Monday, 6 January 2014

Sweet Substitutes: my recipe for sweet potato-cranberry Thanksgiving loaf (with musical interludes)

Fresh out of the oven: two sweet potato loaves (shown here sans cranberries)

My long absence from the blogworld can be explained. Working with our crack staff, I've been toiling in our test kitchens perfecting this recipe and evaluating feedback from countless focus groups. This sweet potato-cranberry Thanksgiving loaf has earned such consistent huzzahs, not to mention a few hosannas, that the recipe screams to me, "Share me with the world!" I now take figurative pen in hand to describe and explain in detail. Anything to stop the screaming.

Except for the word itself, nothing says Thanksgiving like sweet potatoes and cranberries. The sublime flavor and silky-smooth texture of this sweet potato loaf accented with tangy cranberry grace-notes is like a Benny Goodman solo with a little Pee Wee Russell thrown in for tartness - which brings us to our first musical cue, an ode to the loaf's silken texture: Charlie Christian's A Smo-o-o-oth One played by Goodman, Christian, Cootie Williams, Georgie Auld, Johnny Guarnieri et al in 1941. You can use it as background music while you continue reading.

Why a Thanksgiving loaf in January? Since the recent ice storm here in Toronto, I've revised my notion of when the holiday should fall. From now on, any day when it's as cold as bebop outside and you're safe and warm inside, and you have family and friends who care about you, and you have electricity, and you can listen to Le nozze di Figaro or Sir Thomas Beecham conducting anything or Bobby Gordon, Keith Ingham and Hal Smith playing in trio, should be a day of thanksgiving.

This recipe, with its crucial substitutions, would not exist without the sage advice of our resident Maven of Nutrition, who reads up on such things. We have a strict division of labor in this household: I take care of the big things, like making sure our music collection isn't missing any important Frankie Newton-James P. Johnson records, while the Maven takes care of the little things, like keeping us alive.

Now to the Sweet Substitutes: Organic Coconut Sugar and Organic Virgin Coconut Oil.

Quoth the Maven: "Make sure the coconut sugar is organic and the coconut oil is organic and unrefined, labeled virgin' or 'extra virgin'."

I make no claims about the health benefits of substituting coconut oil for butter. The science is still inconclusive, but evidence suggests that coconut oil's reputation as an artery-clogger was a myth, and that it may be beneficial in several important ways. Do your own research, here, here, here, here, and anywhere else you choose, and decide for yourself. As a non-maven, I can tell you this: coconut oil works wonderfully in baking, and does not impart a coconut flavor to everything it touches.

'Tis said that organic coconut sugar is rich in B vitamins, amino acids and minerals, including phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium. All I know is that it has a deep, rich flavor, and that, when compared with white refined sugar, you need far less to produce satisfying results.

By now you're saying, Make with the recipe already. OK, here goes:

1-3/4 cups flour. I make another substitution here, a minor one -- a pinch-runner rather than a pinch-hitter: I use whole grain spelt, not wheat, because the Maven is allergic to wheat. The original recipe says "sifted all-purpose flour." I don't know from sifted or unsifted; whatever spelt I use works.

3/4 cup organic coconut sugar. This is half the amount of sugar called for in the original recipe. But the right degree of sweetness - in food, in music, in personalities - is a very subjective thing. This amount is perfect for us, but when you taste your batter, you may want to adjust it.

1 teaspoon baking soda.

1/4 teaspoon salt.

A heaping 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon. The original recipe says 1/2 teaspoon, but I find standard recipes far too timid when it comes to cinnamon, so kick up the flavor with an extra "Bam!" (as Emeril Lagasse used to say).

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg. Going "Bam!" with the nutmeg is ill-advised; stick to a level 1/2 teaspoon.

1 cup cooked and mashed sweet potatoes. It's hard to say how many you'll need. Size matters. I recently had three humongous sweet potatoes and it was enough to make three loaves. Cook them in the microwave until they're soft, then scoop out the insides and get rid of the peel. No need to puree; just mash 'em up real good. I always make this my first step, so the mashed sweet potato has a chance to cool down before getting mixed with everything else.

2 eggs, beaten.

1/3 cup water.

1/2 cup organic virgin coconut oil.

About 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries. Here again, the amount is up to you. You're going to hand-mix the cranberries gently into the batter at the end of the process, so you can decide then how densely packed with cranberries you want your loaf to be. We like lots. Bam!

Combine the mashed sweet potatoes, eggs, water, and coconut oil and mix well. Even after vigorous mixing, you may notice small globules of coconut oil in your liquid mixture. Worry not; all will come right in the baking.

Slowly add the dry ingredients and mix at low speed, being careful not to overmix. Taste the batter for sweetness. With a wooden spoon, gently blend in the cranberries.

Pour the batter into a greased 9" x 5" loaf pan. I like to dust the entire top with more ground cinnamon. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

Now comes the hard part: waiting. Even with your exhaust fan going full blast, your kitchen will slowly fill with the indescribably tempting aroma. Mouths will water. Gastric juices will flow uncontrollably. You'll turn on the oven light several times to see how it's going, but still you must wait.

Music will help the time pass more quickly, so here are some selections with waiting as the theme. (Sounds like a Dave McKenna medley.) First, a scintillating The World is Waiting for the Sunrise with Benny Goodman, clarinet; Mel Powell, piano; Red Norvo, vibes; Al Hendrickson, guitar; Red Callender, bass; Lee Young, drums. They're certainly waiting in a hurry, aren't they?

Next, Irving Berlin's Waiting at the End of the Road, sung movingly by the incomparable Ethel Waters in 1929.

Finally, Wait Till the Sun Shines, Nellie sung in 1941 by Bing Crosby, the best duet singer ever (best whistler, too) and Mary Martin. Note the astonishing ease with which Bing tosses off the harmonies; a paragon of twentieth-century sprezzatura.

A few more selections and your loaf will be ready. One word of caution. This will call for superhuman self-control, but once you've removed it from the pan and placed it on a rack, let the loaf cool down a bit. The subtle flavors will emerge more distinctly.

Here at the culinary institute, we're so sure you'll love this recipe that it comes with a lifetime warranty. If at any time you're dissatisfied, return the uneaten portion to our customer service department and you'll receive a certificate with our compliments.

I doubt whether Jelly Roll Morton had coconut oil and coconut sugar in mind when he composed Sweet Substitute nearly a century ago, but that shouldn't prevent us from listening to it here, recorded in 1940 with Morton, piano and vocal; Henry Red Allen, trumpet; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Joe Britton, trombone; Eddie Williams, alto sax; Wellman Braud, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums.

I wish all of you a steady, ongoing supply of love, health, happiness, and electricity in 2014.

This post is dedicated to MS: friend, happiness-increaser, lifeline.