The holidays are a time for friends, family, and of course festive food. Here previous scholar Randalle Hughes details one of her seasonal recipes.
First, an update: After studying English at Cambridge, I moved to New Jersey for the English Ph.D. program at Rutgers. I ended up deciding that I didn’t want to be an academic after all, and am now working at a tech company. I’m enjoying learning about start-ups and the NYC tech scene, dabbling in teaching myself to code here and there, and generally trying to do as much of the amazing stuff available in New York as I can.
And now for the recipe…
One of the first differences you notice when traveling to a new country is the food. Even a country like England, which is similar in so many ways to the U.S., has plenty of culinary novelties for a traveler from the States: Jaffa cakes, beans on toast, toad-in-the-hole, Marmite, prawn cocktail flavored “crisps”. One of my favourite parts of backpacking around Europe was checking out the local grocery stores to see what kind of unusual-to-me items were everyday staples for people living in other countries.
During the holidays, though, one wants the taste of home. For my first Thanksgiving in Cambridge, I teamed up with some housemates and friends to cook a full Thanksgiving dinner, turkey and all.
Sourcing the ingredients for this feast was quite the adventure – an adventure that resulted at one point in my housemate Emma and I huddled in 20-degree weather outside Tesco waiting for the bus back into town while lugging a 20 lb. turkey in a hiking backpack.
No one involved had ever cooked a turkey before. We learned the night before Thanksgiving that we should have begun thawing our turkey 4 days earlier. After panicking, we decided to let our turkey hang out in the bathtub overnight while Emma got up every half hour to change out the water (a totally hygienic makeshift thawing solution that our bedder really loved). We were equal parts surprised and relieved when the turkey roasted beautifully and none of our dinner guests suffered from food poisoning.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to end this with a recipe for turkey, which I am clearly not qualified to give to anyone. My big contribution to our dinner was the sweet potato casserole I grew up eating every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Canned sweet potato puree, along with canned pumpkin puree, is a U.S. holiday staple that wasn’t available in English grocery stores, so I learned to roast whole sweet potatoes to get the puree for the casserole. It’s infinitely better this way, and this is how I’ve made it ever since that time in Cambridge.
Now that I’m back in the U.S., I find myself craving holiday smells and tastes from England every year – mince pies, mulled wines, even those dense, brick-like plum puddings. Lucky for me, I just discovered a little British shop in New York that sells fresh mince pies in December. This year, I will enjoy the holiday traditions from all of my homes.
Sweet Potato Casserole
For the sweet potato filling:
5-6 lbs. small/medium sweet potatoes
5 tablespoons butter, melted
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 teaspoons lemon juice (from 1 lemon)
4 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups half and half
For the topping:
1 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)
1 cup pecans, chopped roughly
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
5 tablespoons butter, melted
Preheat the oven to 400F/205C. Place an oven rack in lower-middle position. Poke each sweet potato several times with a knife, and place on a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Bake potatoes, turning them once, until they are soft all the way through. This can take anywhere from 1-2 hours (or longer if you’ve bought large sweet potatoes). When potatoes are done, remove from oven and cut in half lengthwise to release steam. Allow the potatoes to cool for at least 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375F/190C. Butter a 9 x 13 baking pan.
When potatoes are cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh into a large bowl, or the bowl of a stand mixer if you have one. (At this point, if you are roasting the potatoes ahead of time, store potatoes in the refrigerator until you use them; you can store them up to two days.) Add the 5 tablespoons melted butter, salt, nutmeg, pepper, vanilla, and lemon juice to potatoes. Mix until potatoes are mashed and spices are blended in. Add the egg yolks. With the mixer running on low, slowly pour in the half and half – it may splatter a bit, which is why you want to do this slowly. Continue mixing until potatoes are smooth and the mixture is evenly blended.
Spoon potato mixture into the prepared baking dish and spread evenly. In a small bowl, put the brown sugar, pecans, flour, and the 5 tablespoons of melted butter. Stir with a spoon until thoroughly combined. Sprinkle evenly over the sweet potatoes. Bake on middle rack for 40-45 minutes, until topping is browned and sweet potato filling is slightly puffy around the edges. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then serve.
When roasting the potatoes, if you’re not sure a potato is done, cut it in half lengthwise. If you can see whitish threads that still feel firm, the potato is not done yet – this is starch that hasn’t been fully cooked. Press the potato halves back together, wrap them with aluminum foil, and return potato to oven.
Adapted from Cooks’ Illustrated