Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Food for the Soul

A West Point cook whips up a little sweet potato magic

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Call me a child of the russet potato. Growing up, I somehow missed out on its pointier, orange-ish cousin, the sweet potato — irrationally put off, I suppose, because it was, well, pointy and orange. It took a while to realize what I was missing in the bulbous vegetable Mississippi State’s Extension Service tells us impacts Mississippi’s economy to the tune of more than $130 million annually.

For any other late holdouts out there, may I suggest Claire Spradling’s sweet potato pie? One or two bites should do it. The West Point homemaker, writer and registered dietitian is well versed in the ways of this root from the morning glory family. It was a staple in her grandmother’s and mother’s kitchens. And three hungry older brothers growing up on the Lee County dairy farm with Spradling were willing testers for little sister’s burgeoning cooking skills.

A stop at Claire and Stanley Spradling’s shaded hilltop home in Clay County on sweet potato baking day is a high-five for the sweet tooth. On a recent visit, aromas of cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla hovered in the air, luring grandsons Abel, 5, and Shepherd, 3, from the den TV to the kitchen to ask their CeCe for mini sweet tater muffins crowned with cream cheese frosting.

The granite kitchen counter was covered with not one, but three types of sweet potato pies, as well as plump, moist muffins. Spradling’s experience showed as she talked about boiling vs. baking.

“Boiling the potatoes gives your pie a lighter, fuller flavor,” said the home economics major who has counseled at hospitals and nursing homes on diet and nutrition. “If you use canned or baked potatoes, you’re going to have a heavier, deeper flavor.”

Whatever variety of potato used, Spradling recommends beating your sweet potato mixture in a heavy-duty mixing bowl for several minutes. The beaters collect coarse, stringy fibers, so they can be removed. The result is a creamier pie.

And then, there’s the Spradling chili.

“Every pot of my chili has a sweet potato cut up in it, and you’d never know,” she said. “When it’s boiling, I’ll put the raw chunks in. They cook to mush and melt away, and it gives it such a wonderful, mellow flavor and richness.”

Spradling likes Vardaman sweet potatoes. She gets them in quantity from a grower friend in that self-proclaimed “Sweet Potato Capital of the World.” (Check out Vardaman’s Sweet Potato Festival on Nov. 1.)

There’s only one problem come early fall and harvest time.

“When we get these sweet potatoes in, it doesn’t matter what I’ve got going on, she’s gonna take up all the tables in the garage for them,” laughed Stanley. “They get special care. I can complain, but they take priority.” The golden-red bounty is spread out on tabletops, in the coolest, driest, darkest part of the garage. Stored properly, they will keep for months. Pies, muffins and casseroles can be made and put up in the freezer, ready for family dinners or as gifts to others.

The dietitian in Spradling likes that sweet potatoes are nutritional powerhouses, packed with vitamins, fiber, beta-carotene, calcium and more. Family and friends like that every sweet potato dish she makes is mouth-watering. Which sends Stanley to the garage to clear off some tables. It’s harvest time, you know.


TO BOIL SWEET POTATOES:  Cook peeled, cubed sweet potatoes in boiling salted water for about 30 minutes, or until fork-tender.

TO BAKE SWEET POTATOES:  Wash the outside of potatoes (may grease skin) and bake at 425 degrees for 45-60 minutes, until potatoes feel soft when squeezed.


Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

HEALTHY SWEET POTATO MUFFINS

Makes 12 regular muffins, or 30 mini muffins

1 cup cooked sweet potatoes
⅓ cup melted butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons milled flaxseed
2 tablespoons wheat germ
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 cup whole wheat flour
¾ cup buttermilk
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped pecans

• Beat sweet potatoes until smooth. (Discard fibrous strings.) Add butter, sugar, eggs, flax seed and wheat germ.
• Stir in vanilla, cinnamon, salt and baking soda. Blend in flour, buttermilk, raisins and pecans.
• Divide into regular muffin pans or mini-muffin tins; bake at 350 degrees in mini muffin pans for about 12 minutes, or for about 25 minutes for regular muffins, until done.


CLASSIC SWEET POTATO PIE

Makes 1 pie

2 cups cooked sweet potatoes
½ cup melted butter
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
3 large eggs
½ cup cream (or milk)
9-inch deep dish pie crust

• Beat sweet potatoes in mixing bowl until mashed and creamy. (Discard fibrous strings.)
• Add the listed pie filling ingredients and mix well. Pour into deep dish pie crust.
• Bake at 350 degrees for 45-55 minutes,  until puffed across top and lightly browned.


CARAMEL SWEET POTATO PIE

Makes 2 pies

2 cups cooked sweet potatoes
8-ounce package cream cheese, softened
14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
9 ounces Cool Whip, thawed
2 cups caramel sauce
1 cup chopped pecans
2 graham cracker crusts

• Beat sweet potatoes in mixing bowl to mash thoroughly. (Discard fibrous strings.)
• Add cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk and mix until creamy. Blend in the Cool Whip.
• Spread a layer of pie filling in bottom of both graham crusts. Drizzle on caramel sauce and sprinkle with pecans.
• Cover evenly with remaining pie filling and top with caramel sauce and pecans.
• Freeze. Set out a few minutes before serving.