Mikayla Leonard has just turned 5, and already she’s making something people line up for – sweet potato cheesecake for Smithfield’s Ham & Yam Festival.
Mikayla is one of three generations responsible for the treat made with sweet potatoes grown in Johnston County. Judy Goodwin and Gloria Davis are, respectively, Mikayla’s grandmother and great-grandmother. Together they are the “Cake Ladies.”
Mikayla is their secret ingredient.
“She already bakes on her own,” Goodwin said from the Cake Ladies’ booth at this year’s Ham & Yam. “She’ll go in the kitchen and won’t even measure things, and it’ll turn out good.”
Mikayla and her fellow Cake Ladies made 150 cheesecakes for the festival.
“I help make them,” Mikayla said, proudly displaying a slice of the creation. “I stir it and add things to make it good.
“I also make other cakes and pie.”
But none of the bakers would reveal the recipe behind the cheesecake that people lined up to try.
“There’s sweet potato in it; I can tell you that much,” Goodwin said, laughing.
For Ham & Yam, the Cake Ladies set up shop in a booth near the Hastings House. Their treat proved popular, with many people buying a whole pie.
The cheesecake, with its dark-orange filling and pastry crust, more closely resembled a sweet potato pie than the New York cream cheese confection its name called to mind.
“People think it’s pie, so when they take a bite, they’re surprised, but they almost always love it,” Goodwin said. “Sometimes people are iffy, but once they get up the courage to taste it, they love it.”
“It’s good – not too sweet but just right,” Davis added.
About halfway through the festival the ladies had sold about half of their cakes. Some people who had a slice came back for more.
“It’s a family recipe from South Carolina,” Goodwin said. “We’ve made it for several events, and people always like it. We made it last year for the festival, but it’s way more popular this year.”
The Cake Ladies weren’t the only food vendors doing creative things with sweet potatoes, which provided a sweet contrast to the ham grilled up nearby by Kiwanis members and to the barbecue steaming in trays a few streets down.
Faith Whitfield of Mount Olive was busy Saturday serving cups of sweet potato-infused lemonade.
“I knew I had to have something with sweet potatoes to participate,” Whitfield said while crushing more citrus. “So I figured if I could make pickle lemonade for the Pickle Festival, I could do it with sweet potatoes.”
With a laugh, Whitfield confessed to having procrastinated until the night before to concoct a recipe. She added sweet potato puree to her already popular lemonade and ended up with a sweeter drink with a slightly orange hue.
“People turn up their nose at it at first, but then they try it, and almost everyone who tries it buys it,” Whitfield said. “It wasn’t overpowering, and I already add sugar, so it just added more sweetness.”
The sweetness paired well in other treats available at the festival, including ice cream and smoothies.
Amy Nakhle of Smitty’s Homemade Ice Cream served up sweet potato souffle ice cream. The ice cream, tinted pastel orange by the potato puree, got an additional flavor boost from molasses, cinnamon, nutmeg and other popular pie spices.
Nakhle handed out samples that she said most people enjoyed.
“It’s very similar to a pumpkin pie flavor we do,” she said. “I think we may add this into the rotation in the fall.”
“It was this or deviled-ham ice cream,” Nakhle said, laughing.
Sam Sawaya has been making smoothies at the festival for many years now, and while his more traditional fruit flavors are often a customer’s first request, a taste of his yam smoothie is a pleasant surprise to the palate, he said.
“It’s about 80 percent yam,” Sawaya said, plopping a heaping scoopful into a blender. “Then it has other fruit like strawberry and pineapple.”
The mixture, once blended smooth, is more pink than orange thanks to strawberry puree but tastes sweeter than a fully strawberry smoothie.
“I’ve been doing this for years, and people are always surprised,” Sawaya said. “But it’s good; you just have to be brave enough to give it a chance.”
Abbie Bennett: 919-553-7234, Ext. 101; @AbbieRBennett