This was inspired by a recipe in "The Gift of Southern Cooking" by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock (Knopf, $32.50). To achieve this decorative spiral pattern, select narrow sweet potatoes.
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter
3 pounds sweet potatoes
Thyme leaves or chopped parsley for garnish, optional
1. With a fine grater, remove zest from lemon. Set aside. Cut lemon in half and squeeze out juice. You should have about 4 tablespoons.
2. In a small saucepan, combine sugar and salt with 3/4 cup water. Simmer until sugar dissolves, remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, pepper, nutmeg and 2 tablespoons butter.
3. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Peel potatoes and cut into slices 1/8 to 1/2 inch thick. Use 1 remaining tablespoon of butter to grease a 10-inch circular (or 8x10-inch rectangular) casserole pan. Place sweet potato slices, overlapping, in casserole. They should be in one layer, but because they will shrink when they cook, pack them tightly. Cover with syrup and then with bits of remaining butter. Cover tightly with foil and bake until tender, 30 to 45 minutes.
4. Turn oven to 450, remove foil and bake until most of liquid has evaporated and sweet potatoes begin to brown on top, 10 to 25 minutes depending on the moisture content of sweet potatoes. Sprinkle surface with some of the grated lemon peel and, if desired, thyme leaves or parsley. Makes 8 servings.