Boy Eats World!
By David Lawrence
I was shocked to learn that classic French potato gratin doesn't have any cheese in it! Had my mother been bamboozling me all these years? Well, not exactly. Most people think of potato gratin and American scalloped potatoes as being one and the same. They aren't. Scalloped potatoes almost always have cheese in them and are sometimes embellished with other ingredients such as onions or ham. Whether or not to add cheese to a potato gratin is the subject of great debate. For the gratin purists out there, the answer is a resounding "no!" I have come to agree. The miracle of this gratin is that it somehow develops a wonderful cheesy creaminess without any cheese at all. Like all miracles, it defies logic and explanation.
Serves 6 to 8
• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
• 1 scant cup whole milk
• 1 large clove garlic, crushed
• 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
• 1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
• 1 1/2 pounds russet potatoes
• 1 1/2 cups heavy cream
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Use 2 tablespoons butter to liberally butter the bottom of a 5 to 6 cup metal gratin dish. (I have also successfully used a 9x13 inch metal baking pan like one you would bake brownies in. Both pans produce a great crust underneath the potatoes. Pyrex would do in a pinch, but it's not my preferred choice.)
Place a small saucepan with the milk, garlic, salt, white pepper, and nutmeg, over low heat. Meanwhile, peel the potatoes, then slice them to about a 1/8-inch thickness, discarding the smallest slices. (A mandolin is perfect for this, but I usually opt for a really sharp butcher knife.) Do not wash the potatoes after slicing them, as the surface starch is indispensable.
Evenly arrange the potatoes in the bottom of the baking pan, one overlapping row at a time. Layer each row about a third of the way over the previous row. Continue until the baking pan is neatly paved. It should look something like a shingled rooftop.
Increase the heat under the milk and bring to a boil; remove from heat. Fish out the garlic clove and pour the milk over the potatoes. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake in the middle of the oven until most of the milk has been absorbed, about 15 minutes. Meanwhile, set the cream over low heat and bring to a boil. Pour the cream over the semi-cooked potatoes and dot the entire surface with the remaining 2 tablespoons butter.
Return the potatoes to the oven and bake, uncovered, until the potatoes are golden brown and spotted with darker, crisp areas, 20 to 25 minutes. The potatoes will be dotted with thickened cream, especially between the slices. Allow the gratin to rest for 10 minutes before serving.