23 November 2011

Foolproof Mashed Potatoes

Okay, ya'all know this is a knitting blog. And those of you who know me know that I do not cook. I do not like to cook. I do like to eat -- especially other people's awesome cooking. But there's something about the impermanence of food art that I just can't get beyond.

Now, the fact that I do not cook means that if I figure out how to make something and it works, then anybody can make it. Furthermore, I do not own any fancy electric cook gear. No mixer, no blender. I do have a microwave oven. So most of what I do involves glass bowls, measuring cups, and basic utensils.

I do like mashed potatoes. In fact, I like carbohydrates in general. Potatoes are amongst my favorite comfort foods, probably because I lived off of them for six years of graduate school. They are inexpensive, filling, and they can be endlessly doctored with dairy fat. And I am in luck that at least some Thanksgiving meals require mashed potatoes. (Here in the South, sweet potatoes and yams are also popular.) This year, Cuddly Hubby and I will be home for the holiday; but in years where we are traveling and need to bring something, I'm happy to bring the mashed potatoes. I can make these and not embarrass myself.

Here's how I do it.

First off, you can make these potatoes a day ahead of time. None of this getting up before dawn nonsense. It's a holiday for crying out loud. If I am up and the sun isn't, by definition that's not a holiday.

Set your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leave a stick of butter out on the counter.

Wash the potatoes. (For today's example, I'm using about 5 pounds of medium-sized baking potatoes.)
Using a fork, prick the potato skins all over. Do not poke yourself.
When the oven is preheated, place the potatoes directly on the rack. I usually space them out across the rack and in two rows.

Let them bake for 50 to 60 minutes. (Go do something fun like knitting while you wait.)

At 50 minutes, take out one potato. The skin should be crisp. Place on a cutting board and slice it open longitudinally. Check the potato's meat. It should squish and flake easily with a fork. Spoon the meat out into a bowl or, better yet, a 13 x 9-inch glass casserole dish. It should spoon out easily. It should crush easily with the back of the spoon. If it doesn't, let the potatoes bake longer until they do! You shouldn't need any measurable arm strength to mash.

When the potatoes are done baking, cut each open and spoon the meat into a bowl or casserole dish. Yes, this is time-consuming. This method is foolproof but not necessarily fast. If you want a fancy presentation, retain the potato skins for later. You can spoon the finished mashed potatoes back into the skins for easy serving. Or you can just eat those nice crispy vitamin-saturated skins now. Or you can offer those nice crispy skins as bribe to someone else to spoon out all the potato meat. Or you can throw the skins out back in your compost heap.
mashed spuds with butter before half and half
As you spoon out the meat, add tablespoons of unsalted room-temperature butter to the fluffy pile of carbohydrate goodness. (I do not use margarine. I may not like to cook, but I do have standards.) Using a fork or masher, mash the potatoes and butter together. I used about 4 tablespoons (half a stick) of butter, but use up to a whole stick, as you like. Your goal is to coat all the carbohydrates with dairy fat.

Warm a pint of half and half. (Some people use cream, but I was already using butter earlier.) I zap the half and half for about 2 minutes in the microwave, but you can also warm it on the stove. Don't let it boil. You just don't want cold milk making the melted butter congeal. And if you are about to take the finished potatoes to the table, you don't want them to be cold already.
mashed spuds after half and half
Add some warm (one-quarter to one-half cup) half and half to the mashed spuds. Stir it in with a fork. Add more. Stir it in again. Repeat as needed. Use the half and half to turn the stiff potatoes into something creamier. I used all 2 cups and had creamy potatoes but stiff enough to build castles or the Devil's Tower on my plate. Then again, I know I'm going to use gravy tomorrow, so I want some body in the spuds. If you like creamier, smoother potatoes, then you'll need to buy the quart size of half and half. Just be patient and add half and half sparingly. You can always add more, but you can't take it out.

At this point, embellish as you like. You can stir in whatever seasonings you prefer. I sometimes make these with cheddar cheese and bacon crumbles. In that case, I'll melt the cheese in before I add the half and half.
spuds almost ready to wait in the refrigerator
If you are making the mashed potatoes for tomorrow, then put them in a glass casserole dish. (If you were really on the ball, you already prepared them in the dish instead of in a bowl.) I use a butter knife to smooth the surface. Cover with aluminum foil, let cool, and place in the refrigerator. You can pop the dish into a 325 to 350-degree oven for 30 to 45 minutes when the bird is almost done. Or if you used a glass dish, the microwave is an option. I personally like to reheat in the oven. Those of you who remember tv dinners in foil trays can figure out why.

Wishing you and yours a filling and fabulous Thanksgiving!