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January 2020
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Sweet (Potato) Memories of Amsterdam

Seventeen years ago I ended a three month backpacking/train-jumping tour of Europe in Amsterdam. Exhausted from meager rations of a backpacker’s diet and too many nights spent with my neck pillowed by the hard steel of an inadequately padded arm rest, I collapsed at a Youth Hostel in that fair city of windmills, Van Goth, Heineken beer and red lights (not to mention fat stoogies of weed served with strong coffee) for the better part of two weeks.

Youth hostels stand as the de facto heart of the backpackers’ ghetto, and as such are friendly, lively and gregarious places. The fact that I had unwittingly chosen to squat at a Christian Youth Hostel (I saw signs of neither saints or sinners while there, but rather every walk of life in between) made little difference. Within minutes, I had an entire new posse of friends. One of them was a slight, young elf of a boy from New York. He wanted to know if I’d join him for Thanksgiving at Amsterdam’s American Church. Oh yeah, it was Thanksgiving. I was losing track of time zones, much less traditional American holidays. But with nothing better to do and a stomach full of sudden hunger, I accepted the invite.

Walking into the church’s hall was like entering the kitchen of my Minnesota husband’s Midwestern youth. The plump and pretty young wives of pastors surrounded me, each bustling about and smiling in welcome. Steaming plates of delicious fare blanketed every horizontal surface like a scene from the Twelfth Night Revels play I had performed in in highschool. I grabbed a spoon and dug in. Each bite was delicious, but one dish stood head and shoulders above the rest. In the midst of that first course of savory fare, a melt-in-your-mouth casserole begged a second and third helping. Finally, unable to contain myself any longer, I found the grand dame of the fiesta (the bishop’s wife) and begged the location of the heavenly maiden responsible for the God-sent dish. I was lead over to a young and heavily pregnant woman whose familiar flat vowel sounds (I’ve always been a mean study of accents) spoke unmistakeably of the same Chicago suburbs where one of my closest college friends had been raised.

She gave me the recipe from memory, with no crib notes for the cups and teaspoons and pinches of all the wonderful ingredients that went into the dish.

I’ve made it every Thanksgiving and Christmas for seventeen years. It is still my favorite carb fix and casserole. Once when I was living in California, my sister (who made the addition of marshmallows) called me from Massachusetts for the recipe.

“It’s just not Thanksgiving without you here,” she said, adding bluntly, “But it’s really not Thanksgiving without your casserole.”

I have copied the recipe for your consumption here, with the hopes that it will give you as many sweet and savory memories as it has given me. Bless your heart wherever you are, fair Midwestern maiden of Amsterdam. Damn you made a good casserole! *

Sweet Potato Casserole From Amsterdam

3 cups mashed sweet potatoes
(I use about 6. Peel, quarter and boil. When a fork easily pierces them, they’re done)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/3 cup melted butter
1/3 – 1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Puree all in a food processor until smooth. Spread into a buttered casserole dish.

Spread On Top (after whirling in a food processor):

1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/3 cup soft butter
1 cup chopped walnuts, almonds, pecans or any combination of the three.**

Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.

* The original recipe called for a cup of white sugar in the sweet potato puree, which I found almost nauseatingly sweet the first time I made this “hot dish” (as they say in the Prairie Home Companion demographic). I have omitted the additional sugar ever since, as the casserole is plenty sweet without it.

**For real sweet tooth aficionados like my sister: halve approximately 6 marshmallows and arrange artistically atop the casserole toward the end of the baking time. Remove from the oven when they are just brown and bubbling, but before they turn carcinogenic black and commence smoking.

P.S. Merry Christmas, Solstice, Holidays etc. to all, and to all a good night.