Irish potatoes are most often associated with the staple crop of Ireland and the Great Famine of the 1840s. But as St. Patrick's Day approaches, a sweeter, cinnamon-dusted version of the famous spud starts showing up in bakeries and stores in Philadelphia and a few other areas of the country.

Typically filled with coconut cream, vanilla and powdered sugar, the candies resemble tiny potatoes and usually come boxed in festive one-pound packages. For those who grew up with them, their appearance in stores and on coffee tables is a sure sign that St. Patrick's Day, along with the warmer temperatures of spring, is just around the corner.

Oh Ryan's

Locals say the candy is a homespun tradition that is as much a part of St. Patrick's Day as corned beef and cabbage and minty-green shakes are everywhere else in the country. The candies were likely made by Irish immigrants on the East Coast more than a century ago, though there's no documented evidence of this, says Michael Holahan, whose Pennsylvania General Store ships Irish potatoes and other beloved items like soft pretzels to homesick transplants around the country.

Holahan, 56, recalls eating Irish potatoes often as a kid at Catholic school fundraisers and neighborhood events.

"It's not a cooked product, so anyone can make them," he said. "All you need are a blender or strong muscles for mixing." Once the batter is the desired texture, you roll it into a nugget, dust it with cinnamon and let it chill or set for a few hours.

One thing is clear: you won't find Irish potato candy in Ireland.

"Irish potatoes are not Irish and do not have potatoes in them," says Harry Hefton, sales representative for Oh Ryan's, a Philadelphia-based company that has been making the candy since 1989.

Hefton links the sought-after sweets to a rainy-day activity invented by "crafty moms" long before video games came along. "Back in the day, Mom had craft day for the kids," he said. Kids would sit around the kitchen table rolling the sweet coconut-laced batter in cinnamon. As a fun twist, someone would sneak a penny into one of the nuggets.

I Can Cook That

"If you got the one with the penny, you were the lucky child," he said.

Oh Ryan's makes and ships more than 82,000 pounds of Irish potatoes between January and March every year. The company uses vintage rolling machines and hires a temporary staff — often retired folks or moms with school-age children -- for a few months to help box up the candies.

"We're flying right now," Hefton said. "And on March 15, we're done until next year."

Irish potatoes are still unknown in most parts of the country, though awareness is spreading. See's Candies of California has been making its own version of the Irish potato since 1978, said spokeswoman Hannah Gray.

Called St. Patrick's Day Potatoes, the seasonal candies sell briskly and are filled with a nougat-like texture known as divinity, which also appears in Easter eggs and is a popular flavor in See's boxed assortment of chocolates.

"Someone got into the St. Patrick's Day spirit and got really creative with a See's customer favorite," Gray said. That "extended to using a special blend of cinnamon/cocoa powder to give the outside a matted look like a potato and adding pine nuts as the eyes of the potato."

A Teaspoon of Happiness

Irish potato candy was always a staple in the home of Kaitlin Lunny, who grew up in the Drexel Hill suburb of Philadelphia. "It never crossed my mind that they were a local treat until I went to college and no one knew what I was talking about," she said. "They thought I just meant potatoes from Ireland."

Lunny, who writes a food blog for novice home chefs, came up with her own recipe for the candy and posted it on her blog. "I added cocoa powder to put my own little spin on them," she said.

Melissa Belanger, a Philadelphia-born food blogger who now lives in France, was also motivated by childhood memories to publish a recipe for Irish potato candy that came from her mother. "I don't think it's actually a family recipe," Belanger said. "It's more likely that it was passed around until it reached her."

Belanger is hoping her mom will have some of the candies waiting for her when she returns with her family for a visit next month. "They're always a treat," she said. Get Belanger's recipe for Irish Potato Candy.