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Sweet Potatoes: An Introduction to Irish Potato Candy

Image: Flickr user srbth

Sure, you've heard of potatoes from Ireland. But have you ever heard of Irish Potato Candy?


Image: Oh Ryan's Candies

No, they're not made of potato (although candies made with potato do exist!). 

Comprised of coconut cream coated in cinnamon, they're a Philadelphia tradition, with varieties produced by just about every confectioner in town (Whole Foods even has their own version!). 

But one of the most ubiquitous specimens around town is the version made by a company called Oh Ryan's. As they say on their website, 

Irish Potatoes are not Irish and there is no potato in them. A Philadelphia tradition for over 100 years, they are a coconut cream center rolled in cinnamon. Because they are rolled in cinnamon, they look like small potatoes. They traditionally come out for St. Patrick's Day, hence the name “Irish Potatoes.”

In spite of it being a long-standing Philadelphia tradition, Oh Ryan's has only been around since 1989--

Oh Ryan's Irish Potatoes is a family-run company that has been making Irish Potatoes since 1989. We named the company after our 1-year-old son, Ryan, since he has such a nice Irish name.

Now that Ryan is all grown up, he works alongside his father in the company that has grown to be the largest producer of Irish Potatoes today. 90% of our sales have been in the Philadelphia area, but we have shipped them all across the country from Massachusetts to Florida, to California, and as far away as Nome, Alaska.

But in that time, they have established themselves as the largest purveyor of the sweet potatoes.

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But I digress. The point is that the candies are labeled "Irish" more because of their look than because of any Irish ingredient or candy-making tradition (not unlike the "Potato" pastry made by Nielsen's in Seattle). And, to that point, here's a recipe from the 1920s that I found on The Food Timeline:

"Candy Irish Potatoes for St. Patrick's Day Take five pounds of bon bon cream and into knead one pound of almond paste, stiffening it with XXXX powdered sugar while working, if necessary. When thoroughly kneaded, shape into small spuds about the size of an ink bottle, and while moist rub with powdered cinnamon. Use almond paste or pignolia nuts pressed in side to represent eyes or sprouts, or simply make little dents for the eyes. Care must be taken to bet the cinnamon to stick good." ---Rigby's Reliable Candy Teacher, W.O. Rigby, 19th edition 1920s? (p. 208)

Interestingly, the site also mentions that "Curiously, we do not find any potato candies in our historic British confectionery texts, candy reference books, books on potatoes, or Irish culinary sources."

Unlike another potato-inspired candy, the Idaho Spud, the Irish Potato seems to proliferate primarily around St. Patrick's day time. And while it is most popular in the Philadelphia area, California-based See's Candies also makes a version. As I learned from Serious Eats, 

But the West Coast confectionery See's shouldn't get all the credit for the spud trompe l'oeil. Just outside Philadelphia in Linwood, Pennsylvania, Oh Ryan'sships about 80,000 pounds of these spud-candies per year, mostly within the state. It's a Philly-area tradition that spans back 100 years, also made from scratch. They start with a special sugar made for candy-makers, then make vanilla buttercream and add coconut flavoring and macaroon coconut for flavor and texture.

As the Serious Eats article concludes, "File this under another Americanism that Irish people in Ireland probably have no clue about."

To obtain some Potato Candy for yourself, go to See's Candies or buy Oh Ryan's Irish Potatoes online here.

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Reader Comments (12)

These little Irish potatoes look cute but I was really happy that you posted the Idaho Spud candy. Yay Idaho!
March 7 | Unregistered CommenterChelsea Stagg
I avoid the OhRyan's Irish Potatos like the plague when I see them in the supermarkets (beginning in Feb around the Greater Philly area). I make my own, you need to eat them fresh. I have had OhRyan's and they were hard. They are suppose to be creamy (with coconut) and melt in your mouth once you get past the cinnamon. One thing is for sure, you can only have a few, they are really rich. I recommend making your own, pop them in the fridge for an hour (so they set) and enjoy! Having them fresh does not compare to a boxed version of these candies and OhRyan's version does not do this candy justice. Make sure the recipe has cream cheese, butter, vanilla extract, powdered sugar, cinnamon, and coconut.
March 7 | Unregistered CommenterAng
These look absolutely scrumptious! I just listened to Joy the Bakers podcast yesterday where she talked to you and now I can't stop drooling over your stuff! Next time I'm in Seattle I'm definitely going to your shop. And asking you for recommendations on sweet shops to go to... I hear you're a pro at that.
March 7 | Unregistered CommenterBethany
I've made these. They are dang good...and also dang addictive.
March 7 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda
I'd love to get my hands on some of those! YUM! I love coconut cream centers in chocolates. The Sees version seems different since it says it's a nougat center. Oh Ryans sound MUCH better
March 7 | Unregistered CommenterKristin A.
I started selling Oh Ryan's Irish Potato Candy at my store in Lincoln, NE about four years ago and now I sell about 400 boxes each two-month season. People love these and they are my all-time favorite coconut candy. I actually went to the little factory in Linwood when I was out here visiting my family in Philly and they use only the best ingredients and everything is made in small batches.

You can buy them online buy a box at http://www.licoriceinternational.com/licorice/pc/Oh-Ryan-s-Irish-Potato-Candy-7-oz-27p328.htm
Woww these look great..such a good idea..bet they taste really good too!
March 8 | Unregistered CommenterLot-O-Choc
lol, loving all these posts from the Philly area! There was a little old lady who lived across the street from us who'd make a batch of these and bring them over every year. The box kind just aren't as good, I agree that they are better fresh.
Now....there is a place that should be easy to find, Nudy's Cafe, don't know if they have one in Philly but there's a few in the 'burbs. They sell different flavors of french toast cake with frosting on the side and it's so yummy! And since you like the sweet/savory combo be sure to order a side of their delicious link sausage.
March 8 | Unregistered CommenterSeriousCakes
I love Irish Potato Candy too but make my own (and dip them in chocolate!) How long are you in Philly?
March 10 | Unregistered CommenterDawn
Dawn: til late this year. You are in the Philadelphia area, no? I am staying right near the reading terminal market.
March 10 | Registered CommenterCakespy
Yes! I live about 20 minutes away from Center City, Philadelphia. Welcome! While you are here, I agree you should visit Nudy's Cafe (as SeriousCakes suggested) but also, Sabrina's and Green Eggs Cafe have some over-the-top breakfast items that border dessert. Just amazing. Also, I tried to purchase your book at Barnes & Noble here in the suburbs but to no avail. Hope to get an opportunity to meet you while you are in town.
March 11 | Unregistered CommenterDawn
I wish I could see the recipe for the Oh Ryan-like Irish Potatoes but the recipe link on this page is currently wrong (takes visitors to an advertisement). I lost my non-cream cheese recipe for Irish potato candy and that is my favorite version of this holiday treat; everyone has their own preferences!
Let me know if you have a recipe! Thank you.
March 15 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

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