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News / Life / Clark County Life

Hasselback not hassle-free; twist on sweet potatoes not worth it

By Monika Spykerman, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 12, 2024, 6:03am
4 Photos
Hasselback sweet potatoes: just slice, drizzle and bake! How hard can that be? Harder than you think.
Hasselback sweet potatoes: just slice, drizzle and bake! How hard can that be? Harder than you think. (Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Our daughter will be home from college in just a few weeks. I’m amazed that time has flown by so quickly. I’m doubly amazed at how she’s grown from someone who couldn’t pick a sock up off the floor to someone who goes grocery shopping and makes her own dinner (though her socks are, I’m sure, still on the floor).

Last September, when we left her in Bellingham to start her junior year at Western Washington University, I missed her so acutely that it was a physical sensation.

My whole body registered the wrongness of the distance between us. I couldn’t imagine that her absence would ever feel normal. Now she’s coming home for the summer and my feelings are … complicated.

I can’t wait to have her home but at the same time, I’m sad to give up, at least for the summer, this placid new chapter that my husband and I have entered. Our house is peaceful and calm because everything is easier without a third person’s opinions. It used to take our family about an hour to decide which movie to stream on Netflix or where to go for brunch. Now it takes maybe three minutes. I used to wash and fold laundry four nights a week. Now it’s one night a week. I used to load the dishwasher at least once a day. Now it’s three times a week. How can one little human wreak so much havoc?

As our daughter was growing up, my husband and I joyfully lavished all our attention on her. But that meant that when she was feeling stressed or upset about something, it made us stressed and upset, too. We couldn’t stop ourselves from looking over her shoulder and offering unsought advice. We encouraged her to attend college in Bellingham because we knew the distance would encourage her independence. I never considered that the distance would benefit us just as much.

My life suddenly has this marvelous new thing: time. I used to do chores after dinner until 9 p.m. or so. Now I clean up the dinner dishes and have nothing to do. I felt uncomfortably idle at first but now I look forward to the after-dinner lull. I go for a walk or read on the couch or work in the garden or call a friend. Sometimes I even leave the house — gadzooks! — and go to the library or go shopping. I haven’t lived like this since — well, since before our daughter was born.

Another thing that’s changed is that dinner is much less complicated. Tuna sandwiches? Sure. Heat-and-serve Trader Joe’s chicken marsala? Excellent. Baked potato? I thought you’d never ask.

You’re likely familiar with hasselback potatoes — or “potato a la hasselbacken,” if you want to be snooty. This method of cooking potatoes originated at a restaurant in Stockholm, Sweden, in the 1940s. The potato is sliced very thinly from one end to the other without being sliced all the way through. Butter and herbs are drizzled on the potato so that the potato absorbs flavor as it bakes. How hard can it be to cut, drizzle and bake?

Harder than I thought. All those little slices are extremely tedious and time-consuming. Then it should be a cinch to get melted butter down in all those little pockets, right? But no! The slices fight to stay shut so that when topping is drizzled over the potato, it rolls down the side to the bottom of the pan. I ended up prying the slices apart with my fingers and a spoon to get the sauce down inside. Even then I don’t think I got much sauce inside the stubborn potato.

The recipe I used as inspiration featured a sauce with melted butter, orange juice and zest, brown sugar, dates and pecans. It was very hard to shove those dates and pecan pieces in between the slices so I left most of the dates and nuts on top of the potatoes, figuring they’d brown as the potatoes baked. Crikey, how they browned!

The instructions said to bake the potatoes at 425 degrees for 50 minutes. At 30 minutes, I could smell the sweet potatoes and aromatic spices. At 40 minutes, I smelled burning. I took the sweet potatoes out of the oven and all the dates and pecans were burnt to a charcoal-black crisp. I picked them off and decided to serve them anyway.

My husband loyally ate about two-thirds of the sweet potato and then he lost steam and stopped pretending to like it. He didn’t say anything about it but much later, just as we were drifting off to sleep, he said, “Did you put orange in those sweet potatoes?” I replied that there was indeed orange juice and zest. He remained silent, as if his worst fears had been confirmed, rendering him incapable of speech. A few minutes later he was snoring.

In truth, the hasselback sweet potatoes were lovely in concept but terrible in execution, like every sequel to the 1978 “Superman” starring Christopher Reeve. They weren’t even cooked all the way through and the bottom portion of the potatoes absorbed no sauce at all. I might make them a second time but I’d adjust the sauce, temperature and cooking time. I’d drizzle only half the sauce over the potatoes before baking and then I’d spoon the remaining sauce over them after the oven’s heat had naturally pulled the slices apart. I wouldn’t add dates and pecans unless as a garnish sprinkled over the potatoes before serving.

Who am I kidding? I’ll never make these again. Plain baked sweet potatoes are far less effort and won’t cause my husband to question my capability in the kitchen (which is actually fair since I make a lot of weird things). Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need to go pick my socks up off the floor.

Hasselback Sweet Potatoes

3 medium sweet potatoes

¼ cup butter

2 tablespoons brown sugar

1 tablespoon molasses

1/4 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ cup minced pecans and dates for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut thin slices lengthwise from bottoms of sweet potatoes for stability. Place potatoes flat side down; cut crosswise into ¹/8-inch slices, leaving potato bottoms intact. Arrange the sweet potatoes in a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish. Whisk together butter, brown sugar, molasses, salt and spices. Drizzle half the mixture over the potatoes. Bake, covered, until potatoes are just becoming tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove pan from oven and spoon the remaining sauce over the potatoes. Return to oven and bake uncovered for another 20-30 minutes or until potatoes are completely tender.

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