One of the things I make for most holidays are mashed potatos. Mashed potatos and I go way, way back. They’ve always been a comfort food for me, something I’ve eaten when things have been terribly wrong or terribly right. I will drive for hours for the perfect mashed potatos and I’ve been on a quest for quite some time to find them. I’ve had mashed potatos with sour cream, butter, heavy cream, ricotta cheese, cream cheese and all kinds of spices and flavorings. I have some family members who have gladly joined me on this quest. My mother, for example, can go on poetically about the mashed potatos that the now defunct Classic Chicken place made.
For me, mashed potatos are more symbolic than one might think. For me they symbolize my family without my grandmother. After my grandmother died, we all came home for the funeral and to sit shiva. Everyone stayed longer than they expected to because we just felt better being together. It wasn’t as hard to be without her if we were all home, in her house, eating. I changed my flight back to DC at least three times (this was in the days when you could do that and when airlines offered bereavement fares. Ah, how times have changed). It was as though we felt like she was still with us as long as we were all together, in her kitchen, eating. Not that we were cooking, mind you. When you sit shiva, people visit and bring armloads of food. Cookies, casseroles, salads. The fridge was filled to the brim and the backup fridge in the basement was bursting with beer, wine and the food overflow from upstairs (what? You don’t have second fridge??). People brought so. much. food.
My cousin Emily and I met everyone at the door and immediately confiscated all mashed potatos, taking them with us into the den and eating them before anyone else got the chance. And, funny, everyone seemed to bring mashed potatos. It was a soothing comfort in a time that was so, so sad. Of course, family started to realize that there were no potatos and eventually got wise to our antics, hunting us down and demanding our spoons.
The next year, when everyone came home for Grandma’s unveiling, I made mashed potatos for all of us. I’ve continued to do so over time and this summer when the family got together on the Cape, my little (little? Not so much, she’s a senior in high school now!) cousin requested mashed potatos. So, the tradition continues. She wanted to know how I made them so she could re-create them. I tried to tell her but I don’t have a recipe. As Captian Barbossa says, it’s less of a recipe and “more what you’d call guidelines”.
Yukon Gold pototos (how many will depend on how many people you’re serving. I can use the whole 5lb bag for about 5 people. Yes, that’s a pound of potato per person. I’m aware.)
Butter (again, how much depends on your potato number)
Cream (light or heavy, both work), in a pinch, you can use milk
salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar
Sour Cream (also optional)
Chicken Bullion (I prefer powder and this is the only time I use bullion. Really.)
Peel as many potatos as you’re using. For me, that’s generally the whole bag. Cut out any eyes or bad spots. You could also leave the potatos unpeeled but I have to say, unless you’re using red bliss potatos, I don’t care for peels in my mashed potatos. Call me a traditionalist. Cut the potatos into fourths or halves, depending on size. You want your potato chunks to be all roughly the same size so that they’ll cook at the same speed.
Put potatos into a large pot and cover with cool water until the potatos pieces are all submerged. Put on stove to boil. Add several tablespoons of chicken bouillon (or if you’re using cubes add 3-4 cubes). You want the potatos to appear to be boiling in chicken broth. I suppose you could use regular chicken broth for this but it seems like a waste to me to use good stuff since you’ll be tossing most of the water in the end.
Boil potatos until they are easily poked with a fork and start to sort of crumble when you poke them. You don’t want them falling apart in the water but you also don’t want them to be al dente– too firm and you won’t get a good mash. Too mushy and they’ll just fall apart. Remove them from the water by draining in a strainer or using a slotted spoon. Save a little bit- maybe a quarter of a cup-of the cooking water. Put the potatos either back into the pot (if you’re serving them right away) or into a metal bowl (if you need to keep them warm for a bit before serving- more on this later). Add the little bit of cooking liquid and use a potato masher to smush it all together. I’ve also used a fork and a big spoon in a pinch. You could use, I suppose, a hand mixer but you’ll end up with whipped potatos then, not mashed. Not a huge difference- mashed have more lumps/texture than whipped.
In a small saucepan, melt butter (for five pounds of potatos I use at least one stick. No, this is not a low-cal endeavor), cream (for five pounds of potatos I’d say start with about a quarter to a half a cup) and garlic (if using garlic, smash a few cloves and give them a rough chop). Add salt and pepper and a pinch of sugar. Let them melt and heat together but don’t let it boil. The garlic will soften a little bit and sort of lose it’s slightly bitter edge. You could get all fancy and roast the garlic first and then sort of mash it into the butter/milk/cream mixture but I’m not that swanky.
Once it’s all melted, add it to the potatos and mix it all together. I use a big wooden spoon at this point to ensure even distribution. If you like your potatos on the thinner side, use all the butter mixture right away. If you prefer your potatos on the thicker side, add it slowly, stirring between additions until you get the texture you like best. I like mine to be somewhere between wallpaper paste and gruel texture.
Taste and adjust the salt/pepper seasoning. I have learned that I prefer my potatos much, much saltier than the general public so I tend to under-salt to my taste. If you are serving the potatos right away, serve them from the pot or put them into a pretty dish and serve. If you want to keep them warm for a bit, put the metal bowl (you did use a metal bowl, like I said, right?) over a pot of simmering water. Stir them from time and time and make sure the bottom isn’t getting scorched- if it is, turn down the heat because your water is probably boiling. They’ll keep like that for up to about an hour or so.
I made these potatos most recently for Rosh Hashana dinner. Remember how I said I skipped them one year and someone blurted out, “But I came for the potatos!”? Well, I handed the bowl immediately to her this year and it got passed around the table before I could photograph it. So here’s what was left (of five pounds of potatos) after the first pass. Needless to say, I think I only had about a half a cup of potatos left the next day.
*Ok, people, spell check is telling me that potatos should actually be written as potatoes. Stupid “e” doesn’t look correct to me. Didn’t Dan Quayle get into trouble over this? Am I dating myself by citing Dan Quayle? How do YOU spell the word meaning more than one potato?