The sweet potato has been good to me, unlike her temperamental cousin, Mr. Russet, whose popularity has totally gone to his head¬. Whenever I cast him in a feature role, like potato salad or mashed potatoes, he gets all complicated and moody. He’s too firm for the salad, too lumpy for the mash. I’m over him.
Meanwhile, sweet potatoes live a modest existence, making obligatory appearances at Thanksgiving and Christmas when we suffocate them with mini marshmallows (an offense to any food) or puree them into pie filling only to unfavorably compare them to pumpkin. In the off-season, they slip from our memory like a New Year’s resolution.
Up until ten years ago, I never had a sweet potato. They didn’t even play a part in the holidays of my youth. My mom thought sliced rutabagas covered in brown sugary syrup were a less cliche and more dignified choice. Swallowing their bitter woodiness was like eating unlit cigarettes, or so I imagined.
If Mom preferred rutabagas, then dear God, what must sweet potatoes be like?
My virgin sweet potato experience came shortly after moving to the South. The steaming potato had been baked and lightly dusted with cinnamon and sugar. The insides cupped a golden pool of melted butter, opening my eyes to a whole new world of potato.
After enjoying every variation on the theme–sweet potato pie, fries, soup, chips, mash, casserole, and even burrito–I welcomed Paula’s Sweet Potato Bake with open oven mitts. No frying, sauteing, dicing or coring in this “easy” recipe. This would be like how my husband does laundry–just mix it all together.
But I quickly discover that the Sweet Potato Bake involves math, increasing the difficulty exponentially. Even worse than calculus, it’s the most daunting form of math: cooking math. A labyrinth of weights, measurements and conversions that would befuddle Stephen Hawking.
It begins with the potatoes. The recipe calls for 3-cups. I hope to buy them pre-mashed to avoid the issue of measuring. The grocery sells pre-sliced apples with the unnatural ability to resist browning for a month, but I can’t get pre-mashed sweet potatoes?
I reluctantly select three whole potatoes under the assumption that 3 sweet potatoes about equals 3 cups.
The recipe also calls for a 1-½ quart dish but I’ve always been a little spatially challenged (I was the kid gnawing on the edges of the square peg so it would fit in the round hole). I do know that “quart” has something to do with the number four, like a quarter is one-fourth of a dollar and a quarterback is–well–my husband will enlighten me when he comes home. But a quart is one-fourth of what?
I pull out every dish, saucepan and skillet, examining the underneath of each piece to find a comparable measurement. The 9 by 13 dish I intended to use holds 4 quarts, so I grab a much smaller dish only to discover that its volume is given in liters, and while I can work the etymology of quart, the liter confounds me.
I opt for the small dish and hope for the best.
Surprisingly, things go well after surmounting the Math Olympiad challenge. The topping easily transforms into a gooey-sweet mega praline that I pick at while beating the potato mixture. I can’t get all of the lumps out, but I pick my battles.
I pour the mixture into the casserole dish. A perfect fit. Grabbing a permanent marker, I quickly scribble “1-1/2 quarts” on the side of the dish for future reference. I sprinkle the scant remains of praline on top and a take a moment to admire my work before putting it in the oven.
You must understand that for me “cooking” means using a fork to pierce the plastic cover of a frozen dinner. Otherwise I stick to two-piece meals, such as peanut butter and jelly, chips and salsa, and milk and cereal.
Therefore, baking without incident is remarkable. Having it taste good? Priceless.
I could credit myself for correctly intuiting the size of the casserole dish and the number of potatoes needed. I could even fool myself into thinking that perhaps I have a fraction of Little Susie Homemaker potential. But let’s give credit where credit is due: if happiness were a food, it would taste like a sweet potato.
Editor’s Note: Hopefully this will help if the marker ever washes off your baking dishes!
Just remember 4 cups = 1 quart
Baking dish sizes you may or may not have around the house:
11x7x1.5 Rectangle Dish=8cups=2quarts
13x9x2 Rectangle Dish=15cups=3.75quarts (use this for a 4 quart recipe)