Like a lot of meat-and-potato American families, mashed potatoes were pretty constant on our dinner table. They were there to soak up the juices when we had a roast or a stew. They were always on the buffet for holiday gatherings. They appeared sleekly tucked into their neat compartment on “special” occasions when Mom and Dad went out for dinner. And there was a box of “Potato Buds” in the cupboard for emergencies when a meal needed a starch but there were no real potatoes in the bin or no time to boil them. I can’t say that my younger appetite bothered to discern the distinctions between good or bad (or even real or fake) mashed potatoes. They were simply there, and their bland, heaviness always comforted and satisfied.
Now these many years later I know more about mashed potatoes than I ever thought possible (this will happen when you co-write an entire cookbook on potatoes), and I have strong opinions on what I like (fluffy and flavorful) and what I don’t (dense, insipid, mealy, gummy or fake). I also have a lot to say on how to properly make and serve them (use a ricer and serve immediately). In One Potato, Two Potato, my good pal and co-author, Roy Finamore wrote a 2 1/2-page essay on how to achieve mashed potato enlightenment, and I can happily teach an entire class on the topic. When it comes to planning a holiday menu, I know I want light and tasty mashed potatoes, but I don’t have the patience for making them at the last minute. With so much else going on in the kitchen (and on the plate), I am looking for something more convenient than a classic mash, but I am nowhere near ready to reach for the box of potato buds.
My soluition? Roy’s recipe for Party Potatoes. The first thing to note is that the recipe does not show up in the book’s mashed potato chapter (yes, there is an entire 28-recipe chapter on mashed spuds alone). Instead, Party Potatoes belongs in a category of potato casseroles or gratins that masquerade as mashed potatoes. Here’s how it works: you start as you normally would, boiling and draining several pounds of potatoes (the recipe scales up and down easy, another bonus). Then you use an electric mixer to beat in the usual dairy enrichments plus cream cheese and seasoning before piling it into a baking dish, smoothing out the top and dusting it with paprika or grated cheese. You can then refrigerate the casserole for 2 to 3 days before baking and serving.
As with most favorite recipes, I like to play around with the formula, but there are a couple of keys to keeping these fluffy and good. Don’t skip the cream cheese. It adds richness and a nice tang, but its plasticity is what insures you’ll get the right texture. You could substitute mascarpone, but that’s just Italian cream cheese, so it basically the same. Also, add enough other dairy (butter, cream or milk, sour cream or cream fraiche) to make the potatoes moist but not sodden and rich without being cloying. Beyond that, I sometimes include another starchy vegetable (at a ratio of 4 parts potato to about 1 part “other”). Favorites include parsnip, rutabaga or winter squash. (The photo above is from my recipe that appeared in Fine Cooking magazine a few years back for Mashed Potato and Rutabaga Gratin). Fellow roots can boil along side the potatoes. More delicate squashes do best when cooked separately. Flavorings like dried mustard and horseradish add zing. And cheese is rarely unwelcome.
by Roy Finamore with Molly Stevens from “One Potato, Two Potato” (Houghton-Mifflin, 2001)
Serves 10 to 12
3 pounds russet potatoes, peeled and chunked
Kosher or medium-grain sea salt
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature
2/3 cup milk, warmed
Freshly ground black pepper
Put the potatoes in a large saucepan, cover with cold water by at least an inch, add a good pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, cover partway, and cook until the potatoes are very tender. Drain and return them to the pot. Set over medium heat for a minute or two, shaking and stirring so the potatoes don’t stick, until they are floury and have made a film on the bottom of the pot.
Remove the potatoes from the heat and break them up with a hand-held electric mixer on low speed. Gradually drop in 6 tablespoons of the butter and beat until it is absorbed. Refrigerate the remaining butter. Continue with the cream cheese and sour cream, beating well after each addition. Finally, beat in the milk, adding a little at a time. You want the potatoes to be fluffy and light; if they seem to be getting too wet, don’t add all of the milk. Season with salt and pepper. (If you don’t have an electric mixer, use a hand masher to start and then use a wooden spoon to beat in the butter, cheese, sour cream, and milk. Beat the milk into the potatoes one-third at a time, beating vigorously after each addition.)
Butter a 9- X 13-inch baking dish and spoon the potatoes into it. Smooth the top and then, with spatula or fork tines, swirl or score the surface of the potatoes to leave little peaks that will brown up nicely during baking. Refrigerate, covered tightly with plastic wrap, for up to 2 days before baking.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Dust the top with paprika and cut the remaining butter into small pieces and scatter them over the surface. Bake until the potatoes are heated though and the top is lightly golden, about an hour. (Expect it to take only half the time if the potatoes haven’t been refrigerated.) Serve hot.
As a cooking teacher, I spend a good deal of time thinking about how – and when and where – we learn to cook. In my case, my breakthrough dish was Chicken Divan, a patently dated casserole comprised of canned soup, mayonnaise, broccoli and chicken. I don’t know why I latched onto this particular recipe, but during my early high school years it became my signature dish. I remember serving it at my first dinner party (I’m fairly certain my parents were out of town). I had no idea what how to host a dinner party, but I felt terribly grownup serving something so, ahem, elegant.
Now, keep in mind that this was the early 1970’s. There were no celebrity chefs, no Food Network, “gourmet” was not in my lexicon and canned soup was a staple in my mother’s cupboards. The only way I can explain my devotion to Chicken Divan is that it was the first time I felt as though I were truly cooking. Yes, I knew how to make toast, put together a decent sandwich, simmer a hot dog, fry an egg, and other simple ways to feed myself, but this casserole was big step above all of that. By assembling 6 or 7 ingredients in a certain progression, I made something complex that hit all my adolescent sensory receptors—rich, creamy, savory, beautifully browned and crunchy on top. More importantly, it turned out perfectly every time, people loved it, and I made it so many times that I owned that recipe.
I had all but forgotten about those early casseroles until one of my oldest, dearest friends sent me a scan of the hand-written recipe (below) that I had given her back in high school. I had copied it from a similar shorthand recipe of my mother’s (also below). I can’t help but smile looking at these thumbnail recipes now. Both bear the telltale cooking stains of a well-loved dish, and, like many old recipes, these abbreviated lists of ingredients assume a certain amount of basic kitchen know-how. They assume you know that the chicken is pre-cooked, that the broccoli is steamed (or defrosted), that you layer these into a buttered baking dish and then stir together all the creamy elements and pour these overtop. In other words, they assume someone has already taught you how to make Chicken Divan; the recipes are a mere prompt.
On one hand, these notes remind me that I’ve come a long way in my tastes and in how I write a recipe – my spelling has improved, too, although not my handwriting. On the other, they remind me that cooking and sharing recipes is something that I’ve always loved to do. One of these days, perhaps I’ll update my old favorite by ditching the canned soup and mayonnaise. I wonder if it will be as good as I remember.