When I was about to enter high school, we moved from the ethnically-diverse city of New York to lily white, WASP-y Wilton, Conn. My siblings and I were abruptly yanked from our annual vantage point for viewing the Thanksgiving Day Parade, on the corner of 74th street and Central Park West; and relegated to watching this, our favorite holiday event, on television, where, in the middle of the Rockettes with their long, limber legs reaching for the sky, we were sold dish washing soap by Madge. Clearly, life would never be the same.
What does this all have to do with Thanksgiving Dinner, you ask? For me, everything. My mother, in what I can only imagine was an effort to bring a little of that New York diversity to our home in Fairfield County, if just once a year, somehow arranged for various guests to join us at the Thanksgiving dinner table via some program of the United Nations. There were always several people, many of whom spoke little English and none of whom had ever participated in this most American of holidays. In their honor, instead of preparing a traditional Thanksgiving Dinner, my mother spiced up the table with food with a foreign accent. In retrospect, seems kind of counter-intuitive, but that is the part of Thanksgiving that lives on in my kitchen. In that vein, I offer you, from Mexico, Chipotle Whipped Sweet Potatoes.
The authentic, old-school method for making Camote al Orno Mexicana (Mexican baked yams) calls for a couple kitchen tools that you will want to have if you are accumulating a Mexican kitchen anyway, a Molcajete y Tejolote or traditional Mexican mortar and pestle which you will use to pound your small block of pure brown cane sugar called piloncillo (or you can also skip all of this and use brown sugar, but there will be a subtle but perceptible difference in flavor… note, below is an alternative method, by which you can still use piloncillo without a molcajete); and handy lime juicer (both at Casa Lucas, 24th & Alabama).
Piloncillo vs. brown sugar: Cones of Mexican brown sugar, available at Casa Lucas on 24th St. near Florida (also called panocha), translates as “little loaf” because of the traditional shape in which this smoky, caramely and earthy sugar is produced; it has far more flavor than brown sugar, which is generally just white sugar with a small amount of molasses added back to it. Just like brown sugar, there are two varieties of piloncillo; one is lighter (blanco) and one darker (oscuro). Unrefined, it is commonly used in Mexico, where it has been around for at least 500 years. Made from crushed sugar cane, the juice is collected, boiled and poured into molds, where it hardens into blocks. To use it, Mexican cooks break it up by throwing the bag of pilconillo on the floor. Pounding well in your molcajete or with a meat hammer while its still in its plastic baggie also work; you want to achieve a texture that is almost that of fine cane sugar. Sold in the aforementioned markets by the pound (about $1/lb), it can be used in moles and other sauces, as well as to simply sweeten coffee, or for an authentic Mexican hot chocolate.
Mexican vs. “Persian” limes: Did you know that what we often refer to as “key limes” are actually Mexican limes? Not simply the limes used for making the pies, or limes that grow only in the Florida Keys (actually primarily grown in the state of Sonora, Mexico and shipped to Florida) the key lime is a (Citrus aurantifolia Swingle) is in a class all of its own. “Much smaller than regular “Persian” limes, the key lime ranges in size from a ping-pong ball to a golf ball (about 10cm to16cm in circumference). The peel is thin, smooth and greenish-yellow when ripe. The interior is divided by 10 to 12 segments, quite juicy and has a higher acidity than regular Persian limes. Key limes have a very distinctive aroma, which makes them valuable for culinary use,” this according to keylime.com. They are yellow when ripe but usually picked green, commercially.
Camote con Chipotle y Limon (serves 8-10)
- 6-8 yams
- 3 Mexican limes
- 1/2 stick of butter
- fresh squeezed juice of 3 oranges plus 2 tablespoons rind
- 1-2 canned chipotle chiles with adobo sauce, mixed well in a blender
- 2-3 cloves
- 1 piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar- or substitute 1/4 cup brown sugar)
- salt to taste
Bake yams as usual, 350° oven for 35 minutes or until tender through and through. Meanwhile, pound piloncillo well in your molcajete (or with a meat hammer while its still in its plastic baggie) until it’s almost the texture of fine cane sugar. Bring all ingredients except chipotle mix to boil and reduce to a syrupy texture. Allow mixture to cool enough to taste. Now add blended chipotle mix to taste (remember, the chile will come through more strongly after it cooks). After yams have cooled, remove skins and mash. Add syrup mixture, first removing cloves. Transfer Mixture to food porcessor and whip until smooth and fluffy, you may need to do this in small batches. Return to oven covered with aluminum foil and continue baking for 10-15 minutes more, or you can cook on stovetop, putting some butter in your saucepan first to prevent sticking. Taste for salt and chipotle, add as needed.