My three kids all favour mashed potatoes, so that’s practically the only kind I make for family dinners. The humble mashed potato is certainly not hard to make, but when you’re trying to pull all the elements of a big family dinner together at serving time, it can be a bit of a fuss. The beauty of this recipe is you can make it up to a couple of days ahead and refrigerate tightly covered until needed. The casserole is then heated in the oven, and the potatoes puff up and lighten as they heat.
A long time ago I came across a recipe for a make-ahead mashed-potato casserole in my much-used and beloved Canadian Living Christmas Book, published in 1993. The original recipe calls for cream cheese, butter and sour cream. While tasty, it’s really much richer than a potato side dish needs to be. I’ve made numerous modifications to it over the years. Really, it’s one of those dishes that, once you’ve got the basic principles down, you can vary as the whimsy strikes.
I’ve cut out the cream cheese and sour cream (my brother hates sour cream), so it’s far lighter, and I now also replace the dairy entirely due to the Culinary Enthusiast’s allergy. I make it with margarine (oh, I’m such a butter snob, I still hate to say that) and either chicken broth or almond milk.
These potatoes are always a popular dish on my dinner table, and they are certainly friendly to the home cook who’s trying to pull off a meal for company with ease and élan.
Now, a word (more like a tract, actually) about mashing potatoes. I am a first-generation Canadian of Belgian (Flemish) descent, and I was taught to take potatoes seriously. Growing up, mashed potatoes were required to be creamy and absolutely smooth. Lumps were considered a sign of character deficiency. (I wasn’t kidding, this potato business is serious stuff.) I was never able to find a potato masher that did the trick quite like my Mom’s. After I set out in life as an adult I had a couple of different loopy wire mashers (you know the kind I mean) and they just didn’t produce the smooth result I was looking for. I yearned for a masher just like Mom’s. In fact, I yearned for hers. One day she referred to it as ‘that old thing,’ so I asked for it and now it’s mine and one of my most prized utensils. The plate is a little warped and the rivets are becoming a bit loose, but my trusty potato masher still does its job with impeccable style.
I just did a little research on the good old www, and learned this style is called a waffle masher. As you apply pressure, the potatoes extrude through the holes in little square towers of potatoey starchiness, until you’ve incorporated enough liquid that the mixture is smooth. (It may be that you’ve never thought this much about mashed potatoes. That might be because you’re not Belgian, or perhaps you have better things to think about. Either way, trust me on this.)
Here’s how I made the casserole for Friday’s Easter dinner. Offspring take note: anytime you’d like to invite me over and make this for me, feel free to make whatever modifications you desire!
Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes
This recipe serves 10 to 12 adults. Of course, that all depends on the appetite of your crowd, so you be the judge of how many potatoes you need to start with.
- about 2+ pounds of potatoes (I used 15 medium Yukon Gold this time, often I use Idaho)
- 1/4 – 3/8 cup margarine (or butter, if you have the luxury of being able to use it)
- almond milk – about a cup and a half or what you need to achieve the right consistency (chicken broth is a good substitution)
- 2 tsp dried marjoram
- salt and pepper to taste
- optional: coarse bread crumbs for topping (I prefer whole wheat crumbs)
Peel and cook potatoes until tender. Drain, toss in the margarine, grind over some pepper, strew some salt about and commence the first pass of mashing. Once this has been done, add the marjoram, rubbing it between your palms to release its lovely fragrance, then start adding the almond milk in increments. Keep mashing and adding almond milk until the potatoes are smooth and creamy. Once they start to become creamy I use a mashing and stirring motion to help speed the process along and ensure the desired level of smoothness. I aim for a looser mixture than if I were going to serve them right away, because they puff up during heating. Taste and adjust the seasonings until they are just right.
Put the potatoes in a casserole dish that you’ve rubbed with margarine or some plain vegetable oil. If you like, sprinkle breadcrumbs on top.
Now, a word about oven temperature and cooking time. It all depends. Are they in a deep or shallow casserole? Are you cooking them right away, or taking them out of the refrigerator? Do you have something else in the oven and if so, what’s the temperature? I’m not trying to complicate things. On the contrary, this goes to show how versatile this dish is. Just adjust cooking time depending on these variables.
As a guideline, if you were cooking the potatoes right away, I would say 30 minutes at 400º would do the trick, as long as your dish wasn’t too deep. I often bake them longer at a lower temperature (e.g., an hour to an hour and a half at 350º). When they are puffy, hot throughout and turning golden on top, they are done. The recipe is pretty forgiving, so if you need to leave them in the oven longer while waiting for something else to get done, you’ve got some leeway.
Every time I prepare this dish, I think I’ve made too much, and at the end of the meal I’m surprised at how little, if any, is left. Easy for the cook, popular with the guests — just the kind of recipe you need on hand to make entertaining easier!