Whether you call them yams or sweet potatoes, the orange-fleshed root vegetables make the perfect foil for the crunchy, sugary topping that "candies" the yams. Creating an old-fashioned, Southern version of this holiday staple requires only a few kitchen basics such as butter and brown sugar. Of course, if Grandmother added extras such as orange juice and pecans, by all means add these ingredients to your updated version.
Whether your region sells them as "yams" or "sweet potatoes," look for smooth-skinned, medium or small tubers that don't show signs of bruises or sprouting. The larger, sprouting ones are apt to be woody rather than tender and flavorful. For a generous side dish that serves at least six people, you need about four yams or sweet potatoes. If you're buying canned yams, make sure the label indicates orange-fleshed tubers; you need two large cans for a basic candied-yam recipe.
Raw yam or sweet potato chunks need to be cooked before the baking process. Peel the yams, then cut them into 2-inch chunks. Cook the pieces in boiling water for about 20 minutes until they are tender but not overcooked, then drain them. If you're using canned yams or sweet potatoes, you don't need to do any precooking. Drain canned cubes, reserving the syrup if you intend to make a quick glaze.
Once you layer the yam or sweet potato chunks in a buttered casserole dish, it's time for the good stuff -- the "candied" part. Butter and brown sugar are a must for the sweet glaze but orange juice also may be added to what becomes the candied crust. You need about 4 parts brown sugar -- or a combination of brown and white sugars -- along with 2 parts butter and 1 part water or orange juice. Boil these together for two or three minutes. Add your flavoring or spices of choice, which might include grated orange zest, cloves, nutmeg or ginger. Pour the liquid evenly over the yam pieces.
Chances are each Southern grandmother has her own secret ingredient when it comes to candied yams. Perhaps it was a splash of bourbon added to the glaze after it comes off the heat. Southern staples such as molasses might replace all or some of the sugar. If you wish, toss in a handful of toasted, chopped pecans. If Grandmother believes in low-sugar alternatives, consider making a glaze with honey and apricot nectar along with spices to taste.
Once you've covered the sweet potato pieces with their sugary topping, toss them gently then pop the baking dish into an oven set to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. For even cooking, it's best to stir the dish occasionally while it cooks, which takes about 35 minutes. The candied yams or sweet potatoes are ready once the pieces are all fork-tender and the topping is crusty.
When you're making a quick candied-yam dish using canned tubers, up the convenience quotient -- use the syrup in which the pieces are packed. After combining the canned syrup with an equal amount of brown sugar and about half as much butter, thicken the glaze in a saucepan on medium heat and cook the dish as you normally would.