Recipes and Food Stories from the African Diaspora
As I begin to explore the principles of Kwanzaa as an inspiration for a recipe, I was most inspired by the principle of Kuumba. There are a few different translations, but the one that struck me the most was “make use of our creative energies to build and maintain a strong and vibrant community.”
My creative energy is centered upon my being a chef and using food as a means to build and strengthen community. From my early days as a community organizer in South Central Los Angeles in the late 90s, to my current role as a chef, I have learned that food brings people together and fosters relationships that lead to a strengthened community.
For the Thanksgiving holiday, I was fortunate to have been able to cook some of my favorite dishes for my very large family/friend community. During the process of making these dishes, including candied yams, this principle of Kuumba (creativity) struck me and I was inspired to put a creative twist on a quintessential Southern dessert ingredient: garnet yams.
Before I even get into the recipe, I know that are many people that are just baffled by Yams. Recently I’ve been asked these questions: Are they sweet potatoes? How are they different? Can they be used interchangeably? The internet is full of information debating these very questions, however, for the purposes of this article, I wanted to provide some essential basics.
Yams and/or Sweet Potatoes
While yams and sweet potatoes are often misnamed, the garnet yam (which is technically a sweet potato) is the tuber I remember most from childhood. Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinners weren’t complete until my mom made her signature candied yams and sweet potato pie.
While I’ve always known that sweet potatoes and yams are rich superfoods that are consumed most heavily in the American South, I didn’t know the deep connection to the African Diaspora and American Indians (my family’s lineage) until a few years ago.
Yams originate in Africa. Sweet potato’s origins are in North and South America, popular with indigenous peoples for centuries. Yams were introduced to North America through the West Africans brought to America as slaves, and because it is such a nutritious food source, it became a staple among blacks and whites alike.
The garnet yam, which is actually a sweet potato, is my “go-to” when making a sweet potato soufflé, candied yams, or classic pie. It is an orange-fleshed meat hidden underneath a reddish-brown skin. This Roasted Sweet Potato Cake recipe calls for roasting the potatoes before including them in the cake batter because roasting the potato caramelizes the natural sugars while reducing water content and intensifying the sweet-potato flavor.
When it comes to Fall and Winter desserts, depending on where you go in the country, you’ll either find sweet potatoes or you’ll find pumpkin a the star starch. Growing up in the Southeastern United States, my family’s “go-to” orange starch was the yam or sweet potato. To be honest, I never had pumpkin pie until I was well into my 20’s.
Instead of making Candied Yams or Sweet Potato Pie for my gatherings this holiday season, I’ll be invoking Kuumba, the principle of creativity, to put a creative twist on a Southern classic. The foundation of the familiar Sweet Potato Pie is still there, but this cake provides textural and flavor changes that show there are other, maybe more creative ways to get your sweet potato dessert fix.
This cake recipe can be made into cupcakes or a Bundt cake. By simply switching up the frosting option, this recipe gives you two wonderfully different variations. The cupcake is best paired with a Cinnamon and Sweet Potato Cream Cheese Frosting and the classic Southern Bundt is best with a drizzling of Cinnamon Cream Cheese Glaze.
Roasted Sweet Potato Cake
8 ounces unsalted butter
1-1/3 cups granulated white sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
2 cups mashed sweet potato (about 2 medium sized sweet potatoes)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
¼ cup of whole milk
3 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
One pinch of each: ground allspice, ground cloves (if you don’t have on hand, you can omit)
1. Set oven: Set oven to 375 degrees.
2. Roast the Sweet Potatoes: Rub sweet potatoes with 1-2 tsp. olive oil. Place in a baking dish/pan and bake for 1 hour, or until a fork inserted into the flesh can be entered and removed with ease. Remove from oven and let cool for an hour. Potato flesh must be room-temperature before adding to the batter.
3. Scoop the Flesh and Mash: Cut the cooled sweet potato in half. Scoop out the flesh and mash in a bowl. Measure 2 cups of the mashed potato and set aside. *Alternative: canned sweet potatoes/yams. If packed in syrup, drain and discard the packing syrup. Mash potatoes and measure 2 cups as you would if using fresh roasted yams.
4. Cream Butter and Sugar: In a mixing bowl with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, approximately 3-4 minutes.
5. Add Eggs: Crack your eggs, and slowly add the eggs one-at-a-time into the butter mixture.
6. Prepare “Dry” Ingredients: In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking power, and spices.
7. Prepare “Wet” Ingredients: In a liquid measuring cup (or bowl) sit together the milk, vanilla, and mashed sweet potatoes.
8. Mix Cake Batter using “Dry-Wet” Alternation: Beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, alternate adding the flour and sweet potato mixtures into the butter mixture. Mix until thoroughly combined.
9. Prepare and Fill your baking pan: Reduce oven to 350. If Making A Bundt: Grease and flour the pan, or alternatively, spray inside of pan with a baking spray with flour. If making cupcakes: Place paper liners into the cake cavity and fill ¾ full. This recipe will yield about 20 regular sized cupcakes and 45 mini-cupcakes.
10. Bake Time: The Big Ol’ Bundt will take about 75-85 minutes, depending on oven type and temperature. At 70 minutes, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. Continue baking cake until toothpick comes out come clean.
Regular-sized Cupcakes will take about 16-20 minutes to bake thoroughly. At 16 minutes, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. Continue baking cake until toothpick comes out come clean.
Mini Cupcakes will take about 11-15 minutes to bake thoroughly. At 11 minutes, insert a toothpick into the center of the cake. Continue baking cake until toothpick comes out come clean.
11: Cool Cakes and Frost.
Cinnamon and Sweet Potato Cream Cheese Frosting
Best for frosting cupcakes and layer cakes.
4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
8 oz cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup mashed sweet potatoes
½ tsp. cinnamon
3 cups powdered Sugar, sifted
1 tsp. vanilla
In a mixing bowl, whip butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add the mashed sweet potatoes. Add the powdered sugar and cinnamon. Mix until smooth and thoroughly combined. Chill 20 minutes before frosting cupcakes (this helps the frosting set into a spreading or piping consistency)
Cinnamon Cream Cheese Glaze
Best for frosting Bundt cakes.
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
2 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted
¼ tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. vanilla
3 tbsp. milk
In a mixing bowl, whip butter and cream cheese until smooth. Add the powdered sugar and cinnamon. Mix until smooth and thoroughly combined. Add milk to thin the mixture into a pourable glaze. Pour onto cooled Bundt cake. *Tip: For a thicker glaze use less milk, for a thinner glaze use more milk.
Chrysta Wilson is a Los Angeles based chef, author, and culinary instructor behind the Kiss My Bundt brand. She is on a mission to inspire people to cook and bake-from-scratch as a way to connect with others and build community. On this mission, Chrysta has had a variety of roles, including Executive Pastry Chef/Owner at her award-winning retail bakery/café, Kiss My Bundt. Chrysta has a passion for demystifying the cooking and baking processes, teaching her students the underlying science behind recipes and “pro” techniques through her cooking classes and her award-winning cookbook, Kiss My Bundt, available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.