I don’t think I ever went to a Southern church covered-dish supper in my life that somebody didn’t show up with a miniature-marshmallow-covered sweet potato casserole. It was sure to be a big hit, was very cost effective, and never failed to bring smiles to the faces of those who indulged in it. I know I ate my share during the years of my youth, and enjoyed every bit of it.
But times move on and tastes change – even in the South – and over the years that marshmallow topping seemed more and more like overkill when the tubers in question were so naturally sweet to begin with, so I decided one day in the distant past to substitute shredded coconut for the marshmallows. After all, the visual result is quite similar, the coconut adds a little sweetness, but not too much, and the chewy texture is a welcome addition to the dish. My experiment was such a complete success that I never went back.
Another adjustment to the usual recipe that I give credit to my friend Allen Geesey for suggesting when we were doing catering together in Birmingham in the early 70s, is the folding in of a generous amount of Mandarin orange sections. You won’t realize just what a good idea it is until you get a forkful with one of those orange slices in it. I could describe the sensation as being something akin to a fine chocolate truffle that melts away upon touching your tongue, but I don’t want to get too carried away.
Finally, there is one all-important trick to making this dish work, and that is to slice your sweet potatoes across the grain and extremely thinly. I do mine in about 1/8” thick rounds. It takes a good sharp chef’s knife and a little effort, but the result is the utter elimination of any stringiness in the finished product.
Now, I’m dedicating this dish to my dear, recently departed friend, Mary Hurt, a.k.a. Ruby Alabama (her professional billiards name), who loved this dish, and for whom it was my great privilege to prepare it from time to time that she might enjoy it in her waning years.
[Note that this recipe, as are all of these Fire Island selections, is for serving 10 people. For a more normal size, simply halve the ingredients (except the eggs; use three). I also am fond of throwing in any left-over egg yolks I might have lurking around to make an even richer mix.]
SWEET POTATO/MANDARIN ORANGE CASSEROLE for MARY HURT
6 large or 8 medium size sweet potatoes
¼ cup butter
½ cup dark brown sugar (or ¼ cup dark brown sugar and ¼ cup maple syrup)
½ cup cream
Whole nutmeg for grating
3 12-oz cans mandarin orange sections, drained
¼ – ½ cup grated coconut (packaged prepared “baking coconut” or freshly grated)
Place a large pot of salted water with a pat of butter on to boil while preparing potatoes. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel sweet potatoes and slice across the grain in very thin slices (approx 1/8 inch) to avoid stringy result. Place slices in boiling water until tender and easy to mash with a potato masher.
Drain and mash thoroughly in the pot you boiled them in. Add the butter in several pieces to facilitate melting. Add brown sugar/syrup. Add eggs to the cream in a separate dish and beat until well blended. Add to potato mixture and whisk thoroughly till relatively smooth. Add nutmeg (I usually micro-grate at least ½ of a whole nutmeg for this size dish), salt and pepper to taste. Whisk thoroughly once more. Gently fold in mandarin orange sections to keep whole. Place mixture in a buttered casserole dish. Cover top liberally with grated coconut.
Place dish in oven and bake for approximately 45 minutes. This is an extremely forgiving dish, and if you leave it for an hour it won’t make much difference (you can also cook at 325-375, if you need a different temp for something else in the oven). That said, beware of overbrowning the coconut. I usually cover with loose aluminum foil after the coconut browns to my satisfaction (about 15 minutes – till almost burned but not). Let cool approx. 10 minutes before serving. Enjoy!
NOTE: This recipe will serve 10-12 people, but works just as well for 5-6 if you halve the ingredients. Leftovers will keep well in the fridge for several days and heat up nicely in the microwave.