Sweet Potatoes vs. Yams

I’ve always been blasé about sweet potatoes, during the holidays or any other time. The straightforward version my parents served probably took their best shot with their browned, softened marshmallows on top, which invariably brought back happy memories of toasting marshmallows with friends and family over an outdoor fire. Friends and family – that’s what holidays are all about, right?

And happy memories of being together. And, apparently for me, toasting marshmallows over a hot fire on a Southern summer night that’s just about the same temperature. The sweet potatoes themselves, though, left me cold. I sometimes even skipped over them for seconds on that mysterious jiggly-wiggly can-shaped mass sold by stores as cranberry sauce. 

I started getting interested in “yams” – for that is what sweet potatoes are called in Louisiana and many other pockets of the South – years later. And the attraction was largely the name itself. When I realized, as a food and travel journalist, that “yams” in the Caribbean were large, hard and bland, I started wondering what the heck we’d been eating back home. What we’d been eating back home as yams were, in fact, sweet potatoes. The word “yam” was African in origin, tying the language and culture of slaves from there to both the Caribbean and Louisiana.

Historians tell us that when slaves first started eating sweet potatoes – meals with meat were few and far between, after all – they went ahead and called them yams. These starches were close enough, though gifted with more natural sweetness and more bright orange color than any yam grown in the history of anyplace. As the story goes, when a specific sweet potato type was developed in Louisiana decades ago, the people in charge decided the long-ago slaves had a solid sense of marketing, after all.

This product, often cooked then peeled then canned in a very sweet syrup, appeared on grocery shelves as “Louisiana yams.” Or simply yams, for short. Theoretically, this presented a nomenclature problem; but in real life – not so much. Generations made their way to the grocery, even taking home fresh sweet potatoes to prepare their favorite family recipe for… candied jams.

My personal epiphany came via my high school Cajun buddy Alex Patout. We found each other again years later, after he picked up an accounting degree but then decided to become a chef and open a series of Louisiana restaurants, probably inspired to do so by the “Cajun craze” kicked off by Paul Prudhomme. Alex did a lot less blackening than Chef Paul but an equal amount of browning – since every Cajun mama teaches her children that caramelization (as opposed to fat) equals flavor.

Alongside a signature roasted duck on his menu in New Orleans, Chef Alex slapped a swirl of sweet potato casserole. This was the best version of any sweet potatoes I’d ever lifted to my mouth – even if they left the basic “heathiness” of vegetables way back in the rearview mirror. It had, frankly, never occurred to me to include butter, cream, brown sugar and vanilla in a sweet potato dish. At Alex Patout’s Louisiana Restaurant in the French Quarter, which closed its doors some years back, every plate of tender duck came with its own dessert on the side.

Perhaps best of all, the world population of marshmallows could rest easy at my house between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Every last one of them was safe.

BOURBON CRANBERRY SWEET POTATO CASSEROLE

The original idea for this recipe comes from my high school friend Alex Patout, who earned an accounting degree before becoming a Cajun chef who could actually measure. Something about this basic recipe makes for a lush holiday side that flirts with being its own dessert. The bourbon cranberry topping is, naturally, my idea.

6 large sweet potatoes (also sold Louisiana yams)

1/3 cup whole milk

1 stick softened butter

¼ cup granulated sugar

¼ cup dark brown sugar

2 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon vanilla

Topping

½ cup dark brown sugar

¾ stick butter

½ jar Fischer & Wieser’s Bourbon Cranberry Preserves

1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Bake the sweet potatoes until soft, about 1 hour. Let them cool for handling. In a large bowl, mash sweet potatoes and stir in the milk, softened butter, sugars, eggs and vanilla. Transfer the mixture to a baking dish or casserole. In a saucepan, heat the topping ingredients until preserves are liquified and smooth, then remove from heat and stir in chopped pecans. Spoon about half the topping over the sweet potatoes and bake in oven until heated through and starting to bubble and brown on top. Serve hot with remaining pecan mixture spooned on top. Serves 6-8.

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