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You can't beat perfect mashed potatoes

I traveled to Paris last month to sample the puree at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon: a pilgrimage in the search of the perfect mash. It was a lot like any other good potato puree I have tasted. Only much, much better. It was soft and creamy; as rich as Croesus, yet as light as snow.

"We have one cook who does nothing else," said L'Atelier's executive chef, Axel Manes.

There is no secret recipe: only the serious, even extreme, application of the three aforementioned principles. Robuchon potatoes are cooked in lightly salted water and then drained. For smooth, velvety structure without the risk of tangled starch molecules, the potatoes are pressed through a very-fine-mesh sieve. Not once, not twice, but three times. More water is removed by heating the riced potatoes in a pot over low heat. Hot milk is added, then cold butter is gradually beaten in with a whisk to form a creamy and airy emulsion.

It is impressive, yet quite simple. Still, it is not something you would make every day, even if you had time. Apart from the craftsmanship and the gentle but firm treatment of the potato, the difference between Robuchon's potato puree and most others is the amount of butter used. In fact, I have heard food scientists argue that the potato puree is really an emulsion, as closely related to the classical French sauces as to the mash we all know.

Exactly what that amount was I was unsure of. Before I left L'Atelier, though, chef Manes came to say goodbye, and I had the opportunity to find out.

"You use quite a lot of butter, don't you?" I asked him.

"Oh, yes! A lot!"

"How much?"

"Well, let me see. Every day we serve around 35 pounds of potato puree. For that we need 17 pounds of potatoes, and around 17 pounds of butter."

It caused me to suddenly remember the title of Phyllis Richman's culinary mystery novel: "The Butter Did It."

Robuchon's potato puree is probably the most sublime combination of a modest American spud and the extravagance of French cuisine. I am thankful that I now know how to achieve the perfect mash, yet I often end up settling for a little less.

Recipes

Simple Mashed Potatoes

Rich, Velvety Potato Puree

Viestad, author of "Where Flavor Was Born" and host of the public television series "New Scandinavian Cooking With Andreas Viestad," can be reached at http://www.andreasviestad.com or food@washpost.com. His column appears monthly.

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