My mother’s sister, Janet, was quite possibly sweetest person I’ve ever known. A pretty lady who had a kind word for everyone and always—and I mean that quite literally—had a smile on her face. But my mom used to tell me tales of the feisty and rebellious girl Janet was back in the day. She showed me pictures of a fashionable beauty in kicky skirts, with scarves tied rakishly around her neck, a sassy gleam in her eye.
When I was growing up, without fail, Janet brought the sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving dinner—an old-fashioned super sweet, marshmallow-topped concoction. My family all complained that they were “too sweet,” and yet, we all would have thrown fits if Janet had failed to supply them one year. After Janet passed away, we knew it was time to retire that over-the-top sweet version, and somehow, the task of filling the sweet potato hole in our Thanksgiving menu fell to me. There was tsimmes for a while, but it never quite caught on. Then there were sweet potatoes roasted with rosemary, cider-glazed sweet potatoes, and mashed sweet potatoes, but they all went largely uneaten and wholly unappreciated. Until one year I whipped up this rich, sweet, spicy, and nutty dish adapted from this Emeril Legasse recipe. I thought for sure my picky cousins, aunts, and uncles would turn their noses up at this bourbon-spiked dish with a kick of cayenne, but they polished it off that first year and even asked for the recipe. It has since become a new tradition. Like my beloved Aunt Janet, it’s a sweet dish with a secret feisty side. I’m pretty sure Janet would have liked it, too—and even if she hadn’t, she would have said something nice. She was just sweet like that.
Roasting the sweet potatoes in a hot oven instead of peeling, cubing, and boiling them as many recipes suggest is much less work and, I think, intensifies their flavor. My version also cuts back on the “dessert” flavors common to many sweet potato casseroles (cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, coconut, marshmallows) and plays up the savory.
- 5 pounds orange-fleshed yams
- 1 cup half-and-half
- 1/2 cup maple syrup, plus more to taste depending on the sweetness of your yams
- 2 tablespoons bourbon
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
- ¼ – ½ teaspoon cayenne
- Cooking spray, olive oil, or butter for preparing the baking dish
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 1/4 cup chilled butter, cut into small pieces
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- Bake yams for about 1½ hours, until soft, and then peel and mash them in a large bowl.
- Add half-and-half, maple syrup, bourbon, salt, eggs, and cayenne to the sweet potatoes beat with an electric mixer at medium speed until smooth.
- Coat a 13 x 9-inch baking dish with cooking spray, olive oil, or butter and spoon potato mixture into it, smoothing out the top.
- In a food processor pulse flour and sugar together to combine.
- Add chilled butter and pulse until mixture resembles a coarse meal.
- Stir in pecans and sprinkle over potato mixture.
- Cover and bake at 375° for 15 minutes.
- Uncover and bake an additional 25 minutes or until the topping is browned and the potatoes are thoroughly heated.