November 9, 2010
The smells outside my in-laws home in Bowen are a rustic melange of the countryside. In fall, it's the tangy, tannic quaff of the bodega across the street, La Bowense, making their brew–their strong damajuana (jug) wine stings a bit in the nose. In early mornings, a whiff of woodsmoke from someone's hearth fire, burning to take off the early morning autumnal chill can cross by, or the smell of freshly baked crusty bread and sweet pastries, if you get close to Al Pan Pan. But my favorite smell, as we take an evening walk, basking in the peace and slow pace of my husband's small hometown, emanates from the Dulce de Batata factory two blocks away.
The first time we walked by it, and the scent of hot, mellowing sweet potato wafted across the air, I turned to my at the time not-yet husband and said "What IS that?" It's a smell like sweet baked autumn, a squash-like, brown sugar smell. And it is mouth-watering.
In Bowen, the place where the magic is made is a brick red quonset hut with a corrugated tin roof. It has a brick-walled yard, surrounded by pine trees. And the factory's proximity to home means my in-laws can get their hands on fresh and local Dulce de Batata at all times.
In American culture, we aren't as familiar with this concept of 'paste' as something you eat. (Unless maybe you're in kindergarten, and it's Elmer's–and that's a whole other thing.) But in Europe, where most Argentineans have roots, it's a typical after-dinner or between meals treat. Similar to the traditional tapas (small plates) of Spain, or the cheese course of France, Argentinos will set out a plate of cheeses, nuts, cold cuts like homemade sausage or salumi, and a paste–either dulce de batata or dulce de membrillo (quince paste).
Dulce de Batata is made from sweet potato puree, but the long, slow cooking and the sugar mellow the flavors of the sweet potato, making it a unique treat for the American palate. (And of course, making it in your own kitchen smells just about as good as walking past the factory in Bowen!)
There are brands of tinned Dulce de Batata. But they aren't nearly as tasty as the homemade version. If you're crafty, a little tin of this would be a great homemade holiday gift. Or it would be nice with a tray of goodies at your holiday open house. In these photos, I paired the paste with a tart goat cheese and an aged manchego, along with some walnuts. The combination was a sensation not unlike Remy the rat's in the Pixar movie Ratatouille, when he puts cheese, mushrooms and herbs combined with a lightning bolt for a taste sensation. This would be amazing with a nice bubbly sparkling wine or a crisp, cold Torrontés.
Is your mouth watering yet?
Dulce de Batata
Sweet Potato Paste
Sweet potato puree can be either homemade or canned for this recipe. To make a homemade version, peel and cube 4-5 sweet potatoes, and place in a non-reactive pot with water covering the potatoes. (Though several cubes may float up!) Heat over medium heat on the stove top and bring to a boil, cook until the sweet potatoes are soft and easily pierced with the tip of a knife. Drain, reserving some water for pureeing, and then either place the sweet potatoes through a ricer, or puree with some of the water in a food processor.
5 cups pureed sweet potato (either homemade or canned)
2 cups water
1/4 cup agar agar (a thickening agent, available at Whole Foods)
4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
Put the sweet potato puree in a non-reactive pot with the water, and heat over medium high heat, stirring and scraping the bottom to evenly distribute the heat and prevent burning. When the mixture raises to a boil, add in the sugar and the agar agar, stirring until totally incorporated and dissolved. Lower heat and keep at a simmer. Simmer until the water has absorbed, and the mixture has thickened, stirring frequently, about an hour or so.
Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Spread the mixture into a large rectangular casserole dish (lasagne pan or Pyrex pan) and let cool completely. After cooling at room temperature, remove to the refrigerator. Slice to serve.
Dulce de Batata can last several months in the refrigerator, in a tupperware or tightly sealed container. I sliced mine up into serving-sized pieces and separated the layers with wax paper.