Published: November 26, 2014
On a recent fall afternoon, I visited Mystic, Connecticut’s Oyster Club restaurant, where chef James Wayman prepares an eclectic menu using local ingredients and daily inspiration. On this particular visit, his sweet potato pudding caught my eye—an autumnal palette of golden orange purée strewn with the reds and browns of just-foraged porcini, golden chanterelle, and chestnut boletus mushrooms. I took a bite: The mushrooms delivered an earthy aroma and an array of subtle flavors ranging from savory to delicate and nutty. But the real treasure lay underneath—a remarkable pudding with the silky texture of crème brûlée, in which the taste of sweet potatoes mingled with that of bacon fat, caramelized white onions, fresh sage, and wild bay. It was nothing short of thrilling.
Curious about the origin of the dish, I sat down with Wayman to learn more. Raised on his grandparents’ farm in rural North Carolina, he grew up eating sweet potatoes prepared one way and one way only: his grandmother Rose Freedman’s Thanksgiving side of sweet potato slices coated in brown sugar and topped with marshmallows. Freedman was a “good, simple” cook whose go-to meal in the summer months was a savory corn pudding, a dish he still remembers with great affection. He spent years perfecting a fall version using sweet potatoes.
To construct the pudding’s complex flavors, Wayman begins by roasting Beauregard sweet potatoes until slivers of the caramelized flesh burst through cracks in the skins. He cooks white onions slowly over low heat to coax out their sweetness, in a mixture of bacon fat and butter seasoned with garlic, sage, wild bay, and cayenne. Once the onions are translucent, he adds cream and the roasted potatoes, bringing the mixture to a simmer and then gently cooking it for several minutes more. He places it into a blender, adding the egg yolks one by one to prevent curdling. Finally, he bakes the pudding in a bain-marie, a pan set into a larger pan filled with hot water; doing so prevents a crust from forming on the outside of the custard before it is fully cooked and firm. He serves the pudding warm from the oven, with mushrooms sautéed in garlic and butter.
I was happy to learn it is a dish easily recreated at home. In my own kitchen, I replaced his wild bay with a bay leaf, and settled for the best mushrooms I could find at my local market—shiitakes. The Beauregards were easy enough to find—they’re one of the most popular sweet potato varieties (though they’re often marked as “yams” in the grocery store). The result was just as good as I remembered, creamy and sweet with a luscious, smooth texture. It’s a dish I’ve made again and again, equally perfect for a simple dinner of roast chicken and broccoli as it is for the Thanksgiving table.