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Dallas Black food historian shares her family recipe for candied bourbon sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes are an important connection to the past on the holiday table of Black American families, says Deah Berry Mitchell.

There’s one non-negotiable ingredient on Deah Berry Mitchell’s holiday table every year — sweet potatoes.

“In Black households, for the most part, we are all very die-hard sweet potato fans,” Mitchell says. “It’s not uncommon to have a sweet potato casserole, a mashed sweet potato, and a sweet potato pie. I think the more sweet potatoes you can ingest into your system around the holidays, the better.”

The cookbook author and director of marketing for the Dallas Historical Society says sweet potatoes are more than a favorite starchy side dish or dessert. They’re an important connection to the past.

Mitchell is passionate about educating people on the impact Black culture has on America’s culinary framework, and she does so through the food and history tour she co-founded called Soul of Dallas as well as her 2019 cookbook, Cornbread and Collard Greens, which dissects the food traditions of the African-American diaspora in the South. She also co-founded the nonprofit Potluck Protest, which organizes events to “feed the social justice revolution.”

Deah Berry Mitchell is director of marketing for the Dallas Historical Society and author of Cornbread and Collard Greens.
Deah Berry Mitchell is director of marketing for the Dallas Historical Society and author of Cornbread and Collard Greens.(Dalila Brent)

The prominence of sweet potatoes in the kitchens of Black Americans can be linked to their abundance in the South, where enslaved people would use them to replicate the pumpkin pies made in the northern states around the holidays, Mitchell says.

They made these pies for their enslavers, typically around Thanksgiving, and then replicated the dessert in their own kitchens with the hard-to-come-by flour and sugar they tucked away for special occasions. Sweet potatoes became a holiday tradition of sorts that endures today thanks to recipes passed down from generation to generation. Decades of families gathered around sweet potatoes in all forms — mashed, roasted, whipped and fried.

One of Mitchell’s favorite ways to serve them is a candied bourbon sweet potato recipe from her cookbook. The potatoes are first mashed and whipped into oblivion to produce an ethereally creamy consistency. She then mixes them with a sauce made of butter, cream, sugar, orange juice and, of course, bourbon.

It’s a decadent, rich side dish reminiscent of her childhood in Sherman, Texas, and gathering with extended family around fold-up tables covered with homemade dishes. Thanksgiving will look different this year as she won’t be gathering with family, but she will have sweet potatoes, and that’s enough to make it feel like a holiday.

Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie from Deah Berry Mitchell, author of Cornbread and Collard Greens cookbook
Bourbon Sweet Potato Pie from Deah Berry Mitchell, author of Cornbread and Collard Greens cookbook(Thaddeus “Sonny” Jefferson)

Candied Bourbon Sweet Potatoes

6 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into medium-sized chunks

1/3 cup unsalted butter

1/2 cup half and half, milk or heavy cream

2 cups brown sugar

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 tablespoon orange zest

2 tablespoons bourbon (use vanilla extract or other flavoring if you prefer no alcohol)

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

Optional toppings: Thick-cut bacon cooked and chopped, cooked sage leaves, brown butter, prosciutto cooked and chopped

Add the potato chunks to a large pot and cover with cold water. Bring the potatoes to a boil and cook for about 30 minutes until they are fork tender.

While potatoes are cooking, begin candied bourbon “sauce.” In a separate pot over medium-low heat, add the following: butter, cream, sugar, orange juice, and zest. Heat until mixture is thoroughly combined. It should be bubbly and have a velvety smooth texture similar to caramel. Add bourbon (or vanilla) to finish and remove from heat.

When the potatoes are finished cooking, drain them and add them back to the pot. Mash them with a fork or potato masher. (If you have a potato ricer, I’d highly recommend using it to give potatoes a light and creamy texture.)

After the potatoes are mashed, use a whisk or electric hand mixer to whip them. I use a high-powered blender for a creamy whipped texture.

Once whipped, add in 1/3 cup of the reserved candied-bourbon sauce. Whip the potatoes again until everything is combined. Taste the potatoes and add the salt if you like.

Serve whipped potatoes immediately with remaining sauce on side. Add optional suggested toppings right before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

SOURCE: Cornbread and Collard Greens, by Deah Berry Mitchell

Claire Ballor . Claire Ballor is a Dallas freelance writer.

claire.ballor@gmail.com
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