HomeNovember 2020Harvest Celebrations

Harvest Celebrations

As I write this Thanksgiving story, Sukkot has passed, and I can’t help but compare the two harvest celebrations. When the Pilgrims sat down for that first Thanksgiving, could they have had Sukkot in mind? We’ll never really know, but no doubt those religious settlers were familiar with the ancient texts and commandments, and perhaps it is no coincidence that a joyful celebratory meal of thanks would take place at the time of the fall harvest.
    Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes, whether in a casserole or pie. By the first Thanksgiving, sweet potatoes had been growing in the New World for centuries. Archaeologists have even discovered a wild form in a Peruvian cave dating back to 8000 BCE. But there were no sweet potatoes on the first Thanksgiving table in 1621, because they don’t typically grow in Massachusetts, although Native Americans in the South did enjoy them.
   Holiday meals call for tradition, and the tradition in my family is every year I make new side dishes. Well, that was my tradition until about 15 years ago, when I was testing recipes for my cookbook, and I served my cousin Laura’s Yummy Yam Tart for Thanksgiving. I may make a new stuffing or vegetable dish every year, but heaven help me if I mess with Laura’s Yummy Yam Tart. I’d have a mutiny on my hands without it!
   So for this dish do you buy yams or sweet potatoes? Sweet potatoes are often mislabeled “yams” and come from a different plant species altogether. The true yam is more like the potato and not nearly as sweet as the sweet potato.  
   Roy Finamore in “One Potato, Two Potato” credits vegetable authority Elizabeth Schneider for tracing the mix-up to African slaves, who may have begun calling the American sweet potatoes “yams” because of their resemblance to the tubers they remembered back home.
   True yams are ordinarily used in savory dishes. If it’s sweet you’re going for, even if the sign in the market—or the ingredient list in your recipe—says “yams,” what you want is that dark-skinned, orange-flesh beauty you look for every Thanksgiving: a sweet potato. Just don’t believe everything you read in the market.
    So why do we call this family recipe Yummy Yam Tart? Okay, I lied. Yes, you’ll be using sweet potatoes for this dish, but I just had to retain cousin Laura’s recipe title, because Yummy Sweet Potato Tart wouldn’t be quite as alliterative. (Strictly speaking it’s not really a tart either, but, trust me, it’s yummy!) You’ll wow your guests with this one– overlapping slices of sweet potatoes roasted in a heavenly, honey-thick citrus-ginger sauce until brown and crisp on the outside and meltingly soft and custardy within.
  The sweet potato is a vine root related to the morning glory and contains tryptophan, so don’t blame your post-Thanksgiving dinner snooze on the turkey alone. And sweet potatoes pack a healthy punch. According to the Sweet Potato Council of California, they have twice the daily recommended allowance of Vitamin A, one-third of our daily requirement of Vitamin C, are high in Vitamin B6, iron, potassium and fiber, high in complex carbohydrates and low in calories…well, without all the stuff you pile on it, I guess, but where’s the fun in that? It’s Thanksgiving! Enjoy! 
    Now, instead of sweet potato pie this year, how about a sweet potato cake? The Chocolate Sweet Potato Pound Cake from “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked—and Fried, Too” (Workman, $16.95), by chef, master teacher and Emmy award-winning cookbook author Raghavan Iyer, is lovely, moist, and chocolaty. The sweet potato and spices hint of fall and make this a sure crowd-pleaser that’s perfect for Thanksgiving.
   “I usually like to serve a slice of this topped with seasonal fruit,” he writes. “For an even more adult offering, place the cake on a rimmed plate and poke multiple holes in the top with a skewer (don’t poke all the way through the bottom of the cake). Pour some Cointreau or Kahlúa into the holes, cover with plastic wrap, and allow the cake to absorb the liqueur overnight.”
   Iyer does make the following caveat: “Make sure you use baking spray, not vegetable cooking spray, to grease the pan. Baking spray has flour attached and you need that to ensure your cake will release easily from the pan. And make sure your Bundt pan is well coated with spray—especially the center tube—before you add the batter. You definitely want your cake to release in one lovely piece. Once when I missed greasing parts of the flute, I had a gaping tear, and yes, a handful of berries filled that gap really well, serving a double purpose.”
   “Smashed” is the first truly international cookbook for Iyer, whose previous books explored the flavors and diverse cuisine of his Indian homeland. Here he tackles the trusty tuber—and sweet potato too— with 75 tempting, easy-to-follow recipes running the gamut from finger foods to soups and salads, entrees, side dishes and even desserts.
   “Why the potato?” he was asked at a demonstration and book signing I attended held at Melissa’s Produce headquarters in Vernon. 
   “Why not?” he responded. “I noticed that the first recipes I ended up creating for all my cookbooks were recipes with potatoes in them. I still eat potatoes once or twice a day. If I could eat them three times a day I’d be very happy.”
   What is it about potatoes, that culinary chameleon, whether served plain and homey or fussy and elegant, that never grows tiresome?
   “There are over 5000 varietals of potatoes,” Iyer noted. “They’re versatile, accessible and affordable. There’s a reason why they’re the fourth largest crop in the world.”    

Yummy Yam Tart

For Laura’s lovely presentation, look for slender sweet potatoes of approximately the same diameter.

Yield: 10-12 servings

Butter, for greasing baking dish

4 pounds sweet potatoes, pared and cut into 3/8-inch-thick slices

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup orange juice

8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter

3/4 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

1/4 cup honey

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger

Grated zest of 1 orange

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped candied ginger (optional)

2 teaspoons kosher (coarse) salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon


  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease a 13 x 9-inch nonreactive baking dish.
  2. Toss potato slices with flour in very large bowl. Set aside.
  3. Combine remaining ingredients in small saucepan over medium heat. Heat, stirring constantly, until butter melts and sugar dissolves.
  4. Arrange sweet potato slices in rows in prepared baking dish, overlapping slices. Pour sauce evenly over potatoes. Cover, and bake for 45 minutes.
  5. Press potatoes into sauce with back of a spatula. Continue baking, uncovered, until potatoes are tender and browned, about 45 minutes. Allow sizzling to stop and serve with slotted spoon.

Source: “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) by Judy Bart Kancigor


Chocolate Sweet Potato Pound Cake

8 ounces deep orange sweet potatoes (such as Jewel)

Baking spray, for greasing pan (not vegetable cooking spray. See caveat above)

2 1/3 cups unbleached all purpose flour

2/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon coarsely cracked black peppercorns

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon coarse sea or kosher salt

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter or dairy-free margarine at room temperature

1 3/4 cups white granulated sugar

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

4 large eggs, at room temperature


  1. Peel sweet potatoes and rinse well under cold running water. Cut into small chunks. Place in small saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Partially cover pan, lower heat to medium-low, and gently boil potatoes until the pieces fall apart easily when pierced with a fork, 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. As potatoes cook, position a rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 325°F. Spray inside of a 12-cup Bundt pan or tube pan with baking spray.
  3. Sift together flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, nutmeg, peppercorns, cinnamon, cloves, and salt into a medium-size bowl. Stir with a whisk to blend thoroughly, about 30 seconds.
  4. Once sweet potatoes have finished cooking, drain in a colander. Give colander a good shake or two to get rid of excess water. Return potatoes to pan and mash with potato masher until smooth.
  5. Place butter in a bowl of stand mixer and attach whisk. On medium speed, beat butter until very creamy, about 3 minutes. (If you don’t have a stand mixer, a handheld mixer will do the trick as well.) Sprinkle in sugar, and continue to beat on medium speed until very fluffy and pale, about 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla until just blended. Add 1 egg and beat on low speed, just until combined, about 15 seconds. Add remaining eggs, one at a time, beating on low speed just until combined, about 15 seconds per egg, scraping down bowl after each addition. Still on low speed, add half the flour mixture; but only until just blended, 30 to 45 seconds, scraping bowl halfway through.
  6. Add sweet potatoes to batter and beat again on low speed until just combined, about 15 seconds. Scrape bottom and sides of bowl. Add remaining flour mixture and beat on low speed until just combined and smooth, scraping bowl halfway through, 30 to 45 seconds.
  7. Spoon and scrape batter into prepared pan; smooth top with a spatula and tap pan on counter to settle batter.
  8. Bake until top is firm to the touch and a skewer or knife inserted in the center comes out clean, 55 to 65 minutes. Top of the cake will be rounded and cracked in the center, but that’s okay.
  9. Transfer pan to a wire rack and let cake cool in pan for about 10 minutes. Invert pan and turn out cake onto rack to cool completely, 2 to 3 hours.
  10. Wrap cake tightly in plastic wrap until ready to serve.

Source: “Smashed, Mashed, Boiled and Baked – and Fried, Too” by Raghavan Iyer

Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.



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