"That's Hot" Sweet Potato Casserole


The real name of this dish is “Madeira Sweet Potato Casserole”. But ever since a friend’s husband, inadvertently renamed it a few Thanksgiving dinners ago, this name, said with a few winks and grins, has stuck.

Invited to their home for Thanksgiving, I was asked to bring my “famous” braided Challah, a sweet potato side dish of my choosing, and a “non-pumpkin” desert because my friend informed me that, “No one can match my pumpkin pie.” I decided to make a chocolate pecan tart, which I figured was as far from pumpkin as possible.

She’d spent weeks planning her menu, pouring through Food & Wine, Epicurious, Sunset and Cooking Light magazines and cookbooks. Her table was beautifully appointed, a work of art that could easily have been photographed for any fine-food magazine. Beautiful linen tablecloths, sparkling crystal, and flickering candlelight set the stage for a formal five course dinner, the first three courses deserving and equal to the ambiance and setting. Subtle background chamber music intermingled with genteel, polite conversation, when suddenly – as loud and shocking as if someone popped a huge balloon – her husband exclaimed, “That’s hot!”

United, all heads turned to look at the head of the table, not sure what to make of his outburst. His face, bent low over his plate, hid expressions which might have given clues as to his predicament. His fork hovered over his plate, directly over a large dollop of my Madeira sweet potato casserole. My mind raced, calculating what temperature was used to reheat the casserole, how long it had been out of the oven, now much it might have or might not have cooled, and how much searing and burning of his mouth could have occurred with only one, maybe two, bites. My husband has always told me my mind sometimes moves far too quickly for my own good. Seated to his immediate left, I decided to take action, thrusting my glass of ice water at him. “Sip! Sip!! It will help!”, I urged.

Ignoring me, leaving me holding the ice water, my arm locked in space, he turned to his wife seated on his right. Pointing at the sweet potato casserole with his fork he, silly, silly man said, “Babe. This is SO, SO, hot. I mean, you know, that’s hot“, emphatically scooping up and devouring a large mouthful of my casserole. Worse? He closed his eyes and moaned.

Yes, it was one of those “wish-I-could-crawl-under-the-table” moments. Expecting her to give me one of her wilting stares, for which she was known, she instead ignored me. I, unknowingly, had violated some unspoken, unwritten, don’t-outcook-me-ethics-code and, probably even worse, the husband-moaning violation.

Sliding her hand into her husband’s, she presented him with her very best have-guests smile, informing him, “I \requested Sharon bring that dish. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.” Her sister stepped up to the plate, drawing the line somewhere between my casserole and the rest of the food, “Your wonderful wife made a speculator dinner. Are you enjoying the lemon and thyme infused turkey?”

Some men, even really smart engineers, don’t know when to be quiet. At that point, I considered kicking him under the table, but realized that would be far too subtle for the situation. “You didn’t make the bread”, he said, ignoring them both, “and that was really great, too, and I saw that desert she made with all that gooey chocolate, so could you get the recipes from her on those, too?”

With that, he sealed my fate. I had become, with the help of bread, chocolate and Madeira, persona non grata.

We were relocated across country, a few short months later, and no, she had no hand in that. At least, I don’t think she did.

The next Thanksgiving, her husband phoned. “Deb said if I wanted your casserole – well, I guess I talked about it too much, or something – she said I’d have to make it myself, if I really wanted it that badly. And I do. Because, you know, that was hot. So could you email the recipe to me?”

If you’ve not discovered the luscious taste of Madeira, enjoyed by Pilgrims and Puritans, this would be a great recipe to try. Buy the best quality Madeira you can afford – at least $12 a bottle, but $20 would give an even better glimpse of the full flavor, that much more expensive bottles of Madeira, worth hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars, offers. Using inexpensive $4 Maderia will never earn any “That’s hot” reactions, so stay away from the grocery-store wine aisle. I hope I shared that little recipe secret with him….

“That’s Hot” Sweet Potato Madeira Casserole

Serves 12—16

6 large sweet potatoes—about 5 pounds
7 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 cup Madeira or dry sherry
1 tablespoon grated orange rind
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg

Optional topping:
1 tablespoon cold butter and 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

  1. Bake sweet potatoes at 375 until knife-tender
  2. Cool slightly and peel (easier to peel when hot)
  3. “Rice” the potatoes into a large bowl. Do NOT use an electric mixer or food processor! Anything beyond a gentle touch, turns any cooked sweet potato into unappetizing glue.
  4. Add the melted butter, half & half, Maderia, orange ring and spices; gently folding into the sweet potatoes, again, being careful to not over-mix.
  5. Spoon mixture into a buttered baking dish – do not smooth or push the mixture down into the bowl
  6. Drizzle more melted butter and pecans on top (optional – I never have).
  7. Cover and refrigerate up to 2-days in advance.
  8. When ready to serve, allow to come up to room temperature, then heat at 350F, uncovered for 25-minutes.
  9. If placing ice-cold casserole directly into oven, heating will require 45-minutes.

Read more about Madeira:

Maderia: A Wine for the Ages

From Here to Eternity

Thomas Jefferson’s Loves with Wine

A 200 Year Old Treat