Just-baked sweet potato casserole.

Last week, in my Thanksgiving Menu 2021 post, I mentioned I might bring back my Great Aunt Phyllis’s candied yams. Here they are in all their glory, creamy, orange-scented, brandy-spiked sweet potatoes buried under a blanket of brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon-spiced pecans.

This is a very classic recipe, unapologetic in its use of butter and sugar, and I did not alter the recipe a hair, but for adding salt to the purée. Had I spoken with my mother prior to making them, I might have halved the brown sugar in the topping, which would have left it plenty sweet, and I might have omitted the small amount of brown sugar in the filling, too.

Friends, if you’ve been reading for awhile, you know this is not the sort of recipe that typically makes my heart sing, and in previous years I might be inclined to revisit it, to “healthify” it, to update it with less rich, more nuanced seasonings.

But not this year. If there is a time and a place for this sort of festive, nostalgic ensemble, it’s on the 2021 holiday table. One bite of the silky smooth, brilliant hued purée brought me back to Thanksgivings of yore, surrounded by siblings and grandparents, aunts and uncles, and dear family friends. I cannot wait to bust this classic out one week — eek! — from today.

I hope all of your holiday preparations are going well.

PS: Thanksgiving Menu 2021

PPS: 25 Thanksgiving Side Dishes

Note: I’ve changed the title here to sweet potato casserole, because I have not used yams here, and it’s likely Great Aunt Phyllis didn’t either. The words yam and sweet potato are often used interchangeably, but they actually are different vegetables:

  • Yams are starchy, not sweet root vegetables and have a rough, brown tree bark-like exterior.
  • Sweet potatoes are — wait for it — sweet root vegetables and have a reddish skin and a creamier, darker interior.
  • Most American supermarkets are selling sweet potatoes, not yams.

How to Make Sweet Potato Casserole, Step by Step

Gather 4 pounds of sweet potatoes. Give them a wash if they are dirty.

A pile of sweet potatoes on a cutting board.

Transfer to a large pot, cover with water, and bring to a simmer.

A large pot filled with sweet potatoes covered in water.

Boil for 40 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are completely soft.

Boiled sweet potatoes in a pot on the stovetop.

Meanwhile, zest an orange; then juice it. You’ll need 2/3 cup of orange juice.

Orange zest on a cutting board aside a halved orange.

Once the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, purée them in a food processor or blender.

Boiled sweet potatoes in a blender.

Transfer the purée to a large bowl.

Puréed sweet potatoes in a large bowl.

Add the filling ingredients: orange zest and juice, butter, brown sugar, ginger, and egg yolks.

The filling for sweet potato casserole in a bowl but unstirred.

Whisk to combine.

Sweet potato filling in a large bowl with a whisk.

Transfer to a 9×13-inch baking dish.

A sweet potato purée in a 9x13-inch dish.

To make the topping, gather the ingredients: brown sugar, melted butter, cinnamon, and pecans.

Ingredients for the sweet potato casserole topping.

Stir them together.

The topping for a sweet potato casserole stirred together in a bowl.

Then spread them over the sweet potatoes and transfer the pan to the oven for about 45 minutes…

A sweet potato casserole ready for the oven.

… or until the top is beginning to caramelize at the edges.

Just-baked sweet potato casserole.

Let sit 10 to 15 minutes before serving.

Just-baked sweet potato casserole.


A scoop of sweet potato casserole on a plate.
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Just-baked sweet potato casserole.

Classic Sweet Potato Casserole

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This is my Great Aunt Phyllis’s classic sweet potato casserole, previously known as candied yams in my family. As noted in the post above, it is unlikely Phyllis used yams in this recipe, which are hard to come by in most American super markets, and much more likely she used sweet potatoes, which is what I’ve used here. 

After speaking with my mother, I learned she has reduced the brown sugar in the topping to 2/3 cup sugar as opposed to 1 1/3 cup sugar, which I would recommend doing, and she also omits the brown sugar in the filling. The filling itself does not taste too sweet to me, but it is not wanting for flavor either. 


For the sweet potato filling: 

  • 4 lbs. sweet potatoes, washed if very dirty
  • zest of 1 orange
  • 2/3 cup orange juice, freshly squeezed if you are up for it
  • 5 tablespoons brandy
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar, optional, see notes above
  • 4 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted, room temperature
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 teaspoon ground ginger
  • kosher salt and pepper to taste

For the topping: 

  • 8 tablespoons butter, salted or unsalted
  • 1 1/3 cup brown sugar, or less, see notes above
  • 2 cups chopped pecans
  • 2 teaspoons cinnamon


  1. Boil the sweet potatoes for 40 minutes. They should be very soft when pierced with a knife. Drain them and let them cool until easy enough to handle. Peel them and transfer them to a food processor or blender and purée until smooth.
  2. Heat oven to 350ºF. Butter a 9×13-inch baking dish. 
  3. In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes, orange zest, orange juice, brandy, brown sugar, butter, yolks, and ginger. Season with salt and pepper to taste. I find these need at least a teaspoon of kosher salt — I add 2 teaspoons — but season to your liking. If tasting the raw egg yolks makes you nervous, you can leave them out until you get the seasoning right; then add the yolks. Whisk the mixture until smooth; then spread into the prepared baking dish. 
  4. Melt the butter in a small skillet. In a large bowl combine the butter, brown sugar, pecans, and cinnamon. Spread the mixture over the sweet potatoes. At this point the dish can be covered and transferred to the fridge for 24 hours or longer. Or, transfer to the oven immediately and bake uncovered  for 40-45 minutes. 
  • Prep Time: 20 minutes
  • Cook Time: 90 minutes
  • Category: Side Dish
  • Method: Stovetop, Oven
  • Cuisine: American