Like many small-town Midwesterners and Southerners, I grew up in a world of candied sweet potatoes. Marshmallows were a new-fangled poseur-type thing when they showed in the Eisenhower Administration, not that anyone ever knew that French word. I never saw a recipe for sweet potatoes; like dressing, it was something you, or your mother or your grandmother just made by ear, so to speak.
The story around this has to do with the holidays in 1985. My mother was dying. I’m an only child, I was raising children alone and working full-time plus some overtime. While my stepfather was a man of excellent appetite and my mother needed nutrition, I just couldn’t face doing the Full Monty of the traditional meal. I put together a meal from some Paul Prudhomme recipes in a food magazine: A pork roast, dirty rice, potato salad and sweet potatoes. Prudhomme used the phrase “flavors playing pinball in your mouth”. They did with that menu. But it wasn’t traditional and it offended my adolescent daughter so much she refused to come to the table.
Her brother and I ate, cleaned up, packaged things to take to my mother and stepfather, and the three of us headed out to them. Coming home, we were not yet out of the subdivision when the (formerly recalcitrant) daughter excitedly said, “Let’s go home and eat leftovers!”
I had been forgiven, and of all the things in that menu, this is the dish I’ve repeated most often. It contains an obscene amount of butter – I’ve halved it before but somehow it doesn’t taste as good. I upped it in scale and tweaked it a bit as I acquired matriarch status with the Pollack clan, who regarded Thanksgiving as their particularly greatest holiday. I’ve used juice oranges and navel oranges in this; navels slice more nicely but the thinner-skinned juicers make for a tastier peel, which candies in the cooking syrup.
1 lb. Butter
3 lbs. sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 c. water
1 c. white sugar
1 c. dark brown sugar
2 oranges, skin washed, end slices discarded, sliced and seeded
1 lemon, skin washed, end slices discarded, sliced and seeded
2 sticks cinnamon
1 Tbs. Vanilla
¾ tsp ground mace
a pinch of salt
In a large saucepan or Dutch oven over high heat, mealt the butter. When it’s about half-melted add everything else. Stir, and bring to a full boil. If you’re nearby, you can cover it; otherwise I leave it open lest it boil over in my absence. Stir, then drop head and simmer covered for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and continue cooking until sweet potatoes are tender, perhaps another 20 minutes, but keep checking. The size of the potato pieces doesn’t matter, as long as they’re tender – some smaller ones will be softer than the large ones, which are the pieces by which I judge doneness.
Prudhomme advises to serve immediately, undrained, but it reheats well, and I do drain it quite a bit. Sometimes the butter, with its orange-cinnamon notes, turns out to be great on biscuits for tomorrow morning’s breakfast. He also says 2 pounds of sweet potatoes serves 10-12, but that must be part of a very large meal. This looks to me like it might serve 10 – but that, as always, just depends, doesn’t it?