My first challenge of the New Year was actually a challenge I set for myself for the Christmas dinner I was hosting. I wanted to finally master the potato gratin. Although many recipes go by the name gratin, the one I’m referring to is the classic Gratin Dauphinois, with cream and melted Gruyere cheese. This is one of my favorite special occasion dishes, but I had never been able to make a really good one.
It seems like a simple dish. It contains only four or five ingredients: potatoes, cream, Gruyere cheese, salt and maybe garlic. But every time I made it before, it either turned out very gloppy, with a lot excess liquid, or the potatoes didn’t get tender enough. It was time to stop fooling around and get serious.
For help, I turned to Patricia Wells’ Bistro Cooking, which practically has a whole chapter dedicated to potato gratins. I ended up combining steps from two different recipes, and the results were magnificent. The gratin was crusty and cheesy, the potatoes were tender and redolent with cream, and I couldn’t resist going back for seconds.
Here’s what I learned about making a really good gratin. First, slice the potatoes thinly and consistently. If you only get out your mandoline once a year, now is the time. I sliced mine 3/8 inch thick, which seemed a little thick to me, but they cooked up beautifully.
Second, pre-cook the sliced potatoes at a low simmer — not a boil — for about 10 minutes. This ensures they will be tender after they come out of the oven.
Finally, choose a shallow dish for baking. I don’t have a proper gratin pan, so I used a lasagna baking dish. I made two layers of potatoes and cheese, and that worked out very well. The gratin itself was cooked and beautiful ahead of schedule, at just 45 minutes.
Now that I know how to make a really good potato gratin, it will be a challenge not to make it more often. Here’s the recipe as I prepared it.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and halved
- 2 pounds baking potatoes, such as russets, peeled and very thinly sliced
- 1 cup freshly grated French or Swiss Gruyere cheese
- 1 cup heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Place the potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a low simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally so that the potatoes do not stick to the bottom of the pan. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring from time to time, until the potatoes are tender but not falling apart, about 10 minutes.
Thoroughly rub a shallow baking dish with the garlic. Using a slotted spoon, transfer half of the potatoes to the dish. Sprinkle with half the cream and half the cheese. Sprinkle with salt. Cover with the remaining potatoes, and sprinkle again with the remaining cream and cheese. Sprinkle again with salt. Bake, uncovered, until crisp and golden on top, 45-60 minutes. Serve immediately.