11 December 2011

*Sweet* Potatoes, *Sweet* Memories

I've mentioned before that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I especially love the cooking and eating portions of the day. Like most, our family has a pretty set menu of must-haves on our Thanksgiving table, and none are more dear to me than mom's sweet potato souffle. I have many fond memories of smashing canned yams, measuring out brown sugar, and chopping pecans with mom. So when I spent my first Thanksgiving away from home, I mourned the absence of our favorite recipes. I didn't miss out on Thanksgiving when I was in Paris, in fact, I had three! The expat community likes the opportunity to gather and enjoy tastes of home with their countrymen. So in the course of a week I enjoyed one meal with the other American students at my French school, one with my English-speaking (but mostly non-American) church as an outreach to the French community, and one actually on Thanksgiving with a few friends. The latter was the only one I had occasion to cook for and so I elected...sweet potato soufflé, of course!

What ensued was a somewhat chaotic and comical adventure where I attempted to cook a good ol' southern recipe from scratch in a poorly stocked antiquated French kitchen...in France. I realize that last part was redundant, but I want to emphasize the fact that I was in France. Being in any other country, no matter how "modern," can make even the simplest of tasks an exhausting challenge. So I had no microwave, no electric mixer, no grater, and of course no canned yams, McCormick seasonings, or other familiar ingredients. It also didn't help that every other American in the city was preparing their own dinners, so things like cinnamon, which you normally wouldn't have a problem finding, were sold out in many stores. On the amusing side, it was easy to spot the Yanks that week, they were the confused ones in the stores searching desperately for ingredients to substitute for their own favorite recipes, and trying to explain things like "cornbread" in French. I traipsed all over the city collecting the various implements and ingredients, and then skipped my foreign policy class (in protest, don't the frenchies know it's an American holiday!?) to spend the day working on my concoction. 

I used israeli sweet potatoes, an orange imported from Florida (go figure), and the french equivalents of everything else. The most inconvenient part was making the requisite soft-peak meringue that gets folded into the sweet potato mixture..without a mixer. Hand-whisking egg whites = not fun. 
 (On a side note, this is the ingredient which lends the casserole its "souffle" name. Souffle comes from the french "soufflé" which means "blown," thus actual souffles involve a great deal of airy meringue which gives them their puffed up, "blown up"appearance. Our casserole doesn't puff up like a real soufflé but it has the whipped egg whites folded in to make it less dense.) 

Hand-whisking the egg whites.
Also note the massive mess in my tiny kitchen...and the awesome snowflakes mom made and sent me!
Between the hand-whisking and my little gas oven I wasn't at all confident in the results. But lo and behold...it came out looking pretty much just like momma's at home! And it tasted just as good too. It was a nice taste of home while far away.

That was 2007. Fast-forward four years to lovely 2011. And once again I find myself in a foreign country for the holidays. Since we had so many work friends together for Thanksgiving, and the sweet potatoes had already been signed up for before I got my name on the list, I didn't have any reason to make my favorite dish. Fortunately, for our team Christmas party this week, Ellen suggested sweet potatoes as a side with our ham, green beans, mashed potatoes, rolls, etc. So, once again I set to tracking down the necessary implements and ingredients. 

It was still a challenge, but easier this time around. Our kitchen here, since the house has been lived in by so many staff members, has a pretty well-stocked kitchen that even includes...an electric mixer! Yay! (It's the little thing, people. Always remember that!) And because my dear friend Cat brought goodies with her when she came to visit, I had just enough brown sugar for the recipe. Also thankfully, Peru is the land of potatoes, so it wasn't a challenge to track down some "camote" (sweet potato). However, these sweet potatoes were unlike any that I have ever encountered. I don't know if its starch just has a higher sugar content than other varieties, but these made absolutely everything sticky, and it was a nightmare to remove. It was like getting pine sap on your hands! Boiling them left the stock pot crazy sticky too. My simultaneous cooking/cleaning skills have improved in 4 years, apparently, because the kitchen wasn't too much of a disaster this time.

Kitchen in the middle of the process.
Hurray for electric mixers!
It may not be Thanksgiving, but I enjoyed having a reason to make my favorite holiday dish. I love the taste, sure. But I am probably even more attached to the memories that making it always brings. 

When I publish my long-awaited cookbook,
"How to Pretend That You Have Any Idea What You Are Doing In the Kitchen,"
this will be the author photo.
(First tip in the book: wearing an apron always makes you look more credible in the kitchen. Note above photo.)

In our family we usually distribute the toppings so that one end is only nuts, one end it only marshmallows, and the middle has both, so each family member has their own sector. ;-) Here I tried to make sure all of the possible topping combinations was available. A virtual Punnett square of sweet potato deliciousness. 
TA-DAAA! (Again.)
I don't know that anyone else enjoyed the sweet potato souffle as much as I did, but I thought it tasted pretty good. The only real struggle was that our gas heated oven lacks a thermometer, so although it was "set" to the right temperature, it did not reach the right temperature, so I cranked it up and cooked it twice as long. Even without putting in the full measure of sugar called for, it's still sweet enough to be dessert. I think this particular variety of potato is sweeter than some others, but I'm certainly not complaining that there are leftovers! I will be eating my sweet potato souffle and enjoying the flavor and memories of sweet times at home. 


1 comment:

  1. You're right, you totally look like you belong in that kitchen. I'd buy it.