Every Rosh Hashanah, I look at the dog-eared copies of cooking magazines piling up in our kitchen and think, "I'm going to make something new and different this year!" The stakes were really raised one year when my neighbor and I decided to join forces and celebrate the Jewish New Year together at her house. My neighbor's husband is an ambitious cook, the kind of guy who gets out his deep fryer on Thanksgiving and fries one turkey in the back yard while he roasts two others in the kitchen. Plus, my friend from high school was coming with her family, as were my mother and stepfather, and my neighbor's extended family. All these people had eaten my standby holiday food too many times already so I wanted to make something other than brisket, string beans and my mother-in-law Dorothy's sweet potato casserole.
But I didn't really have time to start playing around with new recipes and making eight trips to the grocery store. I was working more than I had in years and had a book coming out. So we divvied up the food preparation. My neighbor was making roast chicken and noodle kugel. The most I could do to change things up a bit was to make a new kind of sweet potato casserole, the one Amy had given me.
Amy was my younger son's Spanish tutor, before he switched to French. Switching to French from Spanish was one of the stupidest things we've done as a family, not just because hardly anyone speaks French anymore but also because we lost Amy in the process. Amy and my mother-in-law Dorothy are the kind of women who make you relax as soon as they walk in the door. They smile, they say something cheerful, they offer you a compliment, they make themselves comfortable and they put you at ease all at the same time, even though it's your house and you should be putting them at ease. You ask them if they want something and they say maybe they'll have some water. Otherwise, they're fine, really, and they'll tell you to just do whatever you need to do. They don't need attention or handholding. They don't talk about themselves unless you ask. They don't tease or mock you; they don't mention the last impressive thing they've done or the most important person they know. They offer praise but don't appraise you. Whatever you have, you can keep; they're not vying for it. They never have to be the centers of attention. Wherever they keep their egos is their secret.
At their cores is sweetness itself.
Amy used to teach Spanish at a local public high school and she likes to cook. She retired to go to the theater with her friends and tutor kids after school. She'd come over late in the afternoons, and I always seemed to be making dinner while she was here. We've never even hugged but she had such a wonderful way with my younger son that I just wanted to kiss her. My son loved her. She may have even loved him. Every Hanukkah, she gave him a gift. One year, she even gave me a gift: Her recipe for sweet potato casserole. It was a little more challenging than my mother-in-law's in that it required buying the potatoes, boiling them and then peeling them but other than that prep, Amy's recipe was easy to make and really yummy. And her recipe steps it up a bit by calling for a bottle of apricot brandy and a jar of marmalade. My mother-in-law's recipe is more old-fashioned, relying on canned sweet potatoes, lots of melted butter, brown and white sugar and graham cracker crumbs.
Needless to say, you won't lose weight eating either casserole, but they will afford you the deep and ancient pleasure of preparing warm, soft food. Greasing an old white Corning casserole dish, pouring in the sweet, chunky mixture, adding the topping, sticking it in the oven and knowing that every hot spoonful is going to be delicious is a wonderful way to spend one hour and anticipate the next.
The afternoon I set about cooking for the holidays, I realized belatedly that I had forgotten to buy sweet potatoes and I had no idea where the apricot brandy was. Did we have what we needed to make my mother-in-law's? I looked in the pantry: There were three old cans of sweet potatoes. One can was starting to rust but the expiration date said October 16. That was my brother's birthday! To borrow an old Yiddish expression, it was bashert (destiny). We also had a package of graham crackers. I wasn't sure how old it was, but it didn't matter. Once you mix graham cracker crumbs with the amount of butter and brown sugar my mother-in-law's recipe calls for, it doesn't matter if you're cooking with dust. The casserole was still splendid.
After I ran to the store to get marmalade and apricot brandy, I made Amy's casserole. And because I was on this newfangled diet that doesn't allow milk but does allow butter, I substituted the milk for almond milk. Was it possible it was better that way? Yes, it was.
I don't see Amy anymore and I wish I did. Fortunately my mother-in-law is often around. The thing about being in the presence of such sweetness is that not only does it comfort you, it actually makes you a little sweeter too. And we could all use that. Happy New Year.
Amy's Sweet Potato Casserole with Triple Sec
5 pounds sweet potatoes (about 6)
5 teaspoons melted butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk (I substituted almond milk)
1 cup Triple Sec or Apricot Brandy
1 jar of orange marmalade
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Boil sweet potatoes until soft, about 15 minutes. Remove skins if you like. Mash sweet potatoes with milk until smooth. Add all the other ingredients, except cinnamon.
Put in a baking dish, spread marmalade over the top and sprinkle with cinnamon.
Bake for 30 minutes.
Dorothy's Sweet Potato Casserole with Graham Crackers
2 cups (one large can) of sweet potatoes
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup milk (I used skim)
¾ stick butter, melted
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 stick melted butter
3/4 cups mashed graham crackers
Preheat oven t0 400 degrees.
Mix together sweet potatoes, butter, milk, and sugar, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Grease a casserole dish and pour in filling. Cook for 20 minutes.
While casserole is cooking, make the topping. (If you don't want to use graham crackers, just mix the brown sugar with the butter and pour it on top of the casserole.) Otherwise, mix the graham crackers with butter and brown sugar, spoon onto top of sweet potatoes and cook for 10 more minutes.