February 13, 2003
Steingarten's Gratin

As promised, I tried out the Jeffrey Steingarten recipe for gratin dauphinois. I can't remember what else we ate tonight because this dish completely stole the show. It's a rich combination of creamy, starchy, browned goodness that after the first bite makes you want to eat it forever. By the second bite, you realize just how rich it is: you're eating the equivalent of a tablespoon of heavy cream with every mouthful. Nadia and I somehow managed to finish off a whole pan, but by the end of the meal we were both leaning back in our seats and rubbing our aching bellies.

This is the perfect gratin in Jeffrey Steingarten's eyes and I'm inclined to agree. I don't consider myself an expert on gratins but there is one thing I find a bit strange about the dish: there's only one layer of potatoes. It's not that it's one layer of potato chunks, this is one layer of 1/8 inch thick slices. Now Steingarten is very clear on his reason for writing the recipe this way -- to create as much crispy golden crust as possible, both on top and on the bottom. This obsession with creating a dish that is almost entirely crust leads to somewhat insubstantial portion sizes. It's like trying to create an entire meal of crispy chicken skin. Although the recipe covers a 9 by 13 inch baking dish, the gratin is barely 1/4 inch high when finished. Although Nadia and I had some trouble finishing it, I would hesitate to serve it to more than three people without making a double batch.

Although the gratin is thin, it more than makes up for it in richness. The single layer of potatoes are cooked in a mixture of milk and cream and butter that condenses into a wonderfully thick consistency. The thickened cream has such a concentrated flavor that it almost tastes like a cheese. Nadia thought that I had added some parmesan until I told her the ingredients. The flavor of the dish was heavenly, but we didn't get the golden crust right. We managed to get some good browned spots, but not much of the crispy bits that, for Steingarten, are the essence of the dish. What a shame, I guess we'll just have to cook it again.

Gratin Dauphinois
from It Must've Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten

4 tbs butter (1/2 stick) softened
1 cup milk
1 large garlic clove, peeled and lightly crushed
1/2 tsp white pepper
3/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 lbs baking potatoes
1 1/2 cups heavy cream

Preheat oven to 425°. Place the milk, garlic, white pepper and salt in a small saucepan. Bring this to a boil then remove from heat.

Meanwhile, with about 2 tablespoons of the butter, liberally grease the bottom of a baking dish measuring about 120 square inches (9-by-13, 10-by-12, 11-inch square, 12-inch circle, etc.) Steingarten says enameled cast iron (such as Le Creuset) is best; glass worked fine for me. Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/8 inch slices. Steingarten recommends a mandoline, but the food processor with the thin slicing blade is perfectly acceptable. Once they are cut, don't wash the potatoes as you don't want to lose the surface starch.

Arrange the potatoes in the baking dish in one layer of overlapping slices. Each slice should overlap the previous one by about a third. You may have some slices left over. Bring the milk mixture back to a boil and pour it over the potatoes taking care to remove the garlic. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake in the middle of the oven for about 15 minutes or until most of the milk has been absorbed.

Meanwhile, bring the cream to a boil and remove from heat. When the potatoes are ready, remove the aluminum foil. Bring the cream back to a boil and pour it over the potatoes. Dot the surface with the remaining butter and place the dish back in the oven. Bake, uncovered, for another 20 to 25 minutes, until the potatoes have turned a golden brown, spotted with darker, crisp areas. 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 then eat immediately.