Monday, November 23, 2009

Test Kitchen: 5-Spice Glazed Sweet Potatoes and Walnut Toffee

I guess if people had to pick a Thanksgiving dish other than the turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallow might be among the favorites, if you believe this month's Test Kitchen poll.

54 percent of you voted for me to try Food and Wine's Five-Spice Glazed Sweet Potatoes with Walnut Toffee recipe, beating out a cornish hen meal and a cranberry sauce (I actually love cranberry sauce, but it's forever the bit player at the Thanksgiving table, it seems).

This particular recipe is from Chicago Chef Shawn McClain and he puts a spin to sweet potatoes by adding the Chinese-influenced five-spice and substituting marshmallow with a walnut toffee.

As usual, I did just half the servings of the recipe. And it was a good way to get a sample of the dish and whether I should add it to the Thanksgiving table this year.

You can click here to see the complete recipe on the Food and Wine Web site. But as always, you can read on to see how it went when I tried to make it this weekend.

I started out by peeling and cubing the sweet potatoes. I have to say I was confused about what the recipe meant by 2-inch chunks. Because chopping them into 2-inch squares to me seemed like super big pieces. I couldn't imagine cooking such large chunks of yams, so instead I cut it to be more like 1 to 1.5-inch chunks, roughly. If anyone has an idea of what they meant by 2-inch chunks, let me know. Because the photo of the finished dish (above) from the magazine didn't look like 2-inch chunks. Anywho, I placed them in a baking dish with a cup of water, covered it with foil and started the baking process.

As the sweet potatoes baked in the oven, I worked on the walnut toffee, which is a separate recipe that you can find here. I started by melting some sugar, corn syrup and butter in a saucepan until it became a light caramel, which looks something like the above. See how it's still almost white and just barely golden? I guess that's what they meant by light caramel.

Once the caramel was ready, I added baking soda and salt like the recipe said and then threw in the chopped walnuts and quickly poured everything on a parchment paper-lined baking tray I prepared earlier. I was supposed to quickly flatten out the whole thing, but you know it's been cold in the Bay Area so the caramel hardened pretty fast. See, above was the thinnest I could spread it out. I've never made toffee before but it was pretty easy and looked kind of nice.

With the toffee done, I put my attention back to the sweet potatoes by making the glaze. Along with five-spice, the glaze includes freshly grated nutmeg, butter and brown sugar. (Oh my gawd, Adam Lambert is screaming in my ears as I'm typing this. No, he's not in my apartment he's on TV. Oh, where was I?) After the glaze melted into a bubbling mess, I brought out the yams from the oven and poured off any excess water, which was a challenge to do with the near mushy yams bumping each other. I think I cooked it a wee bit too long. After applying the glaze with a pastry brush so as not to break the sweet potatoes, back in the oven they went to finish cooking for another 10 minutes.

And then when they were done, I plated them up and sprinkled the walnut toffee I made earlier and chopped up into bits. Here's how my version turned out. What do you think?

My tips and warnings about this recipe:

  1. Definitely don't overcook your sweet potatoes because that makes it harder to apply the glaze on them near the end of the cooking process.
  2. You probably don't need to make as much walnut toffee as the recipe says. You can keep some as a snack for later.
  3. When making the toffee, have your baking sheet ready and all the ingredients within reach because everything happens pretty fast once the caramel gets to the right consistency.
Ease of cooking: Yet another really simple recipe to follow, even learning to make the walnut toffee. It takes about an hour to prep and cook the entire recipe and you can totally make the toffee ahead of time.

Taste: I actually liked the hint of five-spice for the yams, which were sweet from the glaze. The spice flavor gave the dish an interesting twist. I can't say I was a big fan of the walnut toffee, though, mostly because I'm not a big sweet person. You're basically making candy and throwing it on top of the dish. The walnut toffee is a bit chewy and gets stuck in your teeth as your eating, so if you have a relative that talks a lot at the Thanksgiving dinner table, then feed the relative the toffee and your relative will be busy chewing for awhile. Despite this, it is simple enough that I'm planning to make it this Thursday for Thanksgiving.

Overall Grade: B for ease of recipe and interesting flavor. Creative use of toffee, but not recommended for older adults with dentures. ;-)

Don't forget to vote for which recipe I should test from Food and Wine's December edition in the poll on the upper right column. You know this is the holiday issue so lots of ideas for your holiday parties.

Previous test kitchens:
Smoky Shrimp and Chorizo Soup
Rabbit Ragout with Soppressata and Pappardelle
Puff-pastry Tomato Tarts
Bucatini Carbonara


Hungry Dog said...

Interesting idea...I like five spice so that part of it sounds good to me. But the candy topping...sounds a little cloying for a side dish. Now, I could make the toffee and just eat it after I eat some sweet potatoes. :)

Carolyn Jung said...

You know, though, elderly Asian people love their toffee. Remember all those cans of Almond Rocca over the years? ;)

Single Guy Ben said...

LOL, Carolyn, I love Almond Rocca growing up! It was the go-to Christmas gift when we were growing up. We either gave it to people as a last-minute gift or we got it as a gift. Either way, there was always some almond rocca for the new year!

Cookie said...

We always had Almond Roca at home too! Then they came out with all those new flavors like Mocha Roca and Cashew Roca but they just weren't the same. I think the 5-spice is a great idea with sweet treats!

egg to the apples said...

What a wonderful recipe review!

Jenster said...

Your dish looked delicious and I think five-spice and sweet potatoes sound like a heavenly match.

I'm also curious about the walnut toffee. Maybe I'll make that for Christmas as candy and hand it out for gifts. I've made homemade Almond Roca before and this process doesn't seem much different.

Question: Did you have any problems cleaning the toffee from the saucepan? That's the challenge I find with making toffee. Any tips you can share would be much appreciated.

Single Guy Ben said...

Jenster, how do you make Almond Roca at home? Now I want to make it since it's my favorite childhood candy. Of course, I'm making it to give away.

For the toffee, or more specifically the caramel, didn't really cause any problems. I soaked my saucepan right away with warm water after I poured out the caramel. I admit my tiny saucepan I use also is non-stick. But my mom used to make a lot of caramel for a rice candy she made. She used a regular saucepan, and typically what we do is immediately soak in water to wash the pan. If there were any caramel that hardened and stuck to the pan, we would put some water and put the pan on the stovetop to create a boil and melt the caramel pieces stuck to the pan. So you could do the same or pour boiled water into your pot. Hope that helps!

Jenster said...

Thanks, Ben! I'll have to remember to wash my saucepan right away and not leave it in the sink. Such a simple remedy....

I'll email you the Almond Roca recipe soon. It doesn't look as pretty as the trademarked brand, but I think it's still pretty tasty.

Jenster said...

Hey, Ben, I made the Walnut Toffee last night as a snack and it was so easy and delicious. My whole family raved about it. Guess we'll be adding it to the list of homemade goodies we'll be making this year for family and friends. Thanks for sharing it the recipe.

I still need to dig up my Almond Roca recipe to send you, but I like the Walnut Toffee so much better.