One advantage of screwing up a recipe is that at least you know when you don’t screw it up. The first time I made this recipe, I thought I might have overcooked it. The second time, I knew I overcooked it.
I’m a big fan of Jeffrey Steingarten, the food writer for Vogue. I have two of his books and I’ve enjoyed them both. He claims to have made a gratin once a week for the past ten years and calls this one “so fantastically good that [he has] made it every day for the past few weeks.” I’m not capable of resisting that recommendation, regardless of the half stick of butter and 1½ cups of cream. (Yikes.)
Steingarten developed his recipe to maximize the crispy parts, so the potatoes are placed in the baking pan in a single layer. Steingarten considers cheese in this type of gratin “a gross and pitiful imposture”, because the cream should reduce to a cheese-like flavor, so adding cheese is unnecessary. I have to do one more quote, because there’s no way I’ll be able to describe this as accurately and enticingly as Steingarten (which is why he is a professional and I am a blogger). “[The liquid] will coat the vegetable with an intensely flavorful concentrate…and the surface…is beautifully browned and crusty and delicious.”
Steingarten also says “if your gratin is truly brilliant, the bottom will become golden and crisp as well.” My gratin was not, and has never been with this recipe, truly brilliant. I’m not sure why; my only theory is that I’m using Pyrex when cast iron would be a better choice. The only cast iron cook/bakeware I have is my Dutch oven, but maybe I’ll try baking this is an All-Clan stainless steel skillet next time to see if I can get the bottom crust to form.
The recipe isn’t particularly difficult; it looks long due to Steingarten’s very detailed instructions. I typed out the recipe in Steingarten’s exact words because they have so much of his writing style in them, which I thought was worth keeping. However, there are aspects of the recipe that I change. A minor one is replacing the white pepper with black pepper, not only because I keep the black pepper on the counter and the white pepper requires some digging in the pantry, but because I think the flavor is better with the potatoes. Also, Steingarten calls for a pound and a half of potatoes, and says that “you will undoubtedly have some slices leftover.” With the pan size he calls for, I tend to have at least a third of the slices leftover. I’ve found that I should either increase the pan size or decrease the potatoes I slice.
Steingarten is also careful to instruct that the potatoes should be removed from the oven before “the cream has broken down into clear, foamy butterfat”. Oops. Good advice. Otherwise you end up with a disgusting greasy mess that makes it all too obvious that there’s a dismaying amount of fat in the recipe.
But, if you do it right, you have deliciously tender, creamy, crisp potatoes that don’t need cheese to taste cheesey or bread crumbs to be crispy. On the top. If you try the recipe and get a crispy bottom too, let me know!
Gratin Dauphinois (from Jeffrey Steingarten’s It Must’ve Been Something I Ate)
4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
1 (scant) cup milk
1 large garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
¾ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, about a dozen gratings
1½ pounds baking potatoes
1½ cups heavy cream
Special equipment: A large, low baking dish made of enameled iron, glass, or earthernware. The quantities in this recipe work out perfectly when baked in a dish measuring about 120 square inches on the inside bottom, where the slices of potato will lie. This translates into a rectangle 9-by-13 inches, or 10-by-12 inches; an 11-inch square; a 12-inch circle; or an oval 10-by-15 inches. An enameled iron baking dish is preferred – mine is made by Le Creuset – because it produces a delectable crust underneath the potatoes. A hand-sliced device, such as a traditional French stainless-steel mandoline or a much less expensive but excellent plastic Japanese-made device manufactures by Benriner.
Let the butter soften at room temperature for an hour or so. Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 425F.
Place the milk, garlic clove, pepper, salt, and nutmeg in a small saucepan, bring to a boil, and remove from the heat.
Meanwhile, liberally butter the bottom of the baking dish using about half the butter. Peel the potatoes, rinse them, and pat them dry. Then, slice them 1/8-inch thick, discarding the smallest slices. (This is easier with a slicing machine, inexpensive or elaborate. The quantities and cooking times given here work out best when the slices are even and close to 1/8 inch. Just keep adjusting your slicing machine until a little pile of eight slices measures an inch high.) Under no circumstances should you wash the potatoes after they have been sliced – the surface starch is absolutely indispensable.
Evenly arrange the potatoes in the buttered dish in one layer of overlapping slices. (Begin by laying out a row of slices along one narrow end of the baking dish, overlapping each one about a third of the way over the slice that came before. Repeat with a second row. Continue until the baking dish is neatly paved.) You will undoubtedly have some slices left over. Please do not try to cram them in.
Bring the milk to the boil again and pour it over the potatoes, removing the garlic. Cover the pan with a sheet of aluminum foil. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes, until most of the milk has been absorbed. Meanwhile, bring the cream to a boil, and remove from the heat. When the potatoes are ready, remove and discard the aluminum foil. Bring the cream back to the boil and pour it over the potatoes, dotting the surface with the remaining butter.
Bake, uncovered, for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the potatoes have turned a golden brown, spotted with darker, crisp area. (Rotate the baking dish halfway through if the gratin is browning unevenly.) The underside of the gratin will also be brown and crispy in spots. But do not wait until most of the cream has broken down into clear, foamy butterfat. The potatoes should be dotted with thickened, clotted cream, especially between the slices.
Let the gratin settle for 10 minutes. (This will allow the excess butterfat to drain to the bottom of the dish.) Then eat immediately – taste and texture suffer with each passing minute. Cut into 6 or 8 rectangles with a blunt knife and serve each one with a thin, wide metal slotted spatula.