My favorite email of the holiday season arrived last week: my aunt Joannie asking what we’re making for Thanksgiving. Over the past couple of years, Mom, Joannie, and I have assembled Thanksgiving dinner as a team and it’s become a delicious, extravagant tradition. Mom handles the heavies: turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. Joannie and I fly in with the fun stuff: sides, desserts, apps, and usually a thematic cocktail. While everyone demands that Mom keep her anchors more or less the same, the supporting cast changes every year. There’s a rotating list of old favorites that make reappearances and there are always new dishes vying for attention. This year my chief contribution will be a sweet potato casserole so southern it practically drawls.
I was surfing through Garden & Gun‘s website when a photo of this recipe stopped my mouse in its tracks: nubby peanut streusel mounded on a king’s layer of brilliant mashed sweets. My heart beats fast for sweet potatoes topped with crumbly goodness, so based on sight alone, I elevated this to the top of my Thanksgiving must-make list. As I read through the ingredient list, my excitement twisted towards annoyance. The recipe called for something called sorghum syrup, which I’d never heard of. It certainly didn’t sound like something that my leanly stocked urban grocery stores would carry. If there’s one thing that can dull the flush of my Thanksgiving enthusiasm, it’s a futile search for a weird ingredient. I clicked away from the page.
A few days later, I noticed a green bean recipe in the November Bon Appétit that called for sorghum syrup. I rolled my eyes and decided sorghum must be this year’s It ingredient. After staring at the recipe (which sounded delightful) and thinking about how promising those Garden & Gun sweet potatoes looked, I found myself kind of wanting to try this It ingredient. Later the same week, any remaining resistance I felt to sorghum vanished when I happened upon a rave review of those Bon Appétit green beans. Sorghum syrup sounded like the very best thing on earth. I was beginning to wonder how I’d lived without it for so long. I had to have it.
I didn’t even bother frustrating myself with a Whole Foods to Stop-n-Shop scavenger hunt for the syrup—I went straight to Amazon Prime. My charming-ish, straight-from-the-Amish-Country plastic jar of sorghum syrup arrived a day before my weekly grocery run, so no time was lost. I couldn’t wait to try it. The taste is very pleasant and not too sweet, like a buttery, slightly fruity honey. The syrup looks like pale molasses, but the two sweeteners are unrelated. Molasses is a by-product of sugar production, whereas sorghum syrup is extracted from the sorghum plant, a kind of grass. Sorghum is grown in the South and seems to be a regional specialty. According to some, hot biscuits below the Mason-Dixon are not fully dressed without a dollop of sweet sorghum. Although sorghum might have risen to fame in the South, the plants are now grown in many parts of the country and the syrup is produced all over the U.S. (as shown by my Pennsylvanian jar).
I am happy to report that another key feature of sorghum is that it tastes great with sweet potatoes. The casserole that started me down this path to sorghum awakening is a decadent, flavorful showstopper. The sweet potatoes are roasted, skinned, and mashed before they are stirred with an alarming amount of butter (all of which is not necessary—more on that below), sorghum, and salt. The mash is topped with a heaven-sent crumble of butter, flour, sugar, salt, and roasted peanuts (for a little more southern charm). After the casserole bakes for about 30 minutes, you drizzle it with more sorghum, which sinks through the layer of crumble to the potatoes and leaves an almost lacy coating of sweetness. There’s no question this recipe is sweet and rich, but the salt and peanuts work hard to keep it balanced. On a day when there is only room for a bite or two of every dish, each of those bites has to be worth it. These sweet potatoes are not only worth their spot on the plate, they’re worth seconds…maybe thirds.
A couple of practical final thoughts: first, I haven’t tested it, but I think you can swap in a dark honey for the sorghum if you’re not keen on buying an unusual ingredient. Although I haven’t tried them side to side in this recipe, I taste-tested the sorghum raw against the Safeway brand organic honey and they are very similar. Honey is sweeter than sorghum, though, so use a bit less if you substitute. My opinion is that lighter honeys (e.g., Acacia) and raw honey are not similar enough to sorghum to be used as substitutes. Second, this dish can be made ahead. You could either assemble it completely the day before and chill it unbaked or bake it the day ahead, chill it, and reheat on Turkey Day.
sweet potato casserole with sorghum syrup and peanuts
adapted from garden & gun
This will fill an 9″ x 13″ x 2″ pan and serve at least 10 (a little goes a long way). The main change I’ve made to this recipe is to cut some of the butter, but there’s still plenty in there.
sweet potato base
7 lbs. sweet potatoes
scant ¼ cup sorghum syrup [slightly less if using dark honey]
1 stick unsalted butter, cut into small pieces while cold and slightly softened at room temperature
1½ tbsp. coarse salt
peanut crumble topping
½ cup sugar
¾ cup all-purpose flour
¼ lb. unsalted butter (1 stick), diced and used while still cold
2 cups roasted, unsalted peanuts, coarsely chopped
1 tbsp. coarse salt
2/3 cup sorghum syrup
Roast potatoes in a 375° F oven until tender throughout, which can take as long as 1½ to 2 hours for so many potatoes. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel the skin and either put the potatoes through a ricer or place the peeled potatoes in a large mixing bowl for mashing. If not using a ricer, use a potato masher to smash together the butter, salt, sorghum, and sweet potatoes until smooth. Stir to make sure ingredients are fully combined. If you riced the potatoes, simply stir the other ingredients into the potatoes until smooth.
Lightly butter a 9 x 13 x 2-inch ovenproof casserole. Spoon the sweet potato mixture into the pan and spread evenly.
Preheat oven to 350º F.
In a medium mixing bowl, add all topping ingredients except sorghum. Using a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingers, mix the ingredients together until the butter chunks are pea sized — it should look like streusel topping.
[You can stop here and chill, in separate wrapped containers, the streusel and sweet potatoes for at least 1 day.]
Sprinkle the topping over the sweet potato mixture and bake in 350˚F oven until the topping is crisp and golden brown, about 30 minutes.
[You can stop here and allow to cool, then refrigerate for up to 1 day. On the day you want to bake, pull the casserole from the fridge no more than about an hour before you want to start reheating it to allow it to come to room temperature, then reheat it until warmed through.]
Transfer baking dish to cooling rack and drizzle casserole with sorghum.
Let sorghum sink into topping for a few minutes before serving.