Friday, May 6, 2011

On Au Gratin Potatoes

This, my friends, is the family recipe for Au Gratin Potatoes, courtesy of Matty's grandmother. Something he taught to me early in our marriage (and to be fair, I had doubts about it until he pulled it from the oven). From what I understand, this firecracker of a woman married Matty's grandfather just before he left for WWII. When he returned, they raised a little family like the rest of their generation. This was the dish that raised the baby boomers that raised my husband. This was the star of every special occasion and holiday dinner. Ham at Easter? Who cares about the ham! If there is such a thing as an epic casserole, this would be it.

As The Frug would say, the calorie count is somewhere south of murder. This is not a dish you have nightly. This is not a dish you even have weekly. This is a special occasion dish. Holidays, birthdays, salary raise, sale on potatoes, depressing week of rising food prices and bad news on TV. And this is one of those causes dishes I love to champion. It takes a little time and work. It came from a different era of our culture. It is humble. It is simple (seven ingredients including salt and pepper). And it will blow your mind.

If you're the Type-A sort who prefers a clean list of ingredients (hi friend, our meetings are on Thursdays), then here you go: cheese, potatoes, butter, flour, milk, salt, pepper. But I'd like to just touch on each ingredient as we move along. (Click here for slightly more printable recipe.)

The quality of the dish is directly affected by the quality of the cheese. Don't go nutso here, but I wouldn't use anything less than Tillamook Sharp Cheddar Cheese. It's expensive, so buy it at Costco (we're at $8 for a two pound brick), but absolutely delicious sliced with crackers, in grilled cheese sandwiches, in mac and cheese, and grated for tacos.

And you will need a lot of it.

I ended up with roughly 15 ounces for a 8 x 8 pan. A pound of cheese, my friends, is 16 ounces. (See above: "Murder.")

Peeled and sliced the long way (your mandoline is worth every one of the $8 you spent on it for this task). For my 8 x 8 pan I used 24 ounces of potatoes (you did invest that $12.95 on a food scale, didn't you?). Since we're at the end of last year's harvest, you'll probably only find smaller spuds at the store, so it's hard to say how many you'll need if you don't have a scale. Start with the equivalent of four average-sized potatoes but have more handy just in case. Don't worry, if you peel too many you can store the extra slices in some water in the fridge and half the work of corned beef hash is done.

Then, you will need a thin bechemel. For a large 9 x 13 Pyrex pan, you'll need two batches. For my 8 x 8 pan, I used one batch and had a little leftover.
4 T butter
4 T flour
2 c milk

Four tablespoons is half a stick. This is one of those "good for the soul" dishes.
Have we talked about bechemel sauces before? The classic recipe is 3 T of butter and 3 T of flour to 1 c milk and a few tablespoons of diced onions softened but not browned in the butter. The onions would be a tremendous addition to this dish, but this is not my recipe. Matty's grandmother might disapprove if I added onions, though you are free to do as you wish.

Melt the butter, add the flour and whisk. You have made a roux. The longer you cook this the more distinct the flavor will be. (This is a good way to add a little extra oomph to a gravy if you don't have much by way of pan drippings.)
Cook the roux for 2-3 minutes until it just starts to turn blonde. Then pour in the milk and whisk, whisk, whisk. Once you have worked all the lumps out, let this come to a simmer, then turn off the heat.

I'm rather embarrassed about the quality of this next photo, but I think it's important you see how thin the sauce is. Maybe this is a good time to remind you that I do not have a studio, I do not have an assistant (save for Matty), I do not have the luxury of cooking only when the natural light is the best for photos. I work full-time outside the home, so often my photos look like my meals: illuminated only by the lightbulbs over my dining table at 8:00 at night. The good news is that if you ever try my recipes, you'll know just what they could look like if you make them after work for dinner! Needless to say, action shots that involve gravity to show you the thickness of a sauce aren't easy.

Back to the photo. You want this thin enough to pour, not to spread. Feel free to add dribbles of milk if you see fit.
See? Pourable.
Spray a glass baking dish with Pam. Assembly is very easy: sauce, cheese, potatoes, salt and pepper, repeat. The most critical step is to begin with sauce and cheese. The reasons why will be revealed to you shortly. A few tablespoons of sauce and about 2 ounces of cheese per layer in an 8 x 8 pan.
Salt and pepper each layer of potatoes; we season the spuds, not the sauce. (Yes, technically the photo below is the second layer of potatoes. One wonders why I thought you needed to see what salted and peppered potatoes looked like anyways.) My layers were about 4 ounces of potatoes each.
Then another layer of cheese and sauce.
As you're layering the potatoes, try to alternate potato slice directions like you would when making a lasagna so that you end up with the best structure and don't have holes in the layers. When you reach the top layer, add a usual amount of sauce and lots of cheese.

I ended up with six layers.
Spray a sheet of foil with Pam, cover the pan, and press lightly across the top to compress the layers slightly. I like to avoid bubbling over in the oven and have in mind this food-smashing step will somehow do that. Use your judgment.

Now, the magic. Cook, covered, at 350 for about an hour. What we're going for here is to melt all the cheese and basically poach the potatoes in the sauce and cheese fat. Test the potatoes for doneness by stabbing with a fork or knife. You want them al dente, but let's be honest with each other: you could overcook the bejeezus out of this dish and it would still be delicious. This is a great time to let your mother-in-law wander into the kitchen. She will look at this soggy mess and cluck disapprovingly. Just wait.
Not very appetizing, is it? Stick with me here.

Now, I want you to crank your oven up to 450. Leave the foil off, and put the pan back in (uncovered) for anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, checking often.


Did you catch that? By cooking low and slow and then very hot, you render out the fat from the cheese and it actually FRIES THE POTATOES.

There is something I want you to do before you serve this flaming hot pan of potato napalm: skim the fat.

And here we go:
Wanna see it again?

Remember how I was adamant that you put sauce and cheese on the bottom of the pan before you layer? Here's why:

I do hope you try this one. I hope you make it for somebody you love. (Or if you're single, somebody you're hoping to love. I'd call this dish a "sure thing.") And when you do, I hope you remember that dinner is not just about being fed. Dinner is about transforming humble ingredients into something memorable. Dinner is something that your children and their children will remember and pass along. I bet Matt's grandmother would have never imagined that this dish would leave such an impression on her children and their children. I served it to her daughters (Matt's mother and aunt) for Easter lunch and they approved. THEY APPROVED! And while we were fighting over the last corner piece, Matt's father got a call from another of his sons. One of Matt's older brothers, getting Easter dinner ready with his children, called to ask how to make au gratin potatoes. One more generation that will remember this great old dish.

1 comment:

  1. I approve...

    OH, and no onions...noooooo onions...NOOOOOOO ONIONS...

    Just making sure everyone is on board with that.


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