When you hear the words "sweet potato casserole," what comes to mind?
Is it a 9 by 13 topped with mini marshmallows, or does it get homemade fluff? Are the sweet potatoes mashed, or are they cooked gratin-style? Do you season with cinnamon or with Parmesan?
Sweet potato casseroles are like snowflakes: No two are alike (and they're all very special). While it's likely you'll have one on your Thanksgiving table, it's not likely that it will be the same iteration as the casserole at your neighbor's house.
But is yours better than theirs? You probably think so.
We editors all have strong allegiances to our particular ilk of casserole (or lack thereof), too. Here's a run-down of the particular sweet potato casserole each of us thinks is best (and why):
My mom reasoned "sweet potato casserole" sounded too sophisticated for her 5-ingredient sweet potato thing she's made every Thanksgiving (and Christmas) I can remember. She'd never thought about what it'd be called if ever put to paper; it was always just "sweet potatoes" to her and me—because the steps involved are little more than putting sweet potatoes in the oven with flavors that taste good on them, yet the results resemble something closer to mashed potatoes.
To make cheater’s sweet potato casserole: Sweet potatoes get parboiled for ease, sliced into coins, then layered on top of each other with brown sugar, cinnamon, dabs of butter, and pieces of orange in between. Sometimes it's zest and a squeeze of orange instead of whole pieces—depends on what my mom is feeling like. There's always brown sugar and cinnamon—never measured, just sprinkled evenly over each layer. And the butter isn't chilled and cubed like a planner would do; these pats are ripped from a stick of butter and patted down by my mom’s hands, which are coated with orange juice-affixed brown sugar.
I come from a divided Thanksgiving table. My dad, a child of the '40s, still carries a torch for a classic Rockwell Thanksgiving, while my mom, a late-50s baby who just missed the Era of Tupperware, begrudgingly bows to his two requests every year: canned cranberry sauce (with the rimmed edges) and sweet potato casserole. Table-mates include roasted lamb with mint sauce (no turkey—my mom is of the belief no one actually likes it), an array of roasted vegetables, and potatoes julienne. Yet sweet potato casserole and its aluminum-packed sidekick remain.
As a result, I have a selective snootiness about classic Thanksgiving food: I turn up my nose at green bean casserole with fried onions and can't see the point of stuffing, but I will happily defend mashed sweet potatoes topped with a thick layer of mini-marshmallows.
The beauty is in the balance it provides to the rest of the plate (because like most families, we are all for the eating-way-too-much tradition of Thanksgiving). After a few heaping bites of lamb (or turkey, if that’s your thing), a bite of sweet potatoes—made even sweeter by their sugared-gelatin topping—is welcome. Add some salt on top and you have the perfect union of sweet and salty—with a depth of flavor that goes beyond mashed Russets (which, let’s be honest, don’t really taste like much of anything). If that doesn’t convince you, how’s this: Marshmallows have the power to make one of the most addictive foods on the planet, chocolate, even more addictive, so apply that power to sweet potatoes and you’ve harnessed something to be truly grateful for.
First thing’s first: I love, love sweet potato casserole. Sweet-on-sweet makes for right-on-right. However, it’s not in my nature to let tradition be. So, for my first time cooking Thanksgiving dinner a few years ago, my mind wandered to ingredients that would give a little hmm to the classic casserole. I had coconut cream and coconut flakes in my pantry and the rest was history.
Oh, did I mention my sister and I are allergic to coconut? That was a Thanksgiving surprise! (Disclaimer: I still make this for Thanksgiving, so we’re not that allergic.)
When the Langes get together for Thanksgiving, it's a big affair (my father is the youngest of six, which makes for a lot of Langes), and we all look forward to my Aunt Carol's sweet potatoes. They are less of a sweet potato casserole and more of a mess of sweet potatoes, boiled and mashed and spread into a buttered casserole dish to be baked in the oven—but not before being sweetened lightly with maple syrup and spiked with so much bourbon it makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Sometimes there's fresh grated ginger blended in, too. It's (crucially, in my opinion) not a dessert, more of a twice-baked mashed potato situation, and takes very well to butter and salt; the thought of adding marshmallows to the top of it makes me want to lie down.
Do you know what the definition of casserole is? “A kind of stew or side dish that is cooked slowly in an oven.” Now, admittedly, the definition doesn’t come right out and say it, but it’s pretty clear that we’re talking about a savory dish here. People make chicken casseroles and tuna noodle casseroles; they do not make brownie casseroles or apple-cinnamon casseroles, because those would be desserts—not casseroles.
Traditional sweet potato casserole is sweet, not savory, and thus, it is not a casserole; it is nothing more than an attempt to sneak a dessert onto the dinner table for the people who can’t hold out another hour when the pies will be served. I could perhaps get behind this deception for a good dessert, but not for sweet potatoes: They just shouldn’t be subjected to the traditional casserole treatment.
I’ve said before that I like fruits and vegetables to stand on their own, not disappear under a veil of cloying sweetness, and this is especially true for sweet potatoes: They are plenty sweet on their own! Mixing in gobs of brown sugar and topping the whole shebang with marshmallows turns them into a sickly-sweet concoction that has no place on the Thanksgiving table.
I am not from a family of sweet potato casserole eaters and, in fact, usually find the vegetable more cloying than enjoyable (even before it's topped with extra sugary things). In college, however, I did learn to enjoy them—what's that time of life for if not discovering you were wrong about yourself all those years?—in a somewhat minimal fashion. My roommate would only eat the fluff of a sweet potato, scraping away at the peel until it went papery, at which point I would take it for myself. Buttered, salted, and barely broiled, a sweet potato peel is everything I actually want from a Potato Skin: crisp, salty, and just sweet enough.
Evolved into a casserole, this dish is excellent at Thanksgiving as a crackly crisp side. Do whatever you like with the cooked sweet potato flesh (mash it to pair with fluff?), and then layer the skins into a shallow baking dish—thin is good in this case. A slurry of cream and herbs is drizzled over top, the whole thing gets topped with grated Parmesan, and then it's broiled until bubbly and browned. It's crisp and rich, like a brand-new $100 bill.
Every year around Thanksgiving, my mom makes a sweet potato casserole with lots of butter and maple syrup and sprinkles Gorgonzola cheese on top at the very end, which stinks up the whole kitchen. We have no idea where the idea came from, and I've never seen a written recipe for anything like it.
Personally, I have never been able to get past the smell, but she swears that the savoriness of the stinky cheese brings out the sweetness of the sweet potatoes and maple syrup. She must be right, because people always seem to go nuts for it!
When my father's favorite foods come to mind, there are only two: German chocolate cake and sweet potatoes.
He's not generally a picky eater—save for cabbages of any kind (sorry Dad, I'm outing your cabbage-hating ways)—but he always got an entire German chocolate cake to himself on his birthday, and he has to have sweet potato casserole on Thanksgiving.
But since I'm hot and cold on sweet potatoes myself (fried, yes; baked, meh), and my mom has no interest, we devised a system long ago so that my dad could still enjoy them on Thanksgiving with minimal effort (and no leftovers) on everyone's part. We'd make up a few personal sweet potato casseroles for him, à la loaded baked potatoes: Just prepare a sweet potato exactly like a baked potato, and instead of filling it with savory things, toss on marshmallows, brown sugar, and a little butter. It's a single-serving, easy to clean up, and lets sweet potato lovers relish in enjoying what other's don't.
The only thing I remember about Thanksgiving before my whole family started going to my boyfriend's family's house (a weird arrangement, I know) is the vat of pigs-in-blankets floating in mustard sauce like dead fish in a toilet bowl.
Needless to say, that food was neither delicious nor remarkable. And there was definitely no casserole like the super-sweet sweet potato version that my boyfriend's mom Lisa makes. The star of the Thanksgiving spread, it comes out of the oven caramelized, bubbling, and brown, more like a giant dessert crumble than anything that normally has a place on the dinner table. This casserole is to dinner as a light jacket is to late summer; it helps ease you into the next stage of your life (dessert or, in the case of the jacket, autumn).
Yes, it's buttery and sugary. No, it's not healthy. But I've never heard anyone complain about it. And most people go back for seconds. Some—okay, me—even skim off the nutty, sugary topping, leaving the mashed tubers behind. It's Thanksgiving, after all. If this isn't the time to be grateful that, as an adult, you can pair sweet-sweet-sweet food with the plethora of savory dishes at the table (turkey, potatoes, green beans) and call it dinner, when is?