Thursday, December 17, 2009

Christmas test run: Alice Waters's potato gratin

This year, we'll be hosting Christmas dinner for my mother and some friends. I've been assembling the menu in my mind, looking for the perfect balance of festive and simple, trying to pick things that will be delicious but not cause me too much stress. So far, I've decided on a roast pork loin with fig sauce and a potato gratin.

I've made gratins before, mostly with success, but with some mishaps, including a few that turned out too liquidy or not cooked all the way through. Over the weekend, I combed through my recipes and figured doing a test run might not be a bad idea.

When looking for a simple, perfect treatment for vegetables, turning to Alice Waters seems natural. Last year, the husband gave me her cookbook, The Art of Simple Food. For some reason, I haven't cooked a lot from it--I'm not sure why.

I liked the sound of her potato gratin, which called for the following short list of ingredients: Yukon gold potatoes, milk, butter, salt and pepper. You can't get much simpler than that.

She suggested some ways to jazz it up a little, which I did. I rubbed the baking pan with a clove of garlic, and added thyme and grated parmesan between the layers.

Now, about the potatoes.

Four years ago, we received a mandoline as a wedding gift. Since May of 2005, this lovely and thoughtful gift has sat in its little box and stared at me, threatening to slice my fingers to shreds. It took until last weekend for me to risk it.

What's my problem? you ask. I'm a scaredy cat dog.

In my defense, shortly after we got married, I sustained a traumatic kitchen injury resulting in a trip to urgent care, and had to bumble around with a cumbersome bandage over my left hand for a few weeks. It took me a year to use that Globe knife again (also a wedding gift), which had proved to be very sharp indeed. Trying out another tool that came with all kinds of warning labels did not seem appealing.

Anyhow, I finally braved the mandoline, and what do you know, if you use the safety guard and go slow, it's really not that terrifying. It sliced the potatoes into delicate, thin slices, which I spread out in ruffly layers in my beloved Emile Henry baking pan.

The gratin turned out perfectly golden, with crispy edges, smelling of woodsy thyme and parmesan.

Inside, it was soft and creamy, the potatoes perfectly cooked. Success!

Now, to figure out dessert.

Alice Waters's Potato Gratin
adapted from The Art of Simple Food

4 large Yukon gold potatoes (about 1 1/2 lbs), sliced about 1/16"
1 cup of milk (I used whole)
3 T. butter, cut into pieces, plus a little more for greasing the pan
1 clove of garlic, peeled and cut in half
fresh thyme, parmesan, salt and pepper, all to your taste

Preheat the oven to 350.

Rub a 9x12 baking pan with the garlic, then grease with butter.

Spread one layer of potatoes over the bottom, sprinkle salt, pepper, thyme, and parmesan over, and repeat. Do not exceed three layers. Pour the milk over the top, so that the milk comes to the bottom of the top layer of potatoes. Add more if necessary. Dot with butter and sprinkle with more parmesan. Bake for 30 minutes. At this point, press down on the gratin with a spatula to make sure the milk is reaching all the potatoes. Bake for another 30 minutes, or until browned and bubbling. If you'd like (I did), add a little extra parmesan to the last 15 minutes of baking. Let sit for 5-10 minutes after removing from the oven.


  1. Sounds and looks delicious. I like the idea of rubbing the pan with garlic first and getting that extra hint of flavor in there.

  2. Lovely work! She has amazing recipes, no? And kudos for braving the mandoline. My thumb is still recovering from the last injury I had with ours. But it hasn't stopped me from using it!

  3. As I was reading along I was saying out loud: doesn't hers have a guard? And voila! it did. Good work! I love gratins- this one is particularly good.

    I feel the same way about knives. I actually dream about cutting myself. I too spent an evening in the ER; luckily I didn't cut any tendons.

  4. Potato Au Gratin is always a winner because of the comfort of the sauce, especially with the added cheese. I love it but can't make it unless I'm having lots of people over to eat it and leave me with just a decent portion so I won't eat it all. ;-) Good luck with your dinner, sounds like it's shaping up nicely. (BTW, pork loin is a great choice. So easy. And smart to make a sauce with it. Just be sure to use an instant read thermometer to make sure it's done!)

  5. Oh, what a lovely looking dish! I'm so sorry to hear about your slicing accident way back. I have a mandolin too, and have used it several times, though never for something like this.

    I like the idea of rubbing the baking pan with garlic. I bet that added some nice flavors. :)

  6. Oh that looks awesome. I love gratins. Heh, my brother took a piece off himself once with a mandolin. They're serious business.

  7. A good potato gratin is always welcome on my table. Who can ever get enough of creamy, tender potatoes with a load of tasty cheese? Not I! ;)

  8. Yum! Sounds wonderful, I'm in the same boat (kennel?) with you Hungry Dog, putting together a menu that will hopefully be tasty, slightly impressive but also not too time-consuming. Will have to put this on the shortlist (there's pork belly and spice rubbed turkey on there as well...mmmm)

    I'm a scaredy cat too - scared to even get a microplane grater in case I accidentally remove all my fingertips!

  9. Your potato gratin looks really wonderful. Glad you finally braved the mandoline-there is nothing like it when slicing vegetables. No doubt that your holiday dinner will be fabulous!

  10. LOL, I can tell you that a mandoline works very well as long as you use the guard! Luckily, fingers heal quickly.

    This looks delicious. I lovelovelove gratins, and I wonder why I don't make them more often. I like that this one uses milk instead of cream. I"m bookmarking this recipe!

    So have you decided about dessert yet?

  11. sadly, i can't recall a time i used my mandoline and didn't bid farewell to a bit of skin. it's usually not too bad though. :) it's definitely worth braving the dangers of this tool to make something as delectable as potato gratin. yours looks AMAZING.

  12. I like to know that other people are scared of mandolines--makes me feel less ridiculous!

    Shaz: pork belly? tell me more...

    Kate: haven't decided on dessert yet, any ideas for me? :)

  13. Funny - "beloved" is one of the adjectives I use most often when describing my Emile Henry baking dishes, too. Potato gratin sounds like the perfect balance of stressless and delectable for Christmas. For dessert, how about a citrus compote over chocolate ice cream with some crispy cookies?

  14. Oh yum, that looks so delicious. I just love any type of baked creamy cheesy potatoes!

  15. Sold! The last few gratin recipes I tried were misses. One was all separated and oily. Another was bland and boring. This looks perfect.

    Funny, I thought I would love Simple Cooking, but I haven't used it much. I think I'll sit down with it today and revisit. - Gillian

  16. croquecamille: I like the idea of ice cream and crispy cookies! Thanks!

    Aubrey: Thanks! I know, cheesy potatoes are hard to beat.

    gillian: Definitely give this one a try, with the thyme and the garlic and the cheese. She suggested either parmesan or gruyere--had I had any gruyere on hand I would have done that--gruyere is to die for.

  17. Potatoes-good
    Creamy, golden potatoes-way good!

    Thanks for stopping by. Hope to see around in the future, and yea, I found a new blog too :)