Cooking Class: Hot potatoes

Potato casseroles – the creamy versus the cheesy.

By FAYE LEVY
March 6, 2011 00:30
Potato casserole

potatoes 311. (photo credit: MCT)

The first time I tasted gratin dauphinois, made basically of potatoes baked in cream, the dish was so delicious that I wasn't surprised that people in France like to say that the potato was created in order to be made into this dish.

At cooking school in Paris I was glad to learn that this potato gratin is not complicated to prepare. Some recipes call for baking the potatoes directly in cream, or in a mixture of cream and milk, with salt, pepper and a generous amount of freshly grated nutmeg as the only seasonings. Master Chef Fernand Chambrette taught me that the best way to prepare the potatoes is to simmer them in milk before baking them in cream; this way the potatoes cook more evenly. The only other flavorings come from rubbing the baking dish with a garlic clove, and sprinkling the mixture lightly with grated Gruyere cheese before baking. The cheese makes a light crust but the overall character of the dish is creamy, not cheesy, nutmeg-flavored potatoes.

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Not long ago I sampled the signature side dish of a popular steakhouse – a potato casserole with Cheddar cheese and a hint of hot pepper. Later that week at a California supermarket I tasted a prepared dish of scalloped potatoes with several kinds of cheese. Both potato dishes were creamy and tasty.

What I liked most about them was that they reminded me of gratin dauphinois.

Some say scalloped potatoes, a favorite accompaniment at holiday meals, are simply an American interpretation of the French gratin. Yet unlike the French dish, many American scalloped potatoes are made with a white sauce of butter, flour and milk. The components might be cooked as a sauce and then combined with potatoes, or the butter and flour might be sprinkled over the layers of potatoes and then the milk, cream or a combination of both is poured over them.

Cheese is controversial in scalloped potatoes. Versions I've tasted have been rich in cheese. Some cooks are proud that their recipe contains four or five different kinds of cheese, such as cheddar, blue cheese, Parmesan, fontina or Swiss. Yet others insist that scalloped potatoes should not contain any cheese at all.

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, a classic American cooking manual, defines ”to scallop” as ”to bake with a sauce or cream” and notes that scalloped potatoes should be “little rivers of buttery milk, lots of pepper, and creamy potatoes.”

It does not mention cheese.

Another American standard, The Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, says the dish can be made with or without cheese. The basic scalloped potato recipe calls for sprinkling each layer of thinly sliced potatoes with flour, scattering bits of butter, and then moistening the potatoes with hot milk or cream seasoned only with salt and paprika. For their other version of scalloped potatoes, hot cheese sauce is poured over the potatoes. The Settlement Cookbook, the only cookbook my mother had when I was growing up, gives similar formulas, including baking the potatoes with white sauce or layering them with sliced onions and cheese sauce.

For additional flavorings, these traditional tomes recommended dill or mustard but not the French favorite, nutmeg.

To vary the dish, suggestions include layering the potatoes with diced sweet red peppers, thin slices of peeled celery root, chopped anchovies or chopped smoked meat.

Both classics – the gratin and the scalloped potatoes – continue to be popular.

Rozanne Gold, author of the recently published Radically Simple, makes her creamy potato gratin from paper-thin slices of potato cooked in half-and-half with salt and pepper, then baked with fresh thyme and a coating of coarsely shredded cheese. “The Gruyere cheese acts as a protective layer, preventing potatoes from drying out,” she notes.

In his new book, The Pure Joy of Monastery Cooking, Brother Victor Antoine of Avila-Latourrette adds broccoli to a casserole resembling scalloped potatoes, with mozzarella cheese and a nutmeg-flavored white sauce mixture enriched with beaten eggs. To ensure even cooking, he boils the potatoes and broccoli in water before layering them in the casserole.

Marian Morash, author of The Victory Garden Cookbook, gives several guidelines for making good gratins and scalloped potatoes: ”I make the layer of potatoes relatively thin, usually no higher than 2.5 cm, which assures even cooking and coating of the potatoes. To end up with discernible potato slices in the gratin, I use low-starch potatoes, and rinse and pat them dry before layering.

Some people prefer gratins in which the potatoes have ‘melted’ together, creating a softer texture. In that case, don't rinse the starch off the potatoes.”

GRATIN DAUPHINOIS – POTATO GRATIN WITH CREAM
Makes 4 servings

In addition to its wonderful taste, gratin dauphinois has the advantage of being convenient to serve, as it is good when made ahead. You can cook the potatoes in the milk and cream up to three days in advance, refrigerate them in a covered dish, and bake them before serving. I use baking potatoes so they will blend into the cream, but you can use boiling potatoes. For variations, you can add dried wild mushrooms, thin slices of carrot or thin onion slices sauteed in butter.

-700 gr. baking potatoes
-Salt and white pepper
-Freshly grated nutmeg
-21⁄2 cups milk
-1 garlic clove, halved
-11⁄2 cups heavy cream or creme fraiche
-4 to 6 Tbsp. grated Gruyere or Swiss cheese

Peel potatoes and cut them in slices about 3 mm. thick, using a food processor, mandoline cutter or sharp knife.

Season with salt, white pepper and nutmeg, and toss to distribute seasonings.

Bring milk to a boil in a medium-size heavy saucepan, stirring occasionally.

Add potatoes, reduce heat to medium, and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain potatoes; milk can be reserved for cream soups.

Rub a 4- to 5-cup gratin dish or other shallow baking dish with garlic; then butter dish.

Preheat oven to 220ºC.

Return potatoes to saucepan and add cream. Bring to a simmer over mediumhigh heat. Reduce heat to medium and simmer, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes, or until potatoes are tender but not falling apart. Taste and add more salt, white pepper, and nutmeg if needed.

Spoon potatoes and cream into baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until hot and golden brown. If top is not golden brown, broil briefly to brown. Serve hot, from the dish.

NAOMI MORASH’S OLD-FASHIONED SCALLOPED POTATOES

Makes 6 to 8 servings This recipe is from The Victory Garden Cookbook. When author Marian Morash got married, her husband said he hoped someday she could make scalloped potatoes like his mother’s. This is his mother’s recipe. The potatoes are baked in a deep casserole dish with layers of onion and sharp cheddar cheese.

-1 to 1.2 kg. boiling potatoes
-salt and freshly ground pepper
-1 large onion, thinly sliced
-4 Tbsp. flour
-6 to 8 Tbsp. butter (80 to 110 gr.)
-110 gr. sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
- 3 to 4 cups milk

Preheat oven to 175ºC.

Peel and slice the potatoes into 1⁄4-cm. pieces; drop into cold water. Butter a deep 10- to 12- cup casserole dish. Dry the potatoes.

Divide the ingredients into fourths. In the following order, layer the potatoes and season them with salt and pepper; add the onion slices, sprinkle with flour, and dot with butter; top with cheese. Repeat this layering three times.

Pour over just enough milk to cover the potatoes. Cover the dish and bake for 45 to 60 minutes or until the milk comes to a boil and bubbles. Uncover and bake for another 30 to 45 minutes or until the potatoes are tender and the top is browned.

Faye Levy is the author of the award-winning Fresh from France: Vegetable Creations.


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