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Monday, October 24, 2011

the happygirl guide to perfect mashed potatoes

It started several years ago on a Thursday morning in November. We were having ten people over for Thanksgiving dinner. It was a very traditional meal with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. My best friend, Shereen, lived next door and the day before Thanksgiving we went shopping at Safeway. In the produce section as I grabbed cranberries Shereen looked at the list and got a 5 pound bag of  Yukon Gold potatoes. I looked at Shereen and the potatoes. "I think we need more. Do you think we need more potatoes?"

She looked from me to the potatoes. "No," she said "This is fine for ten of us, right? Do you think we need more potatoes?" We had fifteen pounds of potatoes.

The next morning dawned sunny and cold.  Shereen came over bright and early. We ate warm pumpkin bread and drank coffee as we started dinner. As a vegetarian the thought of sticking my hand in a cold turkey and pulling out a package of wet, pink turkey parts was too much for me. Shereen, ever the best friend did the deed as I poured the cranberries in a colander.

We started peeling potatoes. We peeled and we peeled and we peeled. In the middle of peeling we actually had to take a break because there were so many potatoes.

We had 15 pounds of potatoes but what we didn't realize is that we needed pots big enough to cook them. Luckily, we had several huge crab pots that we have received as wedding gifts that were in the garage unopened. Fifteen minutes later we had three enormous pots of potatoes boiling. We opened the windows once they began steaming up.

As the potatoes cooked we now had to transfer them to bowls, one enormous bowl after another until I remembered that as a wedding gift we had received this GIGANTIC stainless steel bowl that we at first thought was one of those stand alone cool sinks that you place atop a marble slab in the bathroom. L. foraged in the garage and he came into the kitchen literally with his arms around the thing. It was so big it actually fit 15 pounds of mashed potatoes. I wish we had videotaped us trying to mash 15 pounds of potatoes with 2 pounds of butter and almost half a gallon of half-and-half. Shereen and I actually had to take turns stirring this huge cauldron of mashed potatoes. We started laughing until we were crying, sending the boys (L. and Matt) into the kitchen thinking disaster had struck and we had either cut off a finger or burned the turkey.

Just so you have this in perspective, we had a regular 12 pound turkey, and the usual amount of sides you would think would work for ten people as well as a cauldron of mashed potatoes that took center stage on the kitchen island. There was a logical reason for this, you see. I grew up poor living with my young mom and my grandparents. There never was such a thing as leftovers. Sometimes if there wasn't anything to eat that night, dinner was a slice of white bread in a bowl with some milk and a little sugar. I was determined that on our first Thanksgiving in our new home we made 2800 miles from our hometown in New England that if any of our friends wanted seconds, they could have enjoy seconds or thirds. Everyone likes mashed potatoes and I was determined everyone was going to enjoy as much as they wanted.

Dinner was sensational. We're blessed to live in a cul-de-sac with wonderful neighbors. Did we eat all the mashed potatoes? Hardly. We didn't make a dent in that stainless steel sink bowl. We did, however, get a good laugh at dinner when the boys asked us to tell the story of why we were pushing mashed potatoes like they were drugs. And as everyone  left that evening, they went home with at least a one gallon Tupperware bowl of creamy deliciousness. My grandmother would have been so proud.

The potatoes were good that day but what I learned in the past few years is that I did what is a common mistake with mashed potatoes. I over whipped them with a hand mixer. That makes the potatoes gummy and hard.  Last night as my husband L. was helping raise money for breast cancer research I was making him the perfect autumn dinner of baked chicken and the most sublime mashed potatoes I'ver ever prepared. Here is the secret to the perfect mashed potatoes:

1.) The item you never knew you needed: a potato ricer. I recommend the Oxo Adjustable Potato Ricer from Williams-Sonoma. Instead of mashing down the potatoes you add the potatoes to a handheld gadget that puts enough pressure on the potatoes to squeeze the vegetable through small holes producing a mound of fluffy potatoes. You have to do it in small scoops but it is worth it.

2.) After peeling the potatoes cut the potato into even two inch squares.

3.) Use salted butter and whole milk. I tried half-and-half as well as heavy cream and skim milk but if you use Yukon Gold potatoes, whole milk and butter will give you the perfect mouth feel, not too light, gummy, heavy or gritty.

4.) When adding the butter and milk be sure to add the butter first. Cook's Illustrated says that when you add the butter first it coats the starch molecules of the potatoes. Adding milk first will make the mashed potatoes heavy and give it a gummy mouth feel.

Here is the recipe I used last night after dozens of trial and errors:

The Perfect Mashed Potatoes
2 pounds of Yukon Gold potatoes (it's important to use Yukon Gold potatoes. Last night measured about 8 potatoes)
1 stick of salted butter
1 cup of whole milk
salt and pepper to taste
Start a pot of boiling water.
Peel potatoes and cut into two inch cubes.
Add potatoes to water and boil for approximately 25 minutes, stirring occasionally. (At 20 minutes test a cube to see if it's cooked. It should flake using for a fork to penetrate. Taste it. It should feel smooth and not grainy.)
Add potatoes to colander to drain then add to potato ricer. Rice all the potatoes in small batches then add back to pot on low to medium heat. Divide stick of butter in 4 sections and add to potatoes. Slowly incorporate whole milk depending on how thick or thin you like your potatoes. Keep in mind that the potatoes will thicken up on the stove. Just gently fold in the butter and milk.DO NOT OVERMIX THE POTATOES or use a hand mixer. This will affect the starch in the potatoes and make them hard.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
And by the way, we heard from one of our neighbors after that Thanksgiving that their family of four had mashed potatoes and potato pancakes for an entire week after that Thanks For Mashed Potatoes Day.
Here's to making many happy dinners!

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