Thursday, March 20, 2008

Easter potatoes

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.

Gratin dauphinois
Serves 6

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.)

Gratin savoyard
Serves 6

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.

Pommes Anna
Serves 6

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.

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.
That said, you will need:

1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
3 pounds "boiling" potatoes (about 8 cups of sliced potatoes, more if needed)
Paper towels
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1) Preliminaries

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.

3) Baking

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.


Anne said...

This comment seems more suited to being, well, a comment than part of the post, so here goes: I've never actually made the pommes Anna, but I trust Julia enough to post the recipe anyway. It looks like a fun dish, and I'm considering making it for my own Easter feast. I might also make a ham! Or perhaps a crown roast of pork, which I've always wanted to try. Either way, I need to sort out the veg.

Anne said...

And the dessert. I'm considering a trifle.

Brave Sir Robin said...

I have made the pommes Anna, and they are quite good, and very prone to sticking. I have added thinly sliced onion in with the layers.


I noticed in the first recipe, she calls for boiling milk.
Bee - might that be the reason your potatoes don't get soft? Did you use cold milk?

crown roast of pork *drool*

mmmm trifle is good, but my kids think it's too "mushy". Yet the eat banana pudding with soft mushy vanilla wafers. Go figure. What type of Jam will you use?

Julia was the best.

Bee said...


I am just leaving for the grocery store to do my Easter shop!

You are such a darling! Thank you for doing all of this research!
Funny anecdote on research: at lunch, my youngest kept asking me questions about diamond cutting (?) and I finally told her that she might enjoy googling it and learning more about it. Well! She told me! "Mother, I know that people of your generation think that research is a fun thing to do, but people of my generation don't."

I will come back later and think very carefully on potatoes and your very good advice and suggestions.

Did either of you read "Julie and Julia?" It was a very entertaining read, and Julie is actually a Texan! She has a salty sense of humor and doesn't mind using the "F" word.

Anne said...

BSR - did you cook the onion first, or did it soften sufficiently on its own in the oven? I bet caramelized shallots would be good as well.

I once thought trifle was too mushy. What my parents did, given that it's hard to make a trifle (or anything else) that caters to four kids' weird food preferences, is lay out cake, pastry cream, jam, and whipped cream and allow us to make our own individual trifles in small bowls. That way each person could leave out the ingredient(s) that he or she found objectionable. It didn't end up being a proper trifle, but everyone was happier.

I will probably use raspberry jam, since I think that's about all we have left at this time of year. There might be some apricot, but I doubt it.

Anne said...

No trouble at all, Bee! Contrary to what your daughter told you, some of us in this generation (am I the same generation as your kids? not sure, but either way), do enjoy research. I have evidence of just how nerdy I am when it comes to research (as if working on a PhD in physics weren't enough), but that's another story for another time.

I've heard of, but not read Julie and Julia. It is in my queue, though not yet on my bookshelf. Thanks for the reminder! I might go to the bookstore this evening, and will look for the Tamasin Day-Lewis book and this one.

Brave Sir Robin said...

Anne - No, I didn't pre-cook the onions, but if you slice them thin enough, they will cook through.

Yes caramelized shallots would be great.

Bee - Julie and Julia!!! link goes to blog, not book))

Yes!! I was a huge, huge fan of that blog. She is a little salty, yes. In fact Anne, I thought of Julie and Julia when you mentioned that you don't like eggs, because up until she cooked them for the blog, she had never eaten one in her life!

btw - It's going to be a film

Raspberry is good, apricot is heavenly.

Anne said...

Ah yes! I thought it might have been you, BSR, who pointed me to that book in the first place (perhaps when I was investigating omelet-making).

Apricot is my favorite type of jam. I'm hoping that this year my parents' trees will bear enough to get an extra batch of jam, in addition to the two 40-pound crates of Blenheims that my mom gets from an orchard in Brentwood. The third tree (the youngest that's mature enough to be bearing) is covered in blossoms--Mom actually thinks she'll have to thin them in order to get good fruit... but it looks like it could be a good year!

Bee said...

Members of Anne's food salon:

It is so late that our heating has gone off and I am shivering in my little garret in the attic! The ancient wooden windows are letting in great drafts of frigid air. We might get snow tonight!

I suppose you two are basking in the friendlier climates of CA and TX!

So here's the final menu: Ham with a port glaze; gratin dauphinois (the first recipe -- and yes, I think that boiling milk might be the key; that and fewer potato layers); asparagus; cheddar/chive biscuits. I have a cheddar called Wexford Velvet -- just as yummy as it sounds. Two hams: one smoked and one unsmoked. I thought we could do a comparison for future reference. (They aren't very big!) I read somewhere that the thing I bought, which is uncooked; is actually gammon. It doesn't become ham until it's cooked. Has anyone heard of this? Oh, and Anne, the potatoes are Kestrel.

Where I brag on myself: I make the BEST trifle. I use Delia's recipe -- only with homemade custard (more a vanilla pudding) and homemade sponge. Raspberry jam; bananas; sherry; almonds and whipped cream on top.

I did make the hot cross buns -- and they were easier than I expected them to be -- also delicious. I can't wait to wake up and eat one. Assuming I go to sleep tonight . . .

I must comment on the fact that Julie had never eaten an egg! How bizarre was that? BSR, were you following the blog in real-time? I've skimmed the blog (after the fact); the book has lots of extra stuff -- it's more personal, I would say. Have you ever checked out her new blog and seen pics of her newish baby -- Linus? He looks like a sweet little newt. She's a great example of how you never know how a blog might change your life . . .

So, I'm looking forward to post-Easter wrap-up. Everyone report here with their stories.

Last thing: How long is a generation these days. 20 years? 15? Anne, I will guess that you are 27 or 28; that puts you exactly halfway between me and the Drama Queen that is my oldest daughter. (We did some spring cleaning today, and oh, the glowering face!)

Anne said...

Down here on the central coast (I have suddenly been whisked away for the weekend by my friend Katie) it's a bit chillier than up in the Bay Area (high 30sF overnight, mid 60s during the day). We certainly aren't going to have snow anytime soon!

Your Easter menu sounds delicious! I love the cheddar and chive biscuits, and Wexford Velvet sounds heavenly. I look forward to your summary of the hams! I've never heard of gammon... I was wondering what one bought in order to make a ham! I have heard of, but never tried, Kestrel potatoes.

Homemade custard/pudding and sponge are essential to trifle. I spring for the homemade jam, too, but I always have that on hand, so it's no trouble.

I have never eaten an egg, either, at least not in scrambled or omelet form. I can't stand them! I have, however, eaten a quasi-raw (but warmed) egg out of the shell with maple syrup. It was... difficult.

I will probably post another open thread for Easter wrap-up. I myself will not be doing the feast I had originally thought of doing (being now in Big Sur) but we will, at the very least, be doing Cornish game hens and cupcakes. I will lobby for pommes Anna if there are the right kind of potatoes in the pantry. There is asparagus in the garden (we are using up the rest of my CSA asparagus tonight), plenty of lettuce greens, and perhaps even some artichokes. I am certain that we will not go hungry, and there will probably be some delicious wine as well.

Close, Bee! I'm 25. I suppose a generation is around 15-20 years, but I don't know where they draw the line with these things.

Sleep tight--and stay warm!

Brave Sir Robin said...

The weather? The weather here is perfect! But it will not last. It was 53 yesterday morning, and 75 yesterday afternoon. Today should be about the same, but clouds are due for tomorrow morning. (It actually rained mud here a few days ago – I’ll post)

I discovered Julie/Julia when she was about half way done, so I caught about half of it in real time.

I’ve never heard of a gammon? I was guessing maybe it was from the front shoulder instead of the true ham, (which over here would be a “picnic” ham), but I looked it up and that doesn’t seem to be the case. Best I can tell, it is a specific cut out of the ham??

As for the cooking - ?? Country Hams, (Dry Cured) hams, are salted, smoked and stored away. They must be cooked before eating. Most regular hams are brine injected and smoked at temperature high enough to cook them, so they are technically cooked when you buy them. Perhaps gammon is dry cured, therefore must be cooked? Btw – Alton does a great show on this.

I left this comment sitting here for a moment and did some research. I found this:

Information: Some people have asked me to explain the difference between American hams
and Gammon hams.
American hams are mostly, except for County type hams, hams that have been injected with a curing solution (sometimes with a lot of sugar or maple flavors), then tumbled in what is knows as VACUUM TUMBLER that tumbles the ham in a vacuum chamber putting stress on the tissues of the meat causing the cure to penetrate the meat and cure the ham faster, sometimes in as little as 2-3 hours, this also causes the injected flavors to permeate the ham completely. Then the ham is usually placed in a cooker where it is cooked as well as being smoked. The whole process can take less than a day. This process or something similar is used in processing most American hams including honey baked and other expensive spiral cut hams. The reason they are cooked is to firm up the stressed tissues in the meat. American hams tend to have an aftertaste that is distinctive.
Gammon Hams Historically the word Gammon was used for cured whole sides of pork where the whole hog side including the hams, middle or loins, and the shoulders. In recent times the word Gammon is used mostly for the hams. Our hams are cured using a 300 year old method of curing called the "Wiltshire Cure" method. This is a much slower method of curing hams taking up to as long as a month to 6 weeks. The hams are placed ,some call it pickling, in a brine solution containing just enough sugar to counter some of the harsh taste of the salt but not enough to mask the natural taste of the cured ham. Our Gammon Hams are not cooked leaving you that pleasure.

Here's that link

Sounds like you have yourself a grade a delicious ham there Bee.

Alton on Ham Here

I will spend Tomorrow at Dave and Lisa’s Bay House. Flo is in town for a week, so we will play some tennis I’m sure. (We will test out the knee), but I will report back on the food. Today, I am supposed to go to a bbq in Victoria for my friend Tee, but if I don’t get some work done, I won’t be able to.

Anne – If you are with Katie, then we will expect a full wine and food report.

Brave Sir Robin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brave Sir Robin said...

whoops - forgot to link the picures)
btw - Flo is a German foreign exchange student.

He is the one one the left in the first two pictures here.

We haven't seen him since last June. He eats, sleeps, and breathes tennis.

Anne said...

BSR - last night we got in a bit late, so dinner was simple: bone-in chicken breasts roasted with garlic, rosemary, and lemon (and olive oil and salt and pepper, of course). Also: roasted asparagus. The chicken was perfect, but the asparagus was a little overdone, as we spent a bit too long in the wine cellar picking out what we were going to drink. We ended up with a 1998 Penfolds Yattarna chardonnay. One of the best I've had in... well, I guess it's only been a few month since I had another great chardonnay down here. But it was really good!

Tonight we'll finish off the Penfolds when we have linguine with leeks, radicchio, and walnut pesto.

Brave Sir Robin said...

I'm sure it was fantastic!