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Nathan Wood: Dressing up Thanksgiving sweet potatoes, part four

Illustration by Amy Mackens
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By Nathan Wood, Daily Food Columnist
Published November 20, 2012

Though praising and bashing the eats in Ann Arbor is my customary modus operandi, I’m shifting course a bit this time around in honor of Turkey Day. Join me as I mix together a few family favorites, a blue ribbon culinary technique or two and some real-deal tips and tricks that — served with a pinch of sarcasm — will have you cooking up the perfect Thanksgiving dinner in no time. In this fourth installment of my five-part Thanksgiving series, we’re rounding out the meal with a couple of my favorite turkey dinner side dishes: sweet potatoes and dressing.

When I was a kid, I didn’t think I liked sweet potatoes. Cloyingly sweet, canned lumps of orange mush with stale, broiler-burnt marshmallows? I think I’ll pass. But then I tried my Aunt Kim’s Sweet Potato Crisp.

Sweet Potato Crisp Ingredients:

Custard Ingredients:
5 medium sweet potatoes
½ cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
⅓ cup heavy cream
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Pecan Crumb Topping Ingredients:
½ cup light brown sugar
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons (¼ stick) butter, softened

Directions:

Similar to how we boiled our Yukon Gold potatoes yesterday, peel the sweet potatoes and chop them into rough, 2-inch cubes. Again, it’s optimal if you can force someone else to do this for you. Cover with cold water in a large pot to ensure even cooking. Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for approximately 30 minutes. When effortlessly poked through with a fork, the sweet potatoes are finished cooking.

Drain the water and transfer the sweet potatoes to a small mixing bowl. Give them a quick mash and slowly add the heavy cream while mixing with an electric mixer. Whip into a lush, silky consistency. We’re talking like baby food purée, people: Blend those potatoes!

Then, also using an electric mixer, whip together the butter and sugar in a separate bowl until light and fluffy. While continuing to stir on low speed, incorporate the eggs one a time, mixing for one minute after each addition. Stir in the salt and vanilla just until combined.

Now, let’s say we were to throw caution to the wind and simply dump the egg mixture into the hot sweet potatoes. We would be left with nothing but scrambled eggs and baby food … not exactly ideal. So instead, we’re going to have to employ the culinary technique of egg tempering.

To do this, add a dollop of the hot sweet potato mash to the egg mixture. With exigency, completely whisk the potatoes into the eggs. Repeat this process with three more dollops to sufficiently temper the eggs, meaning their temperature has risen enough that adding the rest of the sweet potatoes won’t scramble them. Beat everything together with an electric mixer until lusciously thick and creamy.

To prepare the pecan crumb topping, stir the four ingredients in a small bowl until combined. Nothing special here.

Pour the sweet potato custard into a shallow, one-and-one-half-quart baking dish. Sprinkle on the crumb topping and cook uncovered in a 350-degree oven for one hour. The result is a custard with a delicate, buttery, dulcet texture that envelopes your taste buds with the mouth-filling flavors of sweetness and umami. Combined with a toothy crunch from the pecan crumb topping, this dish is an autumn classic in my home that’s sure to become a family favorite in yours.

Another Thanksgiving side I look forward to every year comes to us courtesy of my “Aunt” Carm (technically speaking, I think she’s actually my first cousin once removed). This dressing, which is based on Sally Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions” recipe for chestnut stuffing, never ceases to satisfy my Turkey Day carb cravings.

Dressing Ingredients:

1 loaf whole grain bread
½ cup (1 stick) butter
4 Vidalia onions
1 package celery
2 tablespoons fresh sage
2 tablespoons fresh thyme
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup homemade turkey broth
2 cups chopped chestnuts

Directions:

Begin by dicing the whole grain bread into ¾-inch cubes. Set aside.

Melt the butter in the bottom of a Dutch oven set over medium heat. Roughly chop and add the celery and onions. Sauté, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Then, add the seasonings and turkey broth — the final cup of four that we made last week in my first column of this Thanksgiving series. Cook for another five minutes to reduce.

Remove the mixture from the heat and fold in the chestnuts and cubes of bread. Transfer to a buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish and bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the edges are crisped.

I can’t brag enough about the flavor and texture complexities imparted by the fresh herbs, savory homemade turkey broth, earthy chestnuts, crunchy whole grain bread and sweet onions. Pairing perfectly with yesterday’s recipe for gravy, this dressing has rightfully earned its annual place of prominence on my Thanksgiving plate. Bake up a batch and you may find yourself making room for it on yours, as well.