sweet potato pie 88.
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During my six years of studies of French cuisine in Paris, I was especially interested in learning about vegetable dishes.
At the cooking school where I started as a student and continued as the recipe researcher, the chefs were full of good ideas for making vegetables delicious. I was therefore surprised when I consulted the entry on sweet potatoes in the French chefs' bible, Escoffier's Guide Culinaire - the esteemed master chef didn't include any specific recipes for the tubers. Instead, he noted simply that you can use them in most potato preparations, like purees, gratins and souffles. Of course, I didn't expect the French to prepare American-style casseroles topped with corn flakes and marshmallows, like the kind I often saw when I was growing up in Washington DC, but I thought there might be a few sugar-sweetened yam dishes.
On further reflection, I realized that Escoffier's concise entry had merit. His potato souffle, made of mashed potatoes, cream, egg yolks and whipped egg whites, sounded like a super-rich potato kugel. Why not make a sweet potato kugel?
I took out my favorite recipe for mashed potato kugel, which I enrich with sauteed onions, and substituted sweet potatoes. The only addition I made was to season it with a pinch of ginger. In the new kugel, the sweet potatoes' natural flavor came through beautifully and, for my taste, the kugel did not need sugar.
In fact, I like Escoffier's way of making sweet potato puree too. As with potatoes, I mash the yams with warm milk and sometimes a little butter. Because the sweet potato is naturally sweet, its intrinsic character is more apparent when it's not cooked with lots of sugar.
Many cooks still douse their sweet potatoes liberally with sugar or syrup, but I've found some who share my taste, and use yams in kugels and casseroles with savory or even spicy accents, and only with a touch of sugar or none at all. Some boil and mash the sweet potatoes first, while others grate them raw and mix them with the other ingredients.
In The Kitchen KATalogue, published by Kehillat Ahavat Tzion in the Ramat Beit Shemesh area (ed: Marsha Twersky et al.), Tzvi Sperber makes his "Simcha potato kugel" from a mixture of white and sweet potatoes flavored simply with onion, salt and pepper; essentially using the sweet potato as a sweetening element for the kugel. In the same book, Caroline Ofstein's contribution is decidedly sweet: She makes kugel-like sweet potato muffins with plenty of sugar and margarine, a side dish that I might save for dessert.
Nira Rousso strikes a middle-of-the-road approach. In her book, Table Talk (Hebrew, Modan; Hebrew title's exact translation is "Secrets from the Kitchen of Nira Rousso"), she flavors her sweet potato bake with cinnamon, orange juice concentrate, salt and just a pinch of sugar, and recommends it as a partner for a festive entree of beef braised in white wine. Bryan Miller also feels that only a sprinkling of brown sugar and nutmeg is needed in his creamy sweet potato souffle, which he presents in the New York Times Jewish Cookbook (ed: Linda Amster).
Restaurateur Jeffrey Nathan, who wrote Adventures in Jewish Cooking, emphasizes that he likes the savory addition of sauteed onions in his sweet potato and apple casserole. Balancing tangy and sweet components, he adds tart apples, apple cider, maple syrup, honey, cinnamon and nutmeg. For a sweet, crunchy finish, he tops his casserole with corn flakes and granola.
In contrast, Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food, likes his sweet potato kugel spicy. He flavors his mixture of sweet and white potatoes with sauteed onions, maple syrup, cayenne, cumin and nutmeg. At first this combination struck me as very unusual but then I remembered my neighbor Valerie Alon's delicious sweet potatoes baked with maple syrup and cayenne, and realized that such sweet and spicy notes can go together very well.
You can add any of the flavors above to the sweet potato kugel below. Just add them slowly to taste, and don't forget the eggs and the salt.
If you're interested in losing weight, you might like to know that Mollie Katzen and Walter Willett, the authors of Eat, Drink, and Weigh Less, have high praise for sweet potatoes: "In addition to having a higher level of beta-carotene than any other vegetable - even more than carrots - sweet potatoes contain vitamins A, C, and E; folate; iron; copper; and calcium, plus beneficial phytochemicals and a good dose of fiber."
In menu planning, they therefore count sweet potatoes as a vegetable and recommend eating them more often than white potatoes, which they categorize as a carbohydrate like noodles.
Savory Sweet Potato Kugel
Serve this easy parve casserole for holiday or Shabbat meals, along with chicken, meat or vegetarian entrees. The onions cook slowly to develop their natural sweetness and beautifully complement the natural taste of the sweet potatoes (tapuah adama matok or batata in Hebrew).
1 to 1.25 kg medium-sized sweet potatoes, unpeeled
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 medium onions, chopped
1â„2 teaspoon ground ginger
2 large eggs
1â„4 cup bread crumbs
salt and freshly ground pepper
Put sweet potatoes in a large saucepan with water to cover and a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer over low heat about 30 minutes or until tender. Drain and let cool.
In a large skillet heat 3 tablespoons of oil, add onions and saute over medium-low heat, stirring often, about 15 minutes or until tender and golden brown.
Preheat oven to 175 C. Peel sweet potatoes. Put in large bowl, cut each in a few pieces and mash. Stir in sauteed onions with their oil. Add ginger. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Beat in eggs, one by one.
Grease a 6-or-7-cup casserole and add the sweet potato mixture. Smooth top and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Drizzle with remaining oil. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes or until top is firm.
Makes about 6 servings.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.