On Thanksgiving, Sweet Potatoes Should Be Sweet. Like, Really Sweet.

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 16 2012 4:32 PM

You’re Doing It Wrong: Sweet Potatoes

Meringue Topped Sweet Potato Casserole.
Meringue topped sweet potato casserole.

Photo by Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo for Slate

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, Brow Beat will be providing all the essential recipes you need to celebrate the holiday with culinary aplomb. See also our previous entries on mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce.

L.V. Anderson L.V. Anderson

L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate's food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat's recipe column, You're Doing It Wrong. 

Thanksgiving is the one day a year when it is not only okay but practically mandatory to eat boatloads of sugar with your meal. I’m not talking about cranberry sauce, which should be as tart as you can stand. I’m talking about sweet potatoes.

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There have been many attempts at sophisticated, respectable, savory sweet-potato preparations. But really, these recipes doth protest too much. (I’m looking at you, Sweet Potato and Goat Cheese Gratin With Black Olives.) Many people seem embarrassed by the cloying, syrup-coated, marshmallow-topped sweet-potato recipes of yesteryear—but such sugary recipes are our heritage as Americans! Since the end of the Civil War, it’s said, yams (a Southern staple) have been cooked with maple syrup (a Northern specialty) to symbolize national unity. Adding more sugar to an already sugary tuber isn’t just fun. It’s a patriotic duty.

Plus, it’s easy to make a sweet sweet-potato dish nearly as classy and grown-up as a savory sweet-potato dish. I humbly submit to you a meringue-topped sweet potato casserole, a production as impressively put together as a Lady Gaga concert, and roughly as subtle. I owe the idea to a recipe published several years ago in, of all places, Cooking Light magazine. (Perhaps Light, in this case, referred to the texture of the topping, because it can’t possibly be a reference to the calorie content.) The concept itself is a brilliant riff on marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, with homemade meringue providing the cloud-like confectionary crown. And to make sure no sweet tooth comes away underwhelmed, there’s a protective layer of streusel in between the puréed potatoes and the toasted meringue.

Apart from its shock-and-awe approach to satisfying sweet cravings, this recipe has practical attributes to recommend it, too. It not only uses egg whites in the meringue, but employs an equal number of yolks in the custardy sweet-potato base, leaving you with no pesky stray egg parts. And you can assemble most of it a day ahead of time and simply pop it in the oven (and then whip up your meringue) around dinner time. Plus, should some disaster befall your pie, these sweet potatoes will happily step into the role of dessert, no questions asked.

Meringue-Topped Sweet-Potato Casserole
Yield: 12 to 16 servings
Time: About 1½ hours, partially unattended

3 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
Salt
½ cup half-and-half
¾ cup brown sugar
3 large eggs, separated
1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch cayenne pepper
Oil or butter for greasing the pan
1 cup chopped pecans
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons butter
1½ cups sugar

1. Put the sweet potatoes in a large pot with a few pinches of salt and add enough water to cover by about 2 inches. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Cook until the potatoes are fully tender, about 20 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

2. Return the now-empty pot to the heat for a few seconds to dry it out, then remove from the heat. Put the sweet potatoes through a potato ricer back into the pot (or mash them by hand). Add the half-and-half, ¼ cup of the brown sugar, the egg yolks, 1 teaspoon of the vanilla, ½ teaspoon of the cinnamon, the cayenne, and a pinch of salt. (Put the egg whites in an airtight container and refrigerate until Step 4.) Stir to combine. Grease a 9- by 13-inch pan, and spread the sweet potato mixture into the pan.

3. Put the pecans, flour, butter, the remaining ½ cup brown sugar, the remaining ½ teaspoon cinnamon, and a pinch of salt in a small bowl; blend with a pastry cutter or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Sprinkle the pecan mixture evenly over the sweet potato mixture. (At this point, you can cover the pan with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to a day before proceeding.)

4. Heat the oven to 350°F. Bake the sweet-potato casserole for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, beat the egg whites with the whisk attachment of a stand mixer (or a handheld electric mixer) until soft peaks form. Continue to beat as you gradually add first the sugar and then the remaining ½ teaspoon vanilla; stop beating when stiff peaks form. Spread the meringue over the sweet potatoes, and continue to bake at 350°F until the meringue is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Serve warm. (Store leftover sweet-potato casserole covered with foil or plastic wrap in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)