This sweet potato soufflé is something I whipped up to take to a holiday party yesterday evening. (For the uninitiated, those are marshmallows on top. Think of them as a meringue.) For some reason it occurred to me to take a picture of it, and then to post about it. Why? Because lately I’ve been revisiting old dreams and passions of mine (another story), and cooking is one that I’d forgotten about for the past year or so, while we were living out of boxes and waiting for the house to be completed. Now that we’re in it, and we have a functioning kitchen again, I’ve been pulling out some old recipes.
Besides, the kind of political blogging I’ve been doing takes time — time to read, time to think, and time to write. Lately that’s more time than I have. I’m not sure that food blogging takes any less time (time to cook, time to think, and time to write?), but until I finish thinking through a couple more politically-oriented posts, it’s worth a shot.
So, why sweet potato soufflé?
Well, it’s complicated. But also simple.
Part of it goes back to my childhood. I had the good fortune to have a mom who’s not only a great cook, but a great southern cook. (From what I’ve been told, her mother was also a great cook, and I remember my paternal grandmother being a fine cook as well, and one who always had a freshly-baked cake waiting for her grandchildren when we came to visit. My favorite was the caramel cake, with several thin layers of cake slathered with caramel icing.) Her pound cake, for example, has been known to elicit moans of ecstasy while being consumed. And when I was growing, my classmates would often try to trade with me for the slice of pound cake that she included in my lunch.
But my favorite of her desert was sweet potato pie. She always made it around this time of year when I was growing up, and I guess that’s why I start thinking about making it, or making something with sweet potatoes. The scent, and taste remind me of a time when I looked forward to autumn — which seemed to me a beginning rather than an ending, and brought with it a sense of anticipation, be it for the holidays (and presents) or the beginning of a new year.
I guess the end of the old made me think of the beginning of the new, and played into my tendency to promise myself, as I’ve mentioned before, “This year is almost over, and next year will be different.” And maybe one of the blessings of ADD-related short term memory problems was that I was far enough away from both this year’s crash-and-burn and next year’s crash and burn, that I actually experienced something close to hope. Forget the chill in the air and the falling leaves. Give me the scent of vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sweet potatoes in the air, and I think of hope.
Maybe that’s way I picked up the phone years ago, when my first job in D.C. was going down in flames, and called my mom to ask for her sweet potato pie recipe, which she later sent to me. Well. Actually she sent me a sweet potato pie recipe; one cut out from the paper. And when I called her to say, “Mom, I want your recipe,” she said “I’ve been making them for 40 years. i don’t have a recipe. I just know what goes in them.” I said, “I guess I’ll have to find a recipe to start with, and make it my own.” And she agreed.
So I did. Recipes had always been a “jumping off place” for me, to experiment with and improvise on in relative safety, so long as I don’t stray too far from the foundation of the recipe. From there I’ve been known to use more or less than of the recommended spices, add new one, and perhaps change a step or two from the original. These days, when I make sweet potato pie, I start with a shortbread crust. Then I bake the sweet potatoes, because I prefer the flavor when they’re cooked that way (as opposed to boiling them). For flavor and spices, I usually cut down on the cinnamon or leave it out altogether, and add cardamom and coriander instead. One year I got the idea to grate an orange rind and add that to the mix. Finally, I decided to separate the eggs, mix the yolks in with the potatoes, whip the egg whites and then fold them into the batter for what I hoped would be lighter feel to the dish.
When it comes to cooking, there were two things that drew me too it: creativity and sharing. First, I could create something by not slavishly following the recipe, but using it as a foundation to start with, while putting my own spin on whatever I was making. Second, could share it with others and see them enjoy it. That alone was enough for me to apply to culinary school here. I got accepted and offered a grant. But a summer in a restaurant kitchen cured me of that ambition. (Or was it fear of failing again?) Now I cook for my family at home and for friends, or when there’s a party or function where I can bring something.
And I’ve been told that my sweet potato pie is unlike any most people have tasted, and when I’ve made it and taken it to parties I’ve never brought any of it back. (As was also the case with the soufflé above.
So, I guess I succeeded in making the recipe my own and making something others enjoy.