At least three of us here--and I'd be willing to wager more than that--love us some scalloped potatoes. I've done some digging, and I think I found the potato gratin recipe that I've used with the most success. Brave Sir Robin (and perhaps others) will not be at all surprised that it's the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It uses milk instead of cream, and is the fundamental recipe to which you can add all sorts of different things: ham (or bacon), leeks, artichokes, or what have you.
Sometimes, though, creamy potatoes aren't quite what you're looking for: either you want something a bit lighter, or the cream just doesn't go with the other dishes you're serving. In the hopes of covering all the Easter potato bases, I'll put up three versions of a basic scalloped potato dish: gratin dauphinois (milk and cheese), gratin savoyard (using stock instead of milk), and pommes Anna (no liquid). The first two are from Mastering... Volume I, and the third is from Volume II.
A note on the type of potatoes to use: for scalloped potatoes, you want a potato that will hold its shape when cooked--you don't want the potatoes to fall apart. Most recipes recommend "boiling potatoes" for this sort of dish, as they hold their shape nicely, whereas "baking potatoes" disintegrate and are more suitable for mashing. While cooks in different regions will have different potato varieties available to them, everyone reading this will probably be able to find boiling potatoes.
Julia gives the following preamble:
There are as many "authentic" versions of gratin dauphinois as there are of bouillabaisse. Of them all, we prefer this one because it is fast, simple, and savory. It goes with roast or broiled chicken, turkey, and veal. With roast beef, pork, lamb, steaks, and chops you may prefer the gratin savoyard which follows, since it is cooked with stock rather than milk. Although some authorities on le vrai gratin dauphinois would violently disagree, you may omit the cheese. If you do so, add 2 more tablespoons of butter.2 pounds "boiling" potatoes (6 to 7 cups when sliced)
1/2 clove unpeeled garlic
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
1 cup boiling milk
Preheat oven to 425F and set a rack such that a dish may be placed in the upper third of the oven. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8" thick. Place in a basin of cold water and drain when ready to use.
Rub the inside of a fireproof baking-serving dish (2" deep and 10" in diameter) with the cut garlic. Smear the inside of the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter. Drain the potatoes and dry them on a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half of the salt, pepper, cheese, and remaining butter. Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer, and season them. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk. Set baking dish over heat and when simmering, set in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender, milk has been absorbed, and top is nicely browned. (As the oven is hot, and the dish shallow, the potatoes cook quickly.)
Ingredients for the preceding gratin dauphinois with the following exceptions:
1 cup brown stock or canned beef bouillon instead of milk
6 rather than 4 tablespoons butter
Follow the recipe for gratin dauphinois, but substitute stock for milk, and increase the butter proportions as indicated above.
For this one, Julia gives what probably qualifies as more of a preface:
Pommes Anna looks like a brown cake 6 to 8 inches in diameter and 2 inches high, and it smells marvelously of potatoes and butter. That, in effect, is all it is: thinly sliced potatoes packed in layers in a heavy pan, bathed in clarified butter, and baked in a very hot oven so that the outside crusts enough for the potatoes to be unmolded without collapsing. The contrast of crusty exterior and tender, buttery interior is quite unlike anything else in potato cookery, and to many pommes Anna is the supreme potato recipe of all time. It was created during the era of Napoleon III and named, as were many culinary triumphs in those days, after one of the grandes cocottes of the period. Whether it was Anna Deslions, an Anna Judic, or simply Anna Untel, she has also immortalized the special baking dish itself, la cocotte à pommes Anna, which is still being made and which you can still buy at a fancy price. It is of heavy copper.That said, you will need:
A thick, flameproof baking dish of some sort is actually one of the keys to pommes Anna, because it must be an excellent heat conductor. Although the copper cocotte Anna is a beautiful object, its absolutely vertical sides, 3-inch depth, and frequent tendency to sticky-bottom troubles make it less easy to use than other possibilities.
The familiar American cast-iron frying pan with its fairly vertical sides and short, straight handle is actually the best of all for pommes Anna. The potatoes are easier to unmold from this than from the French type of iron frying pan with its sloping sides and long handle. However, either will do, as will a thick, flameproof, ceramic baking dish or a thick cast-aluminum one with no-stick interior. The essential is to have a material that will get thoroughly hot all over, to brown and crust the outside of the potatoes.
Having furnished yourself with the right pan, you then want to make sure the potato slices will not stick to it, because you must be able to unmold them at the end of the cooking. Therefore, use clarified butter, dry the potatoes thoroughly before the cooking begins, and finish the cooking once you have begun it, or else the potatoes will exude moisture and stick to the pan. As you will note in the recipe, cooking begins at once, on the stove as you are arranging the potatoes in the pan; this is to dry the bottom layers and start the brown crust forming. In the classic recipe you then finish teh cooking in a hot oven, which usually gives a more professional result, but you may complete the cooking on top of the stove, as suggested in the cheese variation following the Master Recipe. [I will note this method in brackets in this recipe, rather than writing out the cheese variation.]
Pommes Anna and its variations go especially well with roast saddle of lamb, leg of lamb, roast beef, chops, sautéed chicken, plain or fancy steaks, and roast game. Your object, in arranging the sliced potatoes in their dish for this very special recipe, is not only to fill the dish but to make a reasonably neat design in the bottom and around the sides so that when the potatoes are unmolded they will present a handsome exterior. For the sides you may either arrange an edging of overlapping upright slices braced by horizontal interior layers, or build up a wall of evenly spaced horizontal slices as you fill the pan. We have suggested the latter, simpler, system here.
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
3 pounds "boiling" potatoes (about 8 cups of sliced potatoes, more if needed)
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 450F. Set one rack in very bottom level, and another just above it. Clarify the butter: melt it, skim off the scum, and spoon the clear liquid butter off the milky residue. Peel the potatoes, trim into cylinders about 1 1/4" in diameter so that you will have uniform slices, then slice cylinders into even rounds 1/8 inch thick. You should have about 8 cups. Dry thoroughly in paper towels. (Do not wash potatoes after peeling, because you want the starch to remain in, so potatoes will mass more easily into a cake.)
2) Arranging the potatoes in the dish
Pour 1/4 inch of the clarified butter into the pan and set over moderate heat. When hot, start rapidly arranging the first layer of potatoes in the bottom of the pan as follows.
Arrange one potato slice in the center of the pan. Overlap a circle of potato slices around it. Overlapping in the opposite (counter-clockwise) direction rapidly arrange a second circle around the first and continue with another (clockwise) overlapping circle if necessary, to rim the edge of the pan. Pour on a spoonful of the clarified butter.
Reversing direction again, rapidly arrange an evenly overlapping layer of potatoes around circumference of pan, fill in the center with more potatoes, and baste with another spoonful of butter. Shake pan not too roughly by handle to be sure potatoes are not sticking, and sprinkle on salt and pepper.
Continue filling the pan with layers of potatoes basted with butter and seasoned with salt and pepper, always being sure that the layer around the circumference of the pan is evenly spaced. Remember, also, to shake the pan by its handle from time to time, to be sure potatoes are not sticking. Fill the pan completely, allowing potatoes to form a 1/4- to 1/2-inch dome in the center; they will sink during cooking. You should have added enough butter so that you can see it bubbling up the sides of the pan; excess will be poured out after cooking.
Butter bottom of a heavy, 7-inch bottom diameter saucepan (or whatever will fit into the potato pan) and press it down hard on the potatoes, forcing the layers together. Butter underside of a heavy, close-fitting cover for the potato pan, place it on the potato pan set on upper of the two oven racks. Set a roasting pan under the potatoes, on rack below, to catch bubblings-up of butter (which could otherwise set fire to your oven).
Bake for 20 minutes. Uncover, press potatoes down hard again with bottom of saucepan, and continue baking 20 to 25 minutes more, uncovered. (If baked all the time with cover on, potatoes tend to pick up an off taste.) Press down potatoes again before end of baking. Gently draw an edge of the potatoes away from side of dish: potatoes are done if brown and crusty. Bake 5 minutes or so more if necessary.
[If cooking the potatoes entirely on the stovetop: rather than placing the potatoes in the oven, cook over a low flame. Be sure the heat is not too high, or the bottom will brown too much. All other cooking and serving directions should still be applicable.]
4) Unmolding and serving
When potatoes are done, place cover slightly askew on pan and drain out excess butter, which may be used again in other cooking. Run spatula around edge of pan. Shake pan, and if potatoes have stuck to bottom, run spatula carefully under potatoes to loosen them, but disturb them as little as possible. If you feel it will be easier to unmold them first onto a (lightly buttered) baking sheet and slide them onto a serving dish, do so; otherwise invert the serving dish (which should be lightly buttered) over the potato pan, reverse the two, and potatoes will drop onto the dish. They should look like a brown cake.
Unmolding troubles: You should have no trouble, but if some potatoes do stick to pan, scrape them off and put them in place on the potato cake. If you have had trouble and the potatoes look messy or pale, simply push or mound them into a reasonable shape, sprinkle with cheese or bread crumbs, drizzle on a little butter, and brown briefly under the broiler.
Ahead-of-time note: After unmolding the potatoes, cover loosely with foil and set in a warming oven (120F), or on an electric hot-tray, or over simmering water. They will keep nicely for half an hour at least as long as they are warm and have a little circulation of air.