over easy

Making Nora Ephron’s Mashed Potatoes for One

One potato, mashed. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

Recently, writer Nicole Cliffe tweeted about the difference between men and women’s favorite foods.

“I once read that when men are asked about their fave foods it’s usually something that needs to be prepared, like lasagna and chicken pot pie, etc., and women are more likely to say “ice cream” [because] they know they’ll be the ones who have to prepare it,” she wrote, adding, “Which reminds me of Nora Ephron on mashed potatoes:”

Mashed potatoes are a charged, emotional topic. Everyone has immutable opinions about whether they should be lumpy or smooth, and how they should be eaten (molded into a circle that is re-shaped and smoothed out with your fork after each bite, duh!) Personally, my favorite mashed potatoes are from Café Deluxe in Washington, D.C. They’re lumpy, creamy, peppery, with the skins still on them, and are a wonderfully quiet dish for when you’re eavesdropping on the various government-types who eat there.

Another thing about mashed potatoes, is that they’re usually eaten in a big group, like at Thanksgiving, or an all-you-can-eat buffet. Rarely does one eat them alone, unless you have a falling out with everyone else at Thanksgiving, or at the all-you-can-eat buffet, and are forced to go sit by yourself. But Ephron’s recipe serves just one person:

For mashed potatoes: Put 1 large (or 2 small) potatoes in a large pot of salted water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for at least 20 minutes, until tender. Drain and place the potatoes back in the pot and shake over low heat to eliminate excess moisture. Peel. Put through a potato ricer and immediately add 1 tablespoon heavy cream and as much melted butter and salt and pepper as you feel like. Eat immediately. Serves one.

My mashed potato journey would therefore be a solitary one. What would I learn about myself, I wondered? About life? About potatoes?

The first stop in my carb-based quest for self-discovery was Bed Bath & Beyond. I had to buy a potato ricer, which is a tool I had never heard of before. The one I found looks like a garlic press for giants. I also had to buy a potato peeler, which looks pretty much how you’d expect.

When I got home that night, it quickly became clear that I would not be enjoying my solo comfort-potato alone, nor would I have much time for self-reflection. For the first time in several weeks, all three of my roommates were home at the same time, and then, right after I dropped my single potato into a pot of boiling water, we heard it — a squeak. And then another one. And then lots more.

“I TOLD you we had a mouse!” Caroline said. She was the only person who had ever seen it.

“Maybe it’s just the potato,” I offered. “Do potatoes squeak when they boil?”

“A live mouse is better than a dead mouse,” Kenny added sagely. “My friend had a mouse die behind his oven, and it smelled terrible.”

We stood for a moment, contemplating this possibility. The mouse squeaked. The potato boiled.

A single potato. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

After my one, lone potato had boiled for 20 minutes, I drained it, shook it in the dry pot, over low heat, peeled it, and then put it through the ricer — all while keeping a safe distance from the oven in case the mouse suddenly decided to make its escape. Well, I tried to put it through the ricer. Wanting to honor Ephron with the smoothest, creamiest mashed potatoes possible, I had decided to use the finest setting on my ricer, and, after several minutes of grunting like a tennis pro and using all the admittedly limited upper-body strength I could muster, was able to rice approximately two spoonfuls of potato. Getting the entire potato through took about 15 minutes, and required the help of my roommates.

By the time I finally mixed in the heavy cream, salt, pepper, and butter, the potato had gone cold, and I was too tired and worried about the damn mouse to enjoy it. I took two bites and gave the rest to Kenny. (We briefly considered adding some of our remaining cannabutter, but quickly came to our senses.) I didn’t even have the energy to think about the fact that I had essentially prepared comfort food for a guy, which is what Cliffe was lamenting in the first place. I ate some leftover chicken and went to bed.

Having failed Ephron, I tried again. I got home from a happy hour with friends, still slightly tipsy, which I figured was ideal — comfort foods, in my experience, are best enjoyed after a couple of glasses of wine. This time, in order to avoid pulling a muscle, I decided to boil the potato for 35 minutes instead of 20, and to use a larger setting on my ricer. I chatted briefly with my roommate Mallory, but when she went to bed, I was alone. There was no mouse this time.

Again, I took out the potato, dried it, peeled it, put it through the ricer (indeed, a much easier process this time). I loaded it down with medically-inadvisable amounts of cream, butter, salt, lots and lots of pepper, and more butter. Per Ephron’s recommendation, I brought it into bed, where I watched an episode of The Golden Girls and thought, for at least the hundredth time, that Estelle Getty deserves a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When I was done eating, I reflected on what I had learned that week: 1) Make sure you cook your potatoes enough, or they’ll be impossible to mash, 2) Enough butter and salt can cover up all sorts of culinary missteps, and 3) There’s a hole in our wall behind the oven where the mice are getting in.

I also learned that Ephron was right, of course. Mashed potatoes are entirely too much work for a comfort food you’re going to be enjoying by yourself. Still, it’s super cheap, and there is something undeniably satisfying about sitting in a warm bed, eating fat-laden baby food. Would it be better to have someone you love prepare it for you? Definitely. If they’re offering, though, I might just ask for some ice cream instead.

My report card
Preparation: A-
Taste: B+
Bea Arthur’s quips: A +++

My Overall Performance: A

Making Nora Ephron’s Mashed Potatoes for One