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Holiday Sweet Potato Casserole: A Family Favorite
Every sweet potato casserole recipe is different. This one has fruity surprises folded into it--cranberries at Thanksgiving and Christmas, raisins at Halloween, jellybeans at Easter, etc. As a family favorite, it doubles as a dessert. At holiday potlucks, it is sure to bring comment.
Attending get-togethers as a man, I was usually asked to bring dinner rolls, chips, sodas or a plate of finger food from the deli. But one day I made a casserole, and they’ve asked me to bring the same thing ever since.
That’s boring, so I try to vary it every time. The first step, of course, is to gather the ingredients. I didn’t measure anything this time, but here’s what I have written down:
- 6 cups (3 lbs) sweet potatoes, peeled, cut up
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup butter or olive oil
- 1/2 cup sugar, preferably dark brown
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 - 1/2 cup nuts, walnuts or pecans, chopped
- 1 apple or pear
- 1/3 - 1 cup cranberries, craisins or raisins, (optional)
- 1/3 cup marshmallows, (optional)
Preparing and cooking
Peel the sweet potatoes, cut them up and cook them in the water. In a pot, bring the water to a boil and then turn it down to simmer, covered, for 15 minutes or until tender. One cup is not much water, so keep it covered and be sure that it doesn’t boil away. You don’t want to have a lot of excess, though, because we’ll use the water and preserve the vitamins.
While that’s simmering, you can prepare any optional ingredients. The key here is to add ingredients that will contrast with the potato in sweetness, tartness, texture or color. Chunks of apple or pear are an example that I almost always include. Peel, core and cut it up into chunks about ½”. Pears are best if unripe and don't need to be peeled. If you use pecans or walnuts, chop them into pieces about ¼”. Any finer than that doesn’t noticeably add texture.
Combining with “surprises”
When the sweet potatoes are cooked, combine them in a mixing bowl with the cooking water and all ingredients except fruits, marshmallows or any other soft “surprises.” Mash this thoroughly.
Start layering the mixture into a casserole dish, sprinkling in a couple of layers of apples, cranberries, raisins, marshmallows, jellybeans, whole pecans, whatever surprise your particular event calls for. Be creative, but conservative. It’s hard to put in too much apple, but for anything else, too little is better than too much.
Bake at 350° F uncovered for 30 minutes or covered for 45. The time depends on how moist the mixture is and how warm it is by the time you get it into the oven. Moisture content can be hard to judge. I usually start with it covered and check after about 20 minutes. If condensation is starting to appear on the lid or it's starting to bubble around the edges, it's too wet and I finish it uncovered. If there's no condensation, it may be too dry, so I add about 1/4 cup of water—too much just won't be absorbed—around the edges.
Anything more than 45 minutes is going to turn apples or especially pears into unidentifiable mush. Since raw cranberries seem to require a minimum of 20 minutes baking time to soften, I like to soften them separately in the microwave for about 60 seconds or until I hear one pop.
The last 5 minutes, scatter a few marshmallows on top. Make a smiley face, spell out his initials, whatever. Then put it back in uncovered until they just begin to turn golden brown on top. Don't do this very long before it's time to serve, however, because the heat in the casserole will continue to melt the marshmallows into craters of translucent sweetness.
You can prepare this the day before and bake it the next day, which would require more baking time to heat all the way through. A good compromise is to peel the potatoes ahead of time.