~ Perfect Potatoes au Gratin (Scalloped Potatoes) ~
A bit about gratins: The French word "gratin" is derived from the English word "grate" and means to scratch or scrape. Back in the 16th century, it referred to the crusty part of any cooked food that stuck to the side of the pot or pan and had to be scraped ("gratte") loose so as not to waste it. Nowadays, no-stick cooking sprays have made this task a lot easier for us!
The term "gratin" refers to both the food being prepared as well as the dish in which it is being cooked. Gratins can be baked in large or individual quantities, but in either case, they require a wide, shallow dish. The food being cooked is usually cooked slowly in a liquid (such as milk, cream, wine, or stock), which results in the top developing a crisp, golden brown crust!
The "gratin effect" can also be achieved by sprinkling dried breadcrumbs, cheese or a combination of both over the food to produce the signature golden top. When this is done, the dish is referred to as a "gratinee" (grah-tee-NAY) or an "au gratin".
"So", you ask, "who put the scallop in the gratin potatoes?" Well we Americans did. The French word for layering very thinly sliced food in a casserole then baking it in cream or a creamy sauce is "escalope", which is where we got the American verb "scallop"!
A bit about potatoes: When preparing potatoes gratin, the type of potato you use is important. My favorite is the creamy Yukon gold. While some folks might consider using a russet (baking) potato their first choice, I found them tending to break down in texture during the final baking process. Was the gratin good? Yes. Was it the best? No. I have no ax to grind with russet potatoes, they simply are not my first choice for the cooking of a successful gratin. The thickness of the potato slice is not as important as the uniformity (pototoes must be uniform so they all cook uniformly), but VERY, VERY thin slices (1/8" thick) will release more starch (more slices=more starch), resulting in the desired thick, creamy sauce. I like my potatoes almost thin enough to see through!
A bit about MY recipe: There was a period of about 1-1 1/2 years that our son Jesse (attending Penn State) lived in a downtown fraternity house. On more than an occasional occasion (for various reasons, all of which shall remain unpublished), they found themselves without a frat house cook. Jesse, being local to State College, was a master at twisting his mom's arm into cooking a literal VAT of almost anything they desired to eat. Each and every time they requested my scalloped potatoes, I would cringe. To my credit, as labor intensive as preparing this dish is/was (carefully layering paper-thin potato slices into a very, very large casserole dish, meticulously keeping each layer covered in cream, not to mention the long cooking time), each and every time he asked I complied. And, each and every time I complied, I told myself, "there has gotta be a quicker and easier way to do this". Then, one day, while staring down a 25-pound bag of potatoes, a brainstorm occurred: pre-cook the potatoes! It took a couple of attempts, but in the end, I'm pretty proud and certain I created the Perfect Potatoes Au Gratin:
Attempt #1. A miserable failure. The thought process was to microwave the potatoes to a manageable doneness, then peel and slice them. There is no conceivable way to successfully microwave any type of potato, in any quantity, to a useable, uniform, sliceable doneness. I added some butter, cream, salt and pepper to those and the microwaved mashed potatoes were wonderful.
Attempt #2. A miserable, inedible failure. The thought process was to slice the potatoes, bring them to a boil in some salted water and pre-cook them for about 2-3 minutes, until they were pliable but still crunchy. The potatoes came out great, but when the gratin baked, it emerged a water mess. Why? Because par-boiling the potatoes cooked the starch out of them which is, well... needed to thicken the cream.
Attempt #3. Great success!!! The thought process was to slice and pre-cook the potatoes in the cream mixture on the stovetop. I sliced my potatoes, placing them in the seasoned cream as I worked, then slowly brought the mixture to a gentle simmer. After about 5 minutes, the potatoes were slightly tender and the cream had thickened quite a bit (because the potatoes released their starch into the cream). I transferred the mixture to my casserole, topped it with grated cheese and a mere 35-40 minutes later: Perfect Potatoes Au Gratin!!!
1 quart heavy or whipping cream
1 ounce minced garlic cloves, about 1 small head of garlic
30-40 grinds, freshly ground nutmeg (about 1/2-3/4 teaspoon), more or less to taste
60-70 grinds, freshly ground sea salt (about 3/4-1 teaspoon), more or less to taste
80-90 grinds, freshly ground peppercorn blend (about 1-1 1/2 teaspoon), more or less to taste
4 ounces salted butter, cut into thin slices or small pieces
1 pound grated Gruyere cheese
no-stick cooking spray
The Feemster's Famous Vegetable Slicer: I bought 2 of these, for $5.00 a piece, about 20 years ago from Marie Fedon, owner and operator of The Country Sampler (a kitchen store), here in Boalsburg. I am sorry to report that "The Sampler" is no longer with us, but "The Feemsters" is available on-line at Amazon.com.
I have all sorts of fancy mandolins and super-sharp knives, but I ADORE my little blue-bladed Feemsters... I can slice all 6 pounds of potatoes paper-thin in about 6-8 minutes!!!
I cannot emphasize this enough, so I'm going to say it again: slice the potatoes as thinly as you possibly can and keep them as uniform in thickness as is humanly possible. I consider "thin" to be "bendable without cracking into two pieces"... do your best, it'll be fine.
~ Step 2. Place cream in a 14" chef's pan. Mince and add the garlic, along with the freshly grated nutmeg, sea salt and peppercorn blend. Stir this around and let it sit for about 5 minutes, then, stir it again, taste and adjust the seasoning. I like the potatoes to simmer in pre-seasoned cream. You'll have a second chance to adjust the seasoning after the potatoes have simmered.
Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a rapid simmer, stirring frequently. Adjust heat to a gentle, steady simmer and continue to cook 5-6 minutes, stirring almost constantly...
... until the potatoes are somewhat tender (but not cooked through) and their starch has thickened the cream mixture considerably. The newly-formed cream sauce should be thick enough to coat the back or front of a spoon.
Now it is time to adjust the seasonings for the second and last time prior to baking. I have given you my measurements... season to your own taste!
~ Step 4. Using a large spoon, transfer the potatoes to a 4-quart casserole dish that has been sprayed with no-stick cooking spray. Do not be inclined to pour (or dump) the potatoes from the pan to the casserole, because:
You want the potatoes to lie as flat as possible, so as you scoop, flatten them out and distribute them as evenly as you can in the casserole dish.
~ Step 5. Grate the cheese and distribute it over the potatoes. Notice that in a 4-quart casserole dish, the potatoes only fill the dish 3/4 of the way. This is exactly what you want. The liquid is going to "cook up" during the baking process. If the dish is too full of the potato mixture, you'll have a dandy mess in the bottom of your oven!
~ Step 6. Bake on center rack of preheated 350 degree oven 35-40 minutes. The mixture will be bubbly around the sides, golden brown on the top, and, the potatoes will be tender and cooked through. Remove from oven and allow to rest 30-45 minutes prior to serving:
Special Equipment List: Feemster's Famous Vegetable Slicer, mandolin or very sharp chef's knife; cutting board, 14" chef's pan w/straight, deep sides; large spoon; cheese grater; 4-quart casserole dish
Cook's Note: I am posting this as my first recipe of the 2011 New Year. It is for my New Jersey relatives: My Aunt Tootsie (aka Marie The Lenox Queen), Uncle Al, Victor, Tammy and Olga. Victor made my Perfet Potatoes au Gratin for their Christmas Day dinner and they phoned me that day to say, "blog this recipe ASAP"... and as we all know, family requests come first!
Extra Cook's Note: These pototoes can be prepared, baked and refrigerated 1-2 days in advance of serving them. To reheat the entire casserole: return it to room temperature (2-3 hours) and cover with plastic wrap before gently reheating in the microwave (30-45 minutes). To reheat individual portions: just scoop or carefully slice (depending on how pretty you want them to look) cold portions onto plates or into individual-sized gratin dishes, cover with plastic wrap and reheat gently in the microwave.
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2011)