When Fine Cooking came calling to see if I’d be interested in writing a feature on sweet potato desserts, my answer was, “That interests me a whole, whole lot,” which is what we say here in North Carolina.
Not only do I love sweet potatoes (sometimes called yams), but my home state is also the No. 1 sweet potato producer in the country, harvesting about half of all those grown in the United States. (The best ones, in my opinion, are grown by Mr. Stanley Hughes of Pine Knot Farms, about 20 miles north of where I live.) As far as desserts go, most Southerners (including me) believe that anything pumpkins can do—pies, custards, cakes—sweet potatoes can do better.
Think about it: When you eat pumpkin pie, what you mostly taste is a custard flavored by spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove. Sweet potatoes take to those spices, too, but they’re sweeter and less vegetal than pumpkin, which means the spices can play a reduced role. In fact, I don’t include any at all in my crème brûlée, and people still drag their fingers through the ramekin to get every last bit of it.
All of these desserts start with mashing some cooked sweet potatoes. I use my well-worn potato masher and edit out any lumps or fibers by hand to ensure a relatively smooth texture. To be honest, the mash will never be as smooth as canned pumpkin purée, but I like that the resulting dessert feels a bit more rustic and homey—I like it a whole, whole lot.
3 ways to cook sweet potatoes
Poke each sweet potato with a fork on all sides. Place on a foilor parchment-lined (for easy cleanup) rimmed baking sheet, and bake in a 400°F oven until easily pierced with a fork, about 1 hour.
Bring whole, unpeeled sweet potatoes to a rolling boil in a large pot of water, reduce the heat, and simmer until easily pierced with a fork, 40 minutes to 1 hour. Drain well.
Poke each sweet potato with a fork on all sides. Cook on a microwave-safe plate on high power until easily pierced with a fork, about 12 minutes.