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.
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
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.
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.