Whether baked or fried, roasted, or boiled, I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. On its own, it is a humble thing, a lowly tuberous crop that can be had for mere pennies; one that has, at times, provided sustenance to the poorest of nations. But with some oil and heat, a sprinkling of salt, a healthy dollop of butter or sour cream, the potato is transformed into something ethereal. In my opinion, the supreme leader of this magical potato kingdom is the scalloped potato–officially know as the Gratin Dauphinois.
I will tell you what I love about the French. Only they have a word for the golden, crispy bits of food that get stuck around the edges of a baking dish. This word, gratin, comes from the verb gratter, which means “to scrape”. Gratinée is from the transitive verb form of the word for “crust”. It is a culinary technique in which ingredients are topped with breadcrumbs, butter, or grated cheese, then baked or broiled until a golden crust develops. As you can imagine from the name of my blog, I am a fiend for gratins.
Virtually anything edible can be made into a gratin, but potato gratinée is most common, particularly the Gratin Dauphinois. This dish is a specialty of the Dauphiné region of France. It involves layering thinly sliced potatoes with cream and sometimes egg in a buttered dish rubbed with garlic. A Gratin Savoyard, on the other hand, found in a neighboring region, is made without milk but beef broth.
A good Gratin Dauphinois should be crispy on the top and bottom and have a rich, cheesy taste, even without any cheese added. If you look closely at your gratin upon taking it out of the oven, you will notice the cream has turned into a curdled, cheese-like substance. You should not be alarmed when this happens. In fact, this is a most desirable trait in a gratin. As the potatoes absorb water from the liquid, you get a concentration of fat and protein, just as you would with fresh cheese curds.
I have made a great deal of gratins in my lifetime, following many different recipes many times over, and I can tell you that they never turn out the same. The thickness of the potato slices, the way they are layered, the depth and width of the dish you use and where you place it in the oven all influence your end result. Even the thickness of your cream can be of great influence. Starchy potatoes are a must.
There are countless recipes for Gratin Dauphinois, some of which ask you to boil the potatoes before baking them. I am not sure this method creates a superior gratin, so why bother? This recipe is from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It is fast and easy and produces the kind of gratin that will have you picking those crispy, delectable bits off the baking dish.
Julia Child’s Gratin Dauphinois
2 pounds starchy potatoes
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 or cream
1) Preheat oven to 425F. Peel the potatoes and slice them 1/8 inch thick. Place in cold water. Drain when ready to use.
2) Rub the baking dish with cut garlic. Smear the dish with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
3) Drain the potatoes and dry them in a towel. Spread half of them in the bottom of the dish. Divide over them half the salt, pepper, cheese, and butter.
4) Arrange the remaining potatoes over the first layer and season. Spread on the rest of the cheese and divide the butter over it. Pour on the boiling milk.
5) Set the baking dish in upper third of preheated oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, until the potatoes are tender, the milk is absorbed, and the top is a golden brown.