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Classic Gratin Dauphinois (Potato Gratin)

Classic potato gratin
The best gratin dauphinois that I have ever had was made many years ago by a woman in the Dordogne.

The future stepmother of my companion at the time had a chateau in the Périgord. It had been years since she had been there herself and taking advantage of our position in Paris, she asked us to take a weekend off and go down to check on the property for her. After a long drive from Paris that was made even longer by a detour forced by an errant herd of sheep, we arrived at the property famished and exhausted. The chateau itself was uninhabitable. In lieu, we stayed in the caretaker’s home — a crumbling stone house in need of many repairs, the least of which was a new roof.

Dark, dusty, and overrun with audible mice, the house was inhabited by a desperately lonely woman who not only feared the state of the only home she had known for more than 20 years, but had also become increasingly worried about her precarious life. What would happen if the owner decided to sell the property? What would happen if the owner came back and forced her out? She had nowhere to turn and no income to speak of besides her limited state pension.

Communication between her and the stepmother was so poor that she initially thought we were sent to kick her out. Once it was established that we most certainly were not, she relaxed and began to list everything that needed to be fixed. Unfortunately, there was nothing that we could really do besides listen and watch her gnarled fingers expertly reduce a pile of meager potatoes into thin slices with a dull paring knife. She continued to fret while we ate that divine gratin. In the heat of the fire (yes, the stove was a wood one) the potatoes had collapsed into a silky smooth cake; the individual layers had become indistinguishable from the whole. This was all washed down with a dozen small glasses of homemade walnut liquor made from nuts that had fallen from the trees surrounding the property.

It was a delicious meal, albeit a very sad one.

I never knew what happened to the woman. The stepmother tossed away the caretaker’s worries with nothing more than a soupçon of concern and my relationship didn’t survive the move back to New York. Consequently, I never followed up on the story.

However, ever since that meal, I have tried literally hundreds of recipes for gratin dauphinois in the hopes of recreating that recipe-less dish that was probably as natural for that woman to make as it was for her to breathe. I have made gratins with liters of heavy cream and piles of Alpine cheeses. I have added truffles and more butter. I have tried different varieties of potatoes soaked in milk, not soaked in milk, and even parboiled in milk and cream. I have tried slicing the potatoes paper thin with mandolines. I’ve tried Julia Child’s recipe.

After all that experimentation, nothing has come close. However, this recipe comes the closest.

Like all dishes born out of need and necessity, gratin dauphinois is best simple — not gussied up with an excess of cream, butter, and cheese. Although the urge to be decadent is strong when it comes to French farmhouse dishes, the best ones are made with only whole milk, some stock, and the gentlest kiss of cheese. The allure of excess is not rewarded as richly as the alchemical reaction of humble ingredients and time.

Ingredients:

1-2 sprigs of fresh thyme

1-2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

1-2 sprigs of savory

2 bay leaves

3 smashed garlic cloves, plus one more

5-6 black peppercorns

Freshly grated nutmeg

Salt

1 cup of chicken stock

1 cup of whole milk (or light cream if you must)

4 smallish waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch slices

1/2 cup of grated Gruyère

1 tablespoon of unsalted butter

How to prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 350°.

2. In a medium-sized saucepan, cover the herbs, the black peppercorns, and three of the smashed garlic cloves with the milk and the stock. Season with salt and freshly grated nutmeg to taste. Over a medium-low flame, gently heat the mixture until it just comes to a boil. Turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the herbs and garlic steep.

3. While waiting for the milk mixture to cool, rub an oven-proof dish with the remaining smashed clove of garlic. Generously butter the dish.

4. Strain the milk mixture. I like to do this into a measuring cup with a spout as it makes it easier to build the gratin later.

5. In the bottom of the gratin pan, make an even, single layer of potato slices. Pour just enough of the milk mixture to cover the slices and then add another layer on top. Top that layer with just enough of the milk mixture to cover the slices. Scatter a little bit of the grated cheese on top. Continue to build the gratin with a little bit of grated cheese in-between every other layer, and with each layer covered with the milk mixture. Reserve just enough cheese to scatter on top near the end of baking. The final layer at this point should be just potatoes. Use your hand and press down on top of the gratin. Add more milk mixture if needed, but leave about 1/2-inch of clearance from the top of the gratin dish.

6. Dot the top of the gratin with butter and cover it with a piece of parchment paper cut to fit.

7. Bake the gratin for about 30 minutes before removing the parchment paper. Continue to bake the gratin uncovered for about 15 minutes. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top and continue baking for 15-20 minutes until the top of the gratin is golden and the potatoes are soft. This is very important: let the gratin rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

Our Growing Edge

This blog post is my second contribution to the amazing Genie De Wit’s Our Growing Edge. Our Growing Edge is a monthly event that aims to connect food bloggers, broaden our horizons, and encourage us to try new things.

The month is just starting and anyone can be a part of the party! For more information, please go to the page Genie has set up on her blog Bunny. Eats. Design.

This month’s host is Leah from Sharing the Food We LoveThank you so much for hosting, LeahTo take a look at the participating bloggers this month, click here.

 

 

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63 Comments

  1. Diana

    Mmmmm, delicious! Thanks for sharing. I have been making potato lasagna lately, nothing finely wrought as in your recipe, just layers of potatoes, tomatoes, a lattice of pasta, with some goat’s milk cheese, veggie broth, herbs, plus other veggies if at hand.

    • Thank you, Diana! Your potato lasagna sounds divine. How lovely to combine pasta and potatoes. Might just have to pester you for ratios this week :-) Thank you again for the lovely comment and the inspiration!

  2. Those authentic meals are often precious because of their rarity and rustic awesomeness. You couldn’t buy that kind of experience.

    Homemade walnut liquor sounds amazing. What a peaceful, low-tech existence that old lady must have lead.
    Hmmmm…I don’t know what savory is? I wonder if we just don’t have it or we call it something else here? Some photos online show what looks like thyme but other photos are something I don’t recognise at all.

    I’m no Dauphinois connoisseur, but I think that it’s one of those things, even a bad Dauphinois is still pretty delicious, but a very, very good one is life changing. I always use cream but no cheese but I will give it a go with milk and cheese in place of cream since I’m trying not to stock cream these days.

    • This is so true. When I think about my favorite dishes, they are all very simple: rice and beans, roasted chicken, buttered toast. As for the walnut liquor, it was amazing. I have always wanted to attempt it, but it seems so ambitious. Or maybe I have just built up that idea in my mind . . .

      In answer to your question, I don’t see savory that often in the market, but when I saw a package of it the other day, I snapped it up. It’s a little sweet. Kind of like a sage-y marjoram. You find it most often dried in Herbes de Provence blends. You could very easily forego the savory in the recipe and the infused milk will still be delicious.

      If you do try the gratin, let me know how it turns out! If you want it extra silky, you can use a slightly larger dish, up the amount of milk mixture a little, and cook it for about half an hour more. You’re right though: any gratin dauphinois is pretty delicious!

      Btw, did I miss the Our Growing Edge deadline for December? I could contribute this if you think it’s appropriate. Just let me know!

    • Thank you, Rosemary! I love using infused milk. It adds so much flavor. Thank you again for your lovely comment! I’m sure you have had and made some wonderful gratins as well!

  3. poodle

    I find that the things I’ve eaten that were just thrown together without a recipe are sometimes the best. It’s just good old home cooking and proof that simple dishes should never be overlooked.
    I wonder what ever happened to that woman.

    • So true. It’s good not to be dependent on a recipe too. Also, it’s nice to know that you are so familiar with a dish that you don’t need one.

      I’m not sure what happened to her either. She had an adult son who seemed to not be the most reliable person. I just felt so helpless; we really couldn’t do anything but listen.

  4. Superbly sliced potatoes (did I just write that?) But its true – you have patience – I get irritated and balls that kind of thing up

  5. Very evocative story, Daisy. And a fine looking dauphinois it is as well. Hope you had a great Thanksgiving. I saw your photo on Twitter (I know … I’m a Twitter lurker), so I definitely know you did. :)

  6. heidiskye333

    Looks so decadent! I think I gained ten lbs just looking at it. Can cheddar cheese be used do you think? Thanks for dropping me a line. I’ll send you a card soon.

    • Aw! Thank you so much, heidiskye333! Even without the heavy cream, it still feels wonderfully decadent. As for using cheddar cheese, I’ve never tried it, but the idea of adding cheddar cheese and maybe even some chopped chives on top sound amazing. If you try it, let me know how it is!

  7. What a moving story to accompany your recipe. It almost sounds like out of a Balzac novel.
    For some reason I have never tried cooking a gratin dauphinois. That’s a mistake and I can see that just by looking at your pictures :-)

    • Merci beaucoup, Carine! It does sound like it came out of a novel, doesn’t it? I didn’t mention it, but she had an adult son who was a complete layabout and who she thought was just waiting for her to die. Now it really sounds like something out of Balzac ;-)

      In any case, you should totally try cooking a gratin dauphinois! Do let me know how it turns out if you do!

  8. I just did my first one in order to use up a ton of turnips. Need to do a second and love your method of infusing milk. This is such a perfect recipe with your story.

    • Turnips gratin! That sounds lovely and an excellent way to use them up. Do let me know if you try it again with the infused milk! Thank you for dropping by and for the lovely comment!

  9. Pingback: December’s Our Growing Edge and A Happy First Birthday | Sharing The Food We Love

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