Oh, Peppino, you wiley little mouse!
I caught a sudden case of holiday sadness yesterday afternoon; missing my folks and our old Christmas traditions. There is but one cure: meatloaf and mashed sweet potatoes, dished up by a doting husband.
I think one of the reasons for the seasonal sadness is this year’s lack of full-sized Christmas tree. You know, because I didn’t feel like rearranging the living room to bring in a live tree for the dogs to pee on killed Christmas. But the lack of tree also meant a lack of tree-putting-up festivities, creating an unanticipated void in my holiday good cheer.
I don’t know what your holiday traditions are like, or if you even celebrate anything. For me, Christmas growing up meant dragging the fake tree – which inexplicably smelled like spaghetti and meatballs – up from the crawl space. Decorations were a carefully orchestrated affair, from the delicate little painted glass balls near the tippy top to the big honkers down at the bottom.
The whole thing was set to a soundtrack that was the same year in and year out, and which is burned into my brain: Tiny Tim, trilling “White Christmas” in a horrifying falsetto.
We always observed a moment of silence for the final, higher-than-high note.
The album contained many other gems, including, but not limited to:
- Dominic the Italian Christmas Donkey,
- Peppino the Italian Mouse,*
- Silent Night,
- Snoopy vs. the Red Baron**, and
- A 15-minute long rendition of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as performed by an ensemble of cracked-out recorder players.
(Please, Jesus, SOMEONE tell me you also had this Christmas album, and that it’s not all a fever dream I had.)
*Which has NOTHING to do with Christmas and is about drunken, thieving vermin. “You scare my girl, you eat my cheese, you even drink my wine. I try so hard to catch you, but you trick me all the time.”
**Which actually DID have to do with Christmas, as it was about a Christmas truce between Snoopy and the Red Baron.
We would listen to Peppino’s exploits as my father painstakingly put tinsel on the tree ONE STRAND AT A TIME. The man took his tinsel seriously, very seriously. He was like a tinsel artisan, delicately draping one strand, standing back to admire his handiwork, deftly moving in to fill in a hole. His tinsel arrangement was a work of fucking art.
(My mother would usually be in the kitchen making Christmas cookies because she couldn’t give two shits about the tinsel. Also I think she was disgusted by Tiny Tim.)
When the final light was in place, the final note sung and the final piece of tinsel at home, we would order a pizza and sit around and eat while admiring our handiwork.
You can see, then, what I’m missing. Somehow, the four and a half minutes it took to decorate our tabletop tree aren’t quite making up for it.
That’s why tonight is comfort food, with the best mashed sweet potatoes you ever did have. Cooked according to the America’s Test Kitchen method to ensure maximum flavor and minimum waterloggedness and perfumed with orange and cardamom, these sweet potatoes were once described as “soul affirming” and were proclaimed better than beer-braised short ribs. Put THAT in your pipe and smoke it.
Maybe that’s what the recorder players were smoking, because they were DEFINITELY smoking something.
May your days be merry and bright, and may all your Christmases be white.
Best Mashed Sweet Potatoes
2 lbs. sweet potatoes
3 tbsp. + 2 tbsp. milk, half and half or heavy cream
3 tbsp. butter
zest of one orange
1/2 tsp. ground cardamom
s+p to taste
Cut the sweet potatoes in half lengthwise, and then slice them into 1/4 inch thick half-moons.
Put the sweet potatoes, 3 tablespoons of the cream and the 3 tablespoons of butter into a saucepan over medium-low heat and cover. Let cook for 20-25 minutes, until the potatoes are tender – the sweet potatoes will release moisture and steam themselves, so boiling them in a pot of water is unnecessary.
When the potatoes are tender, mash ’em with the zest, cardamom, additional 2 tablespoons of milk and s+p.