Vanilla Bean Healthy Sweet Potato Casserole with Crunchy Pecan Oat Topping
I was not in the market for another sweet potato casserole recipe. For this Vanilla Bean Healthy Sweet Potato Casserole, I blame Wisconsin Public Television.
Of course, by “blame,” I mean, “thank profusely,” “add to my Christmas card list,” and “forever in debt.” This healthy sweet potato casserole recipe is one of the best things I’ve made in a long, long time. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it the way I did, but the contrast of the ultra creamy, vanilla bean-specked sweet potatoes with the savory, crunchy, nutty pecan topping stole all of my affection, right along with my appetite.
Prior to this healthy sweet potato casserole recipe’s cosmic disruption of my sweet potato casserole preferences, I was already in a happily committed relationship with our current family favorite, Glazed Sweet Potatoes with Whiskey Pecans. It and Rosemary Bacon Mushroom Stuffing are my two favorite Thanksgiving side dishes, to the extent that, after the meal, I hide a personal container of them both from the rest of my family in an undisclosed location.
And then…this Vanilla Bean Healthy Sweet Potato Casserole with Crunchy Oat Topping happened, thanks to a live show I attended in Milwaukee.
America’s Test Kitchen, the folks who publish Cook’s Illustrated and a host a program on Wisconsin Public Television came to town on tour, and Alice scored me a ticket. At the end of the show, the host, Cook’s Illustrated’s editor-in-chief Christopher Kimball, took questions, one of which went noticeably unanswered. A woman raised her hand and bemoaned the fact that her daughter had recently become a vegan and asked, “what on earth can I make that my daughter would eat?”
To be honest, the hosts didn’t have a good answer. So much of Thanksgiving revolves around the glory that is butter, that the idea of making a vegan, dairy-free Thanksgiving recipe sounds at once impossible and disrespectful. While I don’t have any ideas for the turkey, this challenge prompted me to consider different dietary restrictions, and how difficult it would be to prepare a Thanksgiving meal taking these limitations into account. I decided to see if I could make a vegan Thanksgiving recipe that would be just as good as a non-vegan version. Oh my, did I succeed!
Forget the out-of-place marshmallows (sorry, not in my sweet potato casserole) and gobs of butter—you don’t need them to make a stellar sweet potato casserole. This healthy sweet potato casserole is vegan (and therefore dairy-free), gluten free, and naturally sweetened, and it is also one of the best Thanksgiving sides I’ve ever tried.
For this healthy sweet potato casserole, instead of using butter and heavy cream, I used unsweetened vanilla almond milk and coconut oil. For an extra flavor dimension, I added two vanilla beans, which tasted lovely paired with the sweet potatoes. The final healthy sweet potato casserole filling was so creamy, flavorful, and decadent, I honestly wouldn’t have believed no butter was involved.
We could stop here and have a killer bowl of mashed sweet potatoes that is Thanksgiving-ready, but as texture devotee, I couldn’t resist the urge to add a little crunch. I updated my all-time favorite fruit crisp topping to a more savory version, then sprinkled it over the healthy sweet potato casserole filling and baked until golden.
Oh. My. Word. The savory crunch of the oats and pecans proved to be the ideal counterpoint to the velvety vanilla sweet potatoes and vaulted this healthy sweet potato casserole straight into the holiday side dish stratosphere. I ate an enormous serving for lunch, a second at dinner, and a third for breakfast with a dollop of Greek yogurt on top. In a final act of self preservation, I moved what few leftovers remained to the garage refrigerator, hoping the distance would encourage me to eat something besides healthy sweet potato casserole for a meal. It didn’t work.
Although I intended this healthy sweet potato casserole recipe to be a side that could accommodate a variety of dietary needs so that more guests can partake, no matter what eating regimen you do (or do not) follow, this Vanilla Bean Healthy Sweet Potato Casserole will have you scraping your plate clean!
Tools I used to make this recipe:
Healthy Sweet Potato Casserole with Crunchy Oat Topping
A healthy sweet potato casserole made with coconut oil, maple syrup and vanilla beans. Tastes as decadent as the original but is vegan and gluten free!
Yield: Serves 8 (1 9x13-inch casserole)
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
For the Sweet Potatoes:
- 4 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes, scrubbed (about 4-5 very large sweet potatoes)
- 1 cup unsweetened vanilla almond milk
- 2 vanilla beans (or 2 tablespoons vanilla bean paste)*
- 2 tablespoons virgin coconut oil, melted
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (it’s an amazing flavor upgrade to grate your own nutmeg. I use this zester to do it.)
- 1/4 teaspoon white pepper
For the Pecan Oat Topping:
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9×13-inch casserole dish or other 3 quart casserole dish and set aside.
- Prick the sweet potatoes all over with a fork, then place them on a baking sheet lined with foil or a silpat mat. Bake until the potatoes are fork tender, about 1 hour or so, depending upon the size of your potatoes. Remove from the oven and let sit until cool enough to handle, about 5 minutes. Peel and discard the skins (they should come off easily with your fingers), break the potatoes in large chunks with a fork, then place the chunks into the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment or a large mixing bowl.
- While the potatoes bake, pour the almond milk in a small saucepan. Split the vanilla beans, scrape the seeds into the pan, then add the empty pods to the pan too. Bring to a very gentle simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Do not let the almond milk boil. Remove from heat and let the vanilla steep while the potatoes continue baking.
- Remove the vanilla bean pods from the saucepan, then pour the almond milk and vanilla bean specs into the bowl with the sweet potato chunks. Add the melted coconut oil, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg, and white pepper.
- Mash the potatoes together with the milk and spices (or beat gently with a mixer or your paddle attachment or run though a food mill) until fairly smooth with some texture remaining. Taste and add additional salt/pepper as desired. Transfer to the prepared baking dish. With the back of a rubber spatula, press and smooth into a single layer.
- In a separate bowl, combine the topping ingredients: oats, pecans, almond meal, cinnamon, salt, coconut oil, and maple syrup until moist and evenly mixed. Sprinkle over the sweet potatoes.
- Bake until the topping is toasted and fragrant and casserole is warmed through, about 20 minutes. Serve warm.
Pecan oat topping adapted from my Cherry Blackberry Crisp// All images and text © /Well Plated.
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