Irish potatoes: have you heard of them? It’s recently come to my attention that there’s a good chance you haven’t. Unless, of course, you’re from the greater Philadelphia area.
Irish potatoes actually are not potatoes at all. These creamy coconutty candies are formed into little balls and rolled in cinnamon to mimic the appearance of the real thing. They start showing up around these parts every year in the beginning of March for St. Patrick’s Day. Having grown up with these kitschy confections, I always assumed they were a universal treat enjoyed by people all over the country, and of course over in Ireland where they surely must have originated.Only it turns out that’s not the case… At all. Most people in the US have never heard of them, and they’re most definitely not found anywhere in Ireland.
If you pick up a box of Oh Ryan’s brand Irish Potatoes, you’ll see “A Philadelphia Tradition for Over 100 Years” stamped on the package. Yet, like many other regional specialties, few people actually know how, when or where these seasonal sweets came to be. It’s said that the tradition of making them began as a way to honor the millions of people lost in the Irish Potato Famine of the mid 1800s. But no one knows exactly who came up with them or how the recipe came about.
That being said, anyone who’s ever tried them will tell you one thing they do know: they’re freaking delicious. Even my coconut-hating husband gobbles them up this time of year.Irish Potatoes had always been a favorite of mine growing up, spending the early days of March seeing just how many I could fit into my mouth at once (6, respectably). After heading off to college I had all but forgotten about them, as I spent most of my St. Paddy’s Days trying to see how much beer I could fit into my belly instead. Upon moving back to New Jersey, my BFF Lauren reintroduced me to these beauties and became my go-to gal to snag a batch every March. Lucky for us, she was cool enough to share her recipe with me this year.
There are several different variations on the recipe floating around out there, some that use corn syrup and some that are rolled in cocoa powder. But to me, they just aren’t the same without the zippy tang from the cream cheese and the sharp bite of cinnamon.
Lauren’s recipe is nearly perfect on it’s own, but I made a few small changes to make it even better. Irish potatoes are a candy, so by definition they’re going to be pretty sweet. The original recipe calls for sweetened flaked coconut, but I had a bag of the unsweetened stuff on hand so I tried using that instead. The result was better than I had imagined. Considering the recipe uses an entire pound of confectioners sugar, the unsweetened coconut barely made a difference.
And because of all that sugar, I thought the recipe would benefit from a hefty dose of salt. I feel this way about most things that are really sweet, often doubling the salt in dessert recipes (hello salted caramel and chocolate covered pretzels). The salt helps to balance out the sweetness while enhancing some of the other flavors like the vanilla and cream cheese.
If you’ve had Irish potatoes before then you know the pleasure of these little spheres of cinnamonny coconutty goodness. But if you haven’t, I urge you to give them a try! They might just become you’re favorite Paddy tradition, just like mine.
- 1/4 cup (half a stick) of butter, softened
- 4 oz (1/2 package) cream cheese, softened
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 1lb box confectioners sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 7 oz flaked unsweetened coconut
- 2 tablespoons or more ground cinnamon
- In a medium bowl, beat the butter and cream cheese together until smooth. Add in the vanilla and salt, then slowly add in the confectioners sugar while beating until it’s all incorporated and totally smooth. Next, blend in the coconut until you have one unified mixture.
- Place in the refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes so that it’s easier to handle. Form into balls or potato shapes, then roll in cinnamon to coat.
- Refrigerate until ready to serve. Will keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.