“Basic to Brilliant” Sweet Potato Spoonbread

Post image for “Basic to Brilliant” Sweet Potato Spoonbread
(Photo by Hélène Dujardin from Basic to Brilliant, Y’All)

I still remember the first time I came across a recipe for spoonbread, in one of my mother’s old cookbooks. She had a small, diverse collection, and as a girl I enjoyed paging through them, especially a small, spiral-bound book called The Savannah Cookbook. It was in that book that I first saw the spoonbread recipe. For some reason, those two plain words—“spoon” and “bread”—strung together, captivated me. I imagined just that—a bread so soft and pillowy that it had to be eaten with a spoon. It sounded like nothing I had ever had before; utterly comforting and delicious, quintessentially American, specifically Southern.

Which was something I was not. At our house we ate things like pasta and gnocchi and polenta, not to mention squid (which my sister and I called “creepy crawlers”) and tripe (which we called “worms”). It’s no wonder that something called “spoonbread” sounded so appealing to me.

In spite of my lingering fascination, it was years before I actually made spoonbread, and when I did I realized that I was essentially making…polenta. For that is what spoon bread is; stone-ground cornmeal, aka grits, cooked and then mixed with beaten eggs and baked until puffed and golden. A variation of polenta al forno. When I moved to Virginia in the mid-1990s, I began to see just how much Southern cooking and Italian cooking—and cooks have in common:

* We love our hearty greens, especially braised.
* We love our legumes, be they black-eyed peas or borlotti beans.
* We love our grains, from stone-ground to finely milled.

And we cook according to the firm belief that just about anything we make will taste better if it contains pork—lard or fatback; bacon or pancetta; country ham or prosciutto.

The other day I found myself flipping through another Southern cookbook—Virginia Willis’s just-published Basic to Brilliant, Y’All. When I came across her recipe for Sweet Potato Spoonbread, my taste buds did a little anticipatory dance. I knew it would be the first (but not the last) recipe I made from the book.

Virginia, a friend and colleague of mine, was raised in Georgia and is a Southern cook through and through. But she is also professionally trained, and she does a lovely job of blending her two selves in this book. Basic to Brilliant, Y’All has a clever—and very useful—premise. Each “basic” recipe can be elevated to “brilliant” by an accompanying companion recipe, presentation tip, or technique. Thus, a recipe for Mama’s Macaroni Salad is enhanced by folding in jumbo lump crab meat. Chilled Haricots Verts with Creme Fraiche, plenty refined on their own, are transformed by a sourdough bread crumb topping flavored with dried porcini. And a homey pot of sweet potato grits (or polenta) becomes, with the addition of beaten egg yolks and whipped whites, fluffy golden spoonbread.

To celebrate the publication of her book, Virginia has offered to send personalized signed book plates to those who buy a copy. If you are interested, you can simply click here to purchase the book. Then, fill out this order form BY OCTOBER 12 and you will receive your book plate in the mail. Buon Appetito, y’all! 

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Sweet Potato SpoonbreadPhoto by Hélène Dujardin from Basic to Brilliant, Y’All


  • For the "Basic" sweet potato grits:
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups low-fat or whole milk
  • 1 cup stone-ground grits
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and grated
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground white pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Pinch of ground cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

  • For the "Brilliant" sweet potato spoonbread:
  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • Pinch of salt
  • Butter for a 2-quart casserole or soufflé dish


For the "Basic" sweet potato grits:

In a large, heavy saucepan, combine the water and milk and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Slowly add the grits, whisking constantly. Add the sweet potato. Season with salt and white pepper. Decrease the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until the grits are creamy and thick, 45 to 60 minutes. Taste the grits and sweet potato to make sure both are cooked and tender. Add the ground ginger, cinnamon, and butter. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and white pepper.

For the "Brilliant" sweet potato spoonbread:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Butter an ovenproof casserole or round 2-quart soufflé mold. To the sweet potato-grits mixture, add the egg yolks, one at a time, stirring after each addition. In a separate bowl, using a handheld mixer, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt on high speed until stiff peaks form. Gently add the egg whites into the warm sweet potato mixture. Transfer the lightened mixture to the prepared pan; smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake until the outside is puffed and risen, the inside is firm but moist, and the top is golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately while still puffed.

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11 Responses to “Basic to Brilliant” Sweet Potato Spoonbread

  1. Joana October 3, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    I had never heard of spoonbread, this sounds quite interesting. Have you tried this recipe?

  2. Domenica October 3, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Hi Joana,
    Yes, I made this last night as a side dish for pork chops (nice combo). I didn’t photograph it because it was dark out. I used fat-free milk because that is what I had. Next time I will use whole milk as the recipe recommends to enrich it a little more. I had to resist the urge to toss in grated Parmigiano, which is what I do when I make polenta. I liked the whisper of spice in this recipe and it turns out a lovely golden-orange color.

  3. Kimmy @ Lighter and Local October 3, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    OOh, I have one too many sweet potatoes from something I was making this week. This sounds perfectly comforting and would be a great side to sweet and spicy pulled pork, or even chili. Yum.

  4. Domenica October 3, 2011 at 3:22 pm #

    Hi Kimmy–yes, great as an accompaniment to pork. And your sweet and spicy pulled pork sounds just about perfect right now on this dreary, chilly day…

  5. Alicia Sokol October 3, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    I’ve never made spoonbread before, but interestingly I bought my first bag of stone-ground grits today with the intention of making polenta to go with braised chicken. Maybe I’ll revise my plan and make this instead since it would go so nicely with chicken. Sounds amazing!

    • Domenica October 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

      Either way you can’t go wrong, Alicia. Cheers

  6. Elisa October 4, 2011 at 9:01 am #

    I love spoonbread and sweet potatoes, but I am going to add 1/2 cup of cheddar! Grazie for the wonderful recipes!

    • Domenica October 4, 2011 at 1:43 pm #

      Elisa, I like your idea of adding cheddar to the spoonbread. It would go beautifully.

  7. Jamie October 19, 2011 at 11:51 am #

    I have always been curious about and intrigued by spoonbread but have never made it. Now making it with sweet potatoes – I am crazy about sweet potatoes – makes it even more enticing! Great recipe which I will try this autumn. And the book sounds fabulous!

  8. Savit December 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

    I really like idea of spoon bread , interesting. I think I have to try this recipe.

    • Domenica December 9, 2011 at 6:07 pm #

      Thank you for stopping by my site. Welcome! Spoon bread is great comfort food, especially in winter. I especially like the variation that Elisa mentioned in her comment above–adding cheddar cheese. Can’t beat that on a cold night.

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