Easy Sweet Potato and Apple Gratin

Published November 28, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Yes, a perfectly roasted turkey is the unchallenged star of the Thanksgiving table, just as that same beautiful roast — or ham, or bone-in pork loin, or prime rib of beef — makes the necessarily spectacular centerpiece for any of the holiday meals to come. But just as the star of a great screen or stage production often shines even brighter when surrounded by outstanding supporting players, so does a festive entree become all the more memorable accompanied by beautiful and delicious side dishes.

In my experience, accompaniments are often the last choices home cooks make when planning their seasonal entertaining. With that in mind, I’d like to share with you one of my all-time favorites: Sweet Potato and Apple Gratin. Not only does it taste delicious and look beautiful with any gala main dish, but it’s also very simple to make — even more so because you can find all the ingredients easily, as well as do much of the preparation ahead of time.

Sweet potatoes are a popular holiday side for good reason. When cooked, they have an earthy-sweet flavor that makes a perfect complement to roast poultry or meat. As a bonus, their deep, bright golden-orange color naturally decorates any table where they are served.

Too often, people default to cooking their sweet potatoes with an old-fashioned marshmallow topping. While I recognize that a touch of sweetness can heighten the tuber’s flavor, I prefer to go a more natural route. That’s why I like to pair them with sweet-tart Granny Smith apples, an easy-to-find variety that’s also a standby of the season. Add a touch of sweet spices, a little bit of butter and cream and golden breadcrumbs, and you have a pleasingly well-balanced combination of tastes and textures that everyone will love throughout the coming month-plus of parties.

You’ll also be surprised how simple this dish is to make in advance. You can saute the apples and layer them in the baking dish with the sliced sweet potatoes and cream as early as the morning of your special meal. Then simply cover the dish with foil and keep it in the refrigerator. About an hour and a quarter before serving time, start baking the gratin; then add the breadcrumbs and last dotting of butter and complete the baking a few minutes before dinner is served.

If you like, add your own touches. For slightly sweeter results, include a few spoonfuls of dark-brown sugar or maple syrup with the cream, for example. Or add some chopped walnuts or pecans to the breadcrumbs, or replace the crumbs with crushed gingersnap cookies.

Just hold the marshmallows!

SWEET POTATO AND APPLE GRATIN

Serves 8 to 12

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing

1 pound organic Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, quartered and cut into 1/4-inch slices

1 1/2 pounds orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, peeled and cut crosswise into thin slices

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Dash of freshly grated nutmeg

1 1/4 cups heavy cream, half-and-half or milk

1/2 cup fresh brioche crumbs or challah crumbs

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a 10-inch skillet over medium-high heat, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add the apples and saute, stirring frequently, until they begin to turn golden, 6 to 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the sweet potatoes in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour in the cream, half-and-half or milk, and toss the sweet potatoes to coat them evenly.

Grease a deep 10-inch gratin dish with some butter. Evenly spread half of the sweet potato mixture on the bottom, overlapping the slices as neatly as possible. Spread the sauteed apples evenly over the potatoes; then top them with a neat, evenly overlapped layer of the remaining potatoes, drizzling with any cream, half-and-half or milk left in the bowl.

Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake in the preheated oven until the potatoes are tender enough to be easily pierced with the tip of a sharp knife, about 1 hour.

Remove the dish from the oven. Raise the temperature to 500 degrees. Carefully remove the foil from the dish. Sprinkle the brioche or challah crumbs evenly over the top and dot with the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter.

Return the dish to the oven and bake until the crumbs have browned, about 5 minutes, watching carefully to prevent burning. Remove from the oven and serve.

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