The sweet potato divides opinion, but food writer Nicola Miller loves it and shares a scrumptious breakfast recipe
Sweet potatoes seem to arouse strong feelings in people. I adore them but they have been described on Twitter as ‘the bastard lovechild of a Maris Piper and a can of Tizer’ by Kate Hawkings, author of Aperitif whose lapse of taste in tubers I am prepared to overlook, on account of the fact that she writes excellent books.
It’s not just the flavour of sweet potatoes that I love but their colour, too, which seems to reflect their travels and cultivation around the globe. The flesh reminds me of the red-orange soil of Uganda, a country which is now the leading producer of sweet potatoes in Africa, and – if I am being particularly fanciful – a Polynesian sunset which is a place where the sweet potato mysteriously ended up, far from its purported origins in Central and South America. Indeed, archaeologists have excavated prehistoric remnants of sweet potato in Polynesia carbon-dated from about AD 1000 to AD 1100. It’s compelling evidence that there may have been contact between the people of the South Pacific and South America hundreds of years before Columbus landed in the New World. Then there’s research which suggests the sweet potato may have originated in Asia by scientists in India and the USA who identified 57-million-year-old leaf fossils from eastern India as being from the morning glory family (which includes sweet potatoes). The research suggests this family originated in the East Gondwana landmass that went on to become part of Asia.
The Spanish brought the sweet potato back to Europe and spread it to China, Japan and Malaysia although Europeans didn’t call it a sweet potato at first. It wasn’t until after the 1740s that ‘sweet potato’ was used by English colonists in North America to differentiate it from the Irish white potato. It is possible that this change of name began as an oral convention, so it seems reasonable to assume that by the time the term ‘sweet potato’ appeared in texts, the name was well established. The diary entries of George Washington from 1788 refer to “that the Muddy hole hands this day had wed the Pumpkins & Sweet Potatoes”. There are 16th century European recipes for sweet potatoes where its flesh was sweetened with nutmeg, dates, cinnamon, prunes, quince and wine so it seems the American tradition for sweet potato pie has its precedent here. I find this amusing considering so many British people recoil in horror at the very idea of this pie, and at candied sweet potatoes, too.
The Portuguese introduced the tuber to Indonesia and the continent of Africa and over time the sweet potato became a staple food of enslaved African Americans and their descendants. As scholar and food writer Jessica B Harris says: “One of the things that we don’t really think about is that kind of forced movement of masses and masses and masses, virtually unthinkable numbers of people, also necessitated feeding them, and so provisioning the slave trips was a big deal. They left with certain kinds of provisions from Europe, but they also provisioned themselves on the African coasts, and one of the things they were provisioned with were yams.” On their arrival in the USA, enslaved people found tthe African yam was not available to them and its substitution with the sweet potato may have led to the resulting culinary confusion, though both kinds of vegetable are now available in the States. (In Louisiana, I still saw sweet potatoes labelled as yams.) It is important to know that whilst ‘yam’ and ‘sweet potato’ have been used interchangeably, they do not originate from the same plant at all.
The sweet potato has such a filmic history; filled with adventure and tragedy and the resilience and resourcefulness of humans. If they could talk, many other ingredients would tell a similar tale, but I find this one particularly arresting. If you want to know more, there exists many good books about African American food: Adrian Miller’s Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time is one such book as is Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene.
Twitty believed the sweet potato to be ‘second in importance to corn as a starch’ for enslaved African Americans and they are a pretty important starch in my household, too. Roasting or frying intensifies their flavour and I will brook no criticism of sweet potato fries (and neither it seems will the Koreans who have created a spiralised, deep-fried street food version served on a stick and covered with all manner of delicious toppings). Familiarity should not breed contempt nor custom stale the infinite variety of the sweet potato fry and if you want to try some of the best, go to No4 Abbeygate, the café attached to the eponymous cinema in Hatter Street. You will be served a little pot of salty-sweet, twisty and crunchy, tender-in-the-middle fries which are never over or under-cooked.
The idea for these sweet potato hotcakes came from a meal I ate at Cambridge’s Old Bicycle Shop, but I wanted something with a little more oomph. So, I have browned the butter until it is as bronzed as a penny and roasted the sweet potatoes in their skins before mashing their flesh into a glorious purée the colour of the burnt orange dirt of Georgia in the Deep South. Served with tea-swollen dried apricots, a dollop of coconut yoghurt, a spoonful of ginger or maple syrup and a scattering of nutty granola they make a grand breakfast. I have eaten them with sorghum syrup, which sadly is hard to get outside of the American South (I lugged several jars back) but I think a spoonful of syrup from a jar of stem ginger preserved in the stuff works best. It’s a great store cupboard ingredient, keeps well and the stem ginger and its syrup is super-useful (and delicious) added to all manner of cakes, puddings, and biscuits or stirred into cream, yoghurt and even ice cream. The hotcakes reheat or freeze well (we were still eating them three days later) although I wouldn’t store unused batter for later. The beaten egg white that gives the pancake mixture its loft means it needs cooking straightaway lest it deflates over time. You’ll also need to soak the dried apricots in advance, or you can serve them as is if you can’t be faffed to do this.
BROWN BUTTER AND SPICED SWEET POTATO BREAKFAST HOTCAKES
For the apricots:
3-4 dried apricots per serving (reckon on about 220g of apricots for eight servings of x2 smaller hotcakes)
Place the apricots and tea bag in a non-metallic bowl and pour in enough cold water to come about 2cm above the level of the fruit. Cover and set aside overnight to soak. Drain when ready to use.
For the hotcakes:
300g plain flour
2 tbsp soft dark sugar
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp orange zest
½ tsp salt
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
75g unsalted butter, browned
300ml full-fat milk
1 tbsp orange juice
250g sweet potato, puréed from roasted sweet potatoes (I found two medium sweet potatoes gave me the right amount of flesh)
5 egg whites and one egg yolk
Oil for cooking
Heat oven to 200C fan 180C or gas 6. Make a slit in the sweet potatoes and bake in their jackets until soft, which will take around 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before scraping the flesh from the skin into a medium bowl and mashing until puréed. To save on fuel costs, you can bake the potatoes in advance when you have the oven on for something else and keep them loosely wrapped in foil in the fridge.
Whilst the sweet potatoes are baking, put the butter into a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over low heat. Melt the butter then cook, stirring often, until it turns a rich brown and smells nutty. Be careful not to let it burn; now is not the time to check your social media or go to the loo. It should take around six minutes. What you are doing is driving off the water content, leaving the milk solids behind to brown. When this is done, swiftly remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool but don’t let the melted butter solidify.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and bicarb, the sugar, salt and spices. In a large bowl combine the melted brown butter, orange juice, milk, sweet potato and egg yolk, then gradually add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir them both together until smooth.
Beat the egg whites until stiff, then gently fold them into the batter until just combined. You’ll end up with a thickish batter. Place a lightly greased flat-bottomed skillet or griddle pan over a medium heat. When the griddle/pan is hot use a ladle to dollop the batter onto its surface, flipping the hotcake over when bubbles start to form on its upper side. Fry until each pancake is lightly risen and golden brown, then keep warm in a low oven until the rest are done. I got about 16 hotcakes the size of Scotch pancakes out of one bowl of batter, but you may want to make them larger.
To assemble the dish, add the following to the plated-up hotcakes:
A dollop of coconut yoghurt (I use Rachel’s organic Greek-style yoghurt and I buy the larger 450g pot)
As many apricots as you wish
One teaspoon of ginger syrup from a jar of stem ginger in syrup or one teaspoon of maple syrup
A handful of the granola brand of your choice per serving of hotcakes.
The Old Bicycle Shop served their hotcakes sprinkled with banana powder, which was lovely, but I accept that might be a bit too Willy Wonka for most of you. If you want to try this, I bought some online from Sussex Wholefoods. You’ll only need a light dusting.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale