A Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day tradition.
Irish potatoes are neither Irish nor potatoes. And yet, this sweet no-bake confection of coconut, cream cheese, butter, and powdered sugar (all rolled in cinnamon) make one of the Philadelphia area’s most beloved St. Patrick’s Day food traditions. Learn the origin story of St. Patrick’s Day Irish potatoes candy below, and get the recipe.
What Are Philadelphia Irish Potatoes? Candy? Potatoes?
At their most basic, Irish potatoes can be described as little coconut cream cheese buttercream balls rolled in cinnamon. The result looks like a little potato just plucked from the earth. They contain no potatoes. They are not from Ireland.
Food writer Daniela Galarza wrote an excellent, well-researched piece a few years ago on Irish potato candy and its Philadelphia roots. According to Galarza’s research, Irish potatoes are definitively not Irish. Rather, the sweet coconut cream confections emerged at the intersection of 1) a huge wave of mid- to late-19th century Irish immigration, and 2) Philadelphia’s place as the candy capital of the United States.
At one time, the Philadelphia area boasted between 200 and 300 candy companies. Many Irish immigrants worked at the candy factories. Theories of Irish potato invention differ. However, Philadelphia candy maker Dave Lamparelli, founder of Oh Ryan’s (which sells around 2.5 million Irish spuds per year), speculates that Irish potatoes emerged as a candy-selling opportunity to bridge the dead period between Valentine’s Day and Easter.
Candy makers found a way to sell a treat in this otherwise low season, using the same filling as traditional chocolate-coated coconut buttercreams. Coating the treat in cinnamon — for a dirt-covered potato aesthetic — recalled Ireland’s famous potato identity, for better or worse since the immigration wave was largely caused by the potato famine.
Recipe Notes: Authentic Philadelphia Irish Potatoes Candy
Irish potatoes are absolutely simple to make, and a fun, no-bake holiday dessert project for any age — especially kids. This recipe comes direct from my mom, who has made these for years, to great acclaim. Growing up, I always loved when Irish potato season came around. To me, Irish potatoes were (are?) one of the very best parts of St. Patrick’s Day, along with fresh-from-the-oven soda bread. My mom got the recipe from a friend years ago.
The “dough” comes together in a couple of minutes. You will want to ensure that the butter and cream cheese are softened, so they emulsify with the powdered sugar and sweetened coconut. Then cover and chill the dough so it firms up enough to scoop and roll.
Rolling the coconut buttercream dough in raw cinnamon may seem aggressive, but the cinnamon is not overpowering. The spice cuts through the sweetness of the coconut filling in just the right proportion.
More essential Irish recipes for St. Patrick’s Day:
Philadelphia Irish Potatoes Candy
- 1 8-ounce package Philadelphia cream cheese, softened
- 1 stick (4 ounces; 8 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
- 32 ounces powdered sugar
- 7 ounces sweetened flake coconut
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- pinch kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons (more or less) ground cinnamon
- Combine all ingredients except the cinnamon in a mixer. Mix on the lowest setting until the powdered sugar looks just incorporated. Scrape the bowl and mix on low until completely smooth and fully emulsified. Cover and chill for one hour.
- Use a teaspoon or small cookie scoop to scoop and roll small, tablespoon-sized rounds of coconut "dough." Roll in cinnamon and tap off the excess. You may not use all the cinnamon, but you need extra enough to roll the buttercream balls.
- Serve chilled or at very cool room temperature. PRO TIP: Irish potatoes can be frozen and thawed in the refrigerator overnight.