“I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.” – Popeye, circa 1933.

Popeye’s got it wrong here. If we are what we eat, then he can’t possibly be a yam. As a North American, particularly one living during the Depression when imported fruits and vegetables were largely unattainable, he’s much more likely to have eaten sweet potatoes with his spinach, not yams. “There is perennial confusion about the difference between sweet potatoes and yams … I suspect that many of us wouldn’t recognize a yam if one was placed in front of us,” writes cookbook author Deborah Madison in “Vegetable Literacy,” published 80 years after Popeye’s cartoon short hit the big screen.

Botanically, they are not even in the same family. Yams hail from the Dioscoreaceae family, while sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory clan, formally known as the Convolvulaceae. Yams are starchy, dry tubers with bark-like skin. Native to West Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, there are hundreds of yam varieties. They range in size, but none is exceptionally sweet.

Yam confusion crept into American cuisine, explains Madison, because two types of sweet potatoes are available on the market: firm, dry ones and soft, moist ones. These traits describe the texture of the cooked flesh. Dry sweet potatoes – like Yellow Jerseys, which are grown in the mid-Atlantic states and have orange skins and dry, sweet yellow flesh – were the first type to be grown in the United States. When the softer-fleshed varieties – like commonplace Jewel with its coppery skin and super-moist, bright orange flesh, and the Garnet with its deep purple skin and dark orange flesh – were introduced here in the 1920s, growers wrongly called them yams as a marketing tactic to distinguish them from their firm dry cousins. It’s a misnomer that stuck, says Madison, who adds that many Garnets and Jewels are still mislabeled in grocery stores as yams.

I’ve yet to see them mislabeled in any of the Maine farmers markets I’ve visited, though. While the USDA Economic Research Service doesn’t keep records on the number of sweet potatoes grown in Maine, anecdotal evidence indicates that more small-scale farmers here are cashing in on the vegetable’s growing popularity as nutritional workhorse, potential umami bomb and natural sweetener.

As I presented the sweet potato that I wanted to buy to the Six River Farms farmhand at the cash box at my local market last week, she held the curved tuber to her ear and said “We call these big ones ‘phone potatoes!’ ” Being of a certain age, I got the joke. I bought the certified organic garnet that weighed about four pounds and cost $12. Such bruisers, she explained, simply had more space to grow downward into the earth from the sweet potato vine that spreads horizontally across the field. The smaller ones are bagged up to sell 6 or 8 to a pound. Other local growers at the Brunswick weekly farmers markets charge between $2 and $2.50 per pound.

I baked the giant sweet spud – poked with a fork and lying naked on the rack in a 350 degree oven until it was squishy – intending to experiment with its natural sweetness and texture in a variety of baked goods that normally are sweetened with sugar. While the Internet goes wild on this point (think Filipino purple sweet potato ice cream!), I focused on two-ingredient sweet potato pancakes, sweet potato chocolate brownies and sweet potato cinnamon buns, because I was looking for a lower-sugar treat for my Valentine, and well, his frugal heart would appreciate that I was making the most of my singular, $12 sweet potato.

Sweet potatoes and eggs. That’s it for these sweet potato pancakes. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The other ingredient in the pancakes was two eggs, and I needed my blender to emulsify those with the 8 ounces of cooked potatoes into a batter. The emulsion was a delicate one that required an oil slick in the hot pan if I were to have a chance in hell of flipping them without their disintegrating. The caramelization of the starch in the sweet potatoes gives these cooked pancakes a contrasting bitter tinge. But as with all pancakes, good Maine maple syrup makes them shine.

I tapped a trusted source for my chocolate brownies – the Minimalist Baker website caps its ingredient lists at 10 items, a limit I figured would let me better identify the sweet potato’s role. In this recipe, the cup of sweet potato puree moistened the batter to make chewier brownies (and replacing the stick of butter my usual brownie recipe calls for); the sweetness certainly came from the 3/4 cup of maple syrup in the batter, not the sweet potato.

I turned to maple syrup a third time when making the cinnamon rolls. While the crumb was right and the color was soft and pretty, the sweet potato alone yielded a flat-tasting dough. I soaked raisins in hot water (bourbon would be nice, too) and whizzed them with some cinnamon to replace the brown sugar typically included in the filling, but the maple syrup came back out to sweeten the cream cheese glaze.

My experiment didn’t so much prove that sweet potatoes can carry the burden of sweetening baked goods on their own as it did in proving that Maine-grown sweet potatoes are a perfect pairing for Maine-made maple syrup – two seasonal products that can help local farmers through the long Maine winter.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

This Valentine’s Day, bake a sweet potato cinnamon bun for your sweetheart. The golden hue seems to spell warmth and love. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Maple–Sweet Potato Cinnamon Buns

Makes 10 rolls

FOR THE DOUGH
1/2 cup milk
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) butter, cut into small pieces, plus more for greasing the bowl and the pan
1 large egg
1 cup sweet potato purée
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for the work surface, if necessary

2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

FOR THE FILLING
3/4 cup raisins
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

FOR THE FROSTING
6 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch kosher salt
1-2 tablespoons whole milk, at room temperature

To prepare the dough, bring the milk just to a boil in a small pot over medium heat. Remove from the heat and add the butter to the pot to melt. Cool to 110 degrees, warm to the touch, but not too hot. Beat in the egg, sweet potato purée and maple syrup.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large bowl with a wooden spoon, combine the flour, yeast and salt. Add the warm milk mixture to the bowl and mix just until combined.

If using a stand mixer, switch to the dough hook. Use the hook, or your hands, to knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes. Form the dough into a ball and transfer it to a large buttered bowl, cover it, and leave it in a warm, draft-free spot until it has doubled in size, 1 to 2 hours.

To prepare the filling, soak the raisins in 1/3 cup boiling water in the canister of a blender for 20 minutes. Add the cinnamon and process to a smooth paste. Set aside.

Butter a 12-inch cast iron pan. Tip the dough out onto a very lightly floured work surface. Roll it into a 12- by 12-inch square. Spread the filling evenly over the surface of the dough. Tightly roll up the dough and pinch the top seam closed. With a serrated knife, cut the roll crosswise into 10 equal pieces. Set them in the pan with the spirals facing upward. Cover loosely and rest until the dough has almost doubled again, about 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Uncover the rolls and bake until golden brown and puffed and a thermometer inserted into the center reads 185 to 190 degrees, about 20 to 25 minutes.

To prepare the frosting, beat the cream cheese, maple syrup, vanilla and salt until smooth. Add the milk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it is the desired consistency.

Let buns cool on a rack for 5 minutes, then frost. Let cool slightly before eating.

NOTE: If you’d to bake these for breakfast, follow the recipe through placing the buns in a buttered pan, then refrigerate overnight. They will rise slowly so you can bake them the next morning.


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