Potato Gratin

Holiday dinners on the shoulders of the worn out cook trying to keep up a cheerful face inevitably carry a shroud for disaster. This year I had everything down pat, easy stuff I could almost pull together in my sleep, but I wasn’t cooking at home. There, in my son’s spacious new culinary domain where ne’er a drop of pomegranate juice had stained the granite nor a green scrubbie had marred the stainless, I set to work.

The trimming, chopping, tying had been done ahead, so all I needed to do was pop the potato gratin in a hot oven, sear the beef tenderloin, heat the port and mushroom sauce and blanch a bowl of green beans. The children scrambled on the floor with new gifts while their mother walked out for coffee; their father went upstairs to shower, and I faced the stove.

I pulled the oval shallow le Creuset baker filled with bubbling garlic-laced milk and melted butter from the oven, added sliced Yukon Golds and lightly strewed-over grated Gruyère. Grasping the sides of the baker with a large towel, I moved toward the open oven door. The baker slipped on the rounded edge of the oven rack and potatoes, along with a generous spill of hot milk, splashed into the hot well of the oven window. I couldn’t find a pancake turner, a bench scraper or any flat implement beyond a small rubber spatula to bail milk from the window well. Onto the floor I threw everything the tiny spatula could carry before I began mopping with a large soapy cloth. The oven was off and the window looked good. I cleaned the bottom of the oven door, polished the window, and when I lifted the door into the closed position, one last stream of milk fell between the sealed glass panes of the oven window. A towel now hangs over the blemish, and I’m in the doghouse.

I may not want to put a pan of spuds into that big Wolf oven again for a while, but a Gratin Dauphionois is still one of the best potato dishes to serve alongside a roast or almost anything else. It’s a meal in itself, delicious the next day and one of the all time favorite winter potato dishes to remember. Note: Do not use a baker smaller than one that will hold 2 quarts or 8 cups; otherwise the milk will boil over, blacken your oven and fill your kitchen with smoke.

Gratin Dauphinois

2  lbs. Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes

scant tablespoon finely chopped garlic

1 teaspoon Kosher salt

generous grinding white or black pepper

8 fl. oz. whole milk (1 cup)

4 fl. oz. heavy cream (1/2 cup)*

1 1/2 oz. butter (3 tablespoons)*

2 oz. grated cheese, Gruyère or aged white cheddar (1/2 cup)

Preheat oven to 400°F. Sprinkle chopped garlic, salt and pepper in a 2-quart low oval or rectangular baking dish. Add milk, cream and sliced butter. Place in oven to heat.

Peel and cut potatoes into 1/8-inch slices. (Measure a heaped quart.) This step may be done 30 minutes ahead; cover sliced potatoes with cold water.

Remove hot baking dish with simmering milk from oven. Evenly strew in sliced potatoes. Sprinkle with grated cheese. Return to oven.

Bake 25–40 minutes. The top should be golden brown and potatoes fork-tender. If potatoes seem dry, add 2 tablespoons water and let rest a few minutes. Serves 6.

*If you choose to omit cream, increase milk to 1 1/2 cups and butter to 2 oz. or 4 tablespoons.

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