the very best sweet potato casserole everPosted: December 22, 2011
I know it’s generally a bad idea to go in for superlatives when describing food – the reasons that we like particular foods are based on all kinds of different factors: culture, what we ate growing up, foods that are associated with particular memories. So, in other words, the best sweet potato casserole ever to me may not be the best sweet potato casserole ever to you. But, having made the family sweet potato casserole at Thanksgiving and Christmas for too many years to remember now, I can say that this is by far the best I have ever made. It is the holy grail of sweet potato casseroles that I have been searching for the last few years.
Here’s why. First, most sweet potato casseroles are loaded with sugar. In fact, the recipe that I formerly used called for a full cup of granulated sugar to go in the sweet potatoes themselves. Sweet potatoes, as their name implies, are already sweet on their own. After making mashed sweet potatoes that didn’t involve any sugar, I realized that if I just used sugar in the pecan praline topping, this would still be enough to keep these potatoes in the realm of over-indulgent holiday foods. Without the overload of sugar, there is a nice contrast between the creamy, buttery (see: still over-indulgent) sweet potato filling and the sugary, crunchy topping.
Second, we always used to make sweet potato casserole with canned sweet potatoes. It’s certainly easier. However, if you really want an exquisite sweet potato casserole, you are going to have to start with whole sweet potatoes and roast them yourself. The taste and texture simply aren’t comparable. I started making the casserole this way when I lived in England, where there were no canned sweet potatoes to be found. Sweet potatoes are a royal pain to roast, as they always take about an hour longer than any recipe I’ve used says they will, so that is something to know ahead of time. Don’t roast the potatoes the day you need them, or you will find yourself, as I have found myself, cursing, pulling out hair, and desperately smashing the tough, uncooked portions of the potatoes in the hopes that they will decide to become soft and smushy (they won’t). If you roast the potatoes the night before you need them, the rest of the casserole will be a breeze to assemble and bake.
Finally, and I realize this is a subject that some people (including myself) have strong feelings about one way or the other, but brown sugar/pecan topping is vastly superior to marshmallows. I don’t know if this is a regional difference – I thought it was, but I’ve heard of exceptions, so who knows. This is one of those issues where one’s preferences are influenced by what one has grown up with – at big family holidays, we want the food that we remember from holidays past. It’s hard to talk about the two options in terms of healthiness, since they are both sugary toppings, but one of them is a pre-made, processed sugary topping (unless you make your own marshmallows) and the other is a sugary topping you make yourself from scratch. In any case, all of those deliberations aside, brown sugar and pecans are clearly the best. The end.
Sweet Potato Casserole
I’ve made a few changes from the original recipe. It had you pureeing half the potatoes in a food processor and then mashing the rest just enough to leave them in “one inch chunks”. That sounded like way too much trouble, plus I don’t want chunks in my sweet potato casserole, so I suggest just making the potato mixture with a stand or hand mixer – if you don’t have either of these, you can use a potato masher to mash the potatoes, and mix the rest of the ingredients with a spoon. You should buy small/medium sweet potatoes, as they will roast faster than giant ones (although still not very fast). The topping in the original recipe was also more of a streusel that sounded annoying to make, so I decided to stick with the topping we always use, which starts with melted instead of softened butter, and ends up crunchy and caramelized. Yum.
For the sweet potato filling:
5-6 lbs. small/medium sweet potatoes
5 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 teaspoons lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
4 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups half and half
For the topping:
1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
1 cup pecans, chopped roughly
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 400F/205C. Place an oven rack in lower-middle position. Poke each sweet potato several times with a knife, and place on a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake potatoes, turning them once, until they are soft all the way through. This can take anywhere from 1-2 hours (or longer if you’ve bought large sweet potatoes). When potatoes are done, remove from oven and cut in half lengthwise to release steam. Allow the potatoes to cool for at least 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375F/190C. Butter a 9 x 13 baking pan.
When potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh into a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer if you have one. (At this point, if you are roasting the potatoes ahead of time, store potatoes in the refrigerator until you use them; you can store them up to two days.) Add the 5 tablespoons melted butter, salt, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, and lemon juice to potatoes. Mix until potatoes are mashed and spices are blended in. Add the egg yolks. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the half and half – it may splatter a bit, which is why you want to do this slowly. Continue mixing until potatoes are smooth and the mixture is evenly blended.
Spoon potato mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread evenly. In a small bowl, put the brown sugar, pecans, flour, and the 5 tablespoons of melted butter. Stir with a spoon until thoroughly combined. Sprinkle evenly over the sweet potatoes. Bake on middle rack for 40-45 minutes, until topping is browned and sweet potato filling is slightly puffy around the edges. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then serve.
The Cooks’ Illustrated recipe offers a useful pointer about how to tell if your potatoes are finished roasting, which I am passing along. If you’re not sure if a potato is done, cut it in half lengthwise. If you can see whitish threads that still feel firm, the potato is not done yet – this is starch that hasn’t been fully cooked. Press the potato halves back together, wrap them with aluminum foil, and return potato to oven. I can tell you from experience why you should wrap the potatoes before putting them back in – in previous moments of rage over how long my potatoes were taking to get soft, I have chopped them into bits, hoping this would make them cook faster. It will, but then all the outside surfaces will be hard and crispy, and you will have to cut them off, thus losing some of your potatoes. Yet another reason to roast your potatoes the night before you need them – if you are having a fit of rage/stress, you won’t make very rational decisions about how to resolve your problems!
Adapted from Cooks’ Illustrated