack. Drizzle bread with icing while bread is still warm.

Sweet Potato-Ginger Scones

Active | 20 min. Total | 55 min. Makes | 16 scones (serving size: 1 scone)

In my years running a bakery stand at the Carrboro, North Carolina, farmers' market, customers clamored for the tender, apricot-hued scones studded with chunks of candied ginger. You can freeze the unbaked scones and bake them directly from the freezer; just add a few minutes to the baking time.

  • 5 cups (about 1 lb., 5 ¼ oz.) all-purpose flour, plus more for baking sheet
  • ⅔ cup granulated sugar
  • 1 ½ Tbsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • ⅛ tsp. grated whole nutmeg
  • ⅝ tsp. ground cardamom, divided
  • 1 ½ cups (12 oz.) very cold unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch pieces
  • ½ cup chopped crystallized ginger
  • 2 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1 cup chilled mashed roasted sweet potato
  • ¾ cup cold buttermilk
  • ¼ cup plus 2 Tbsp. heavy cream, divided
  • ¼ cup turbinado sugar

  • Preheat oven to 400°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  • Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and ½ teaspoon of the cardamom. Add butter; cut into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or a fork until butter pieces are the size of corn kernels. Stir in ginger and zest. Stir together sweet potatoes, buttermilk, and ¼ cup of the cream in a small bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture; place sweet potato mixture in well. Working quickly, stir until dough just comes together.
  • Sprinkle prepared baking sheet liberally with flour. Place dough on parchment, and divide dough in half. With floured hands, shape each dough half into a circle between 6 and 7 inches in diameter and about 1 inch thick. Brush circles evenly with remaining 2 tablespoons cream. Stir together turbinado sugar and remaining ⅛ teaspoon cardamom in a small bowl, and sprinkle evenly over dough circles. Run a bread knife or bench scraper under cold water, and cut each circle into 8 wedges (like cutting a pie). Carefully pull wedges away from the center to separate them by about ¾ inch. (Don't worry about any excess flour on your parchment paper.)
  • Bake on middle rack in preheated oven until golden brown and almost cooked through, about 30 minutes. Transfer baking sheet to lowest oven rack; bake until bottoms of scones are fully cooked, about 5 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.