Sweeten Thanksgiving with this traditional dish
I know this recipe by heart because many times I helped my mother make marshmallow sweet potatoes on the night before Thanksgiving. Such chores were a bargain I’d struck as the oldest of four children, the deal being that if I helped my mother with extra chores, I’d be able to stay up late on Thursday nights to watch The Untouchables.
If you know anything at all about the controversies surrounding that violent television series—Frank Sinatra even complained about its depiction of Italian Americans—you’ll understand that I had driven a grand bargain. While my younger siblings were asleep in bed, I was watching Eliot Ness mow down a bunch of bootleggers with his Thompson submachine gun.
Anyway, for the recipe, start with however many sweet potatoes (or yams, after all these years I still don’t know the difference) that you think you’ll need for your family and guests. Peel them well, removing any “eyes,” then cut them into smaller pieces and boil or steam till soft. If it’s cold outside, prepare to have your kitchen windows fogged up.
Next, drain the mixed sweet potatoes thoroughly, add a quarter to a half-cube of butter and a splash of milk, then go to town with your electric mixer. You want a consistency very much like the smoothest of mashed potatoes. The next step is to gently spoon in some brown sugar to taste—whose taste is your call—and some raisins. My mother always bought golden raisins for this recipe; when I asked her why not regular dark raisins, she told me that the golden ones just matched better with the sweet potatoes.
You now have your “filling” although this is a pan dish, not a pie. The next step is to carefully spoon the filling into an appropriate pan. Mom was always very careful with this step, careful not to smudge filling up on the side of the pan. If I made a mistake and did this, I would have to wipe it off with a paper towel. The goal was to have only the white marshmallows showing at the top of the pan when everything was put together. Note: unless you’ve got time on your hands, do not attempt this recipe with miniature marshmallows.
The next to last step was the placement of the marshmallows. This was not easy because my mother insisted that the marshmallows must be aligned in perfect rows, with no filling showing, from one end of the pan to the other. If you got filling on a marshmallow in such a way that the filling showed after being placed, that marshmallow would have to be discarded, or eaten on the spot.
Adding to the tension is the possibility that not enough marshmallows have been purchased to completely and uniformly cover the top of the pan. If you run short of full coverage in this day and age, somebody simply runs to the store to get another bag of marshmallows. If you’re making this dish last minute on Thanksgiving Day in 1963, when there were no 24-hour grocery stores, running short would be a disaster that would ruin the aesthetics of the dish. That’s why Mom always had all the ingredients for the holiday dinner good-to-go on Wednesday.
When all the marshmallows are placed, the final step is a judicious sprinkling of ground cinnamon. Once that is complete the pan should be covered with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and refrigerated.
On Thanksgiving Day, after all the other dishes have been cooked and are ready to serve, your marshmallow sweet potatoes need only to be heated at 300 for 15 minutes or so to be ready for the table. Careful: as any camper knows, marshmallows burn quickly when exposed to heat. It is a major disappointment when you realize you’ve waited too long and your pristine cinnamon-sprinkled marshmallows are burnt to a crisp.
The marshmallows should instead be lightly toasted and golden brown. Once on the table, serving spoon-sized portions can be enjoyed by all.
The only complaints I’ve ever heard about Mom’s, and now my, marshmallow sweet potatoes are (1) there’s not enough, or (2) it’s too sweet to serve as a side dish with dinner, and that it really should be a dessert.
Those decisions shall be left entirely up to the chef.
In summation: roast or bake a good turkey or ham. Bring out the electric mixer again for mashed potatoes and gravy. Choose a great vegetable side like green beans with almonds, and have both fresh cranberry sauce and, for old-school purists, that godawful kind that comes in a can.
Complete your Thanksgiving Dinner with some marshmallow sweet potatoes and watch the smiles.
Final note, as my mother always says: avoid serious topics of discussion, like politics, religion, the academic achievements of your children or grandchildren, or pretty much anything else.