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Today: A potato gratin that cooks in half the time, can be made ahead, and -- best of all -- lets you have control all the way through.
There's an ideal potato gratin that we will always be striving for, and -- until now -- couldn't ever be quite sure we'd get: tender but not mushy potato slices, stacked like a heap of slippery magazines, hugged by but not set adrift in cream, with a bubble-pocked, golden, melty top.
It should be salted just enough to frame the potato and cheese flavors distinctively, without making you thirsty. It should cut somewhat neatly and stay to its corner of the plate, not flooding into the prime rib corner or the Yorkshire pudding corner.
All of these considerations present a number of pretty big question marks when you start a potato gratin the traditional way, from an entirely raw state: How much liquid will the potatoes absorb in the oven? How much salt will be just right for them? Will the cheese incorporate or break free, birthing puddles of floating grease? Will any extra influences like garlic or onions melt in successfully, or stay sharp and undercooked? How long will this whole endeavor actually occupy your oven, and, if you've mistimed, how long can it afford to sit and wait?
Of course it's not going to be bad -- it's potatoes swishing around in cheese and cream. It could be under-salted and half-burnt, and it will still not be bad. In the words of Todd Coleman, co-founder of Delicious Contents, former creative force at Saveur and Tasting Table, and author of this recipe, "It's ooey-gooey-yummy potato gratin -- it's going to taste good no matter what." The only real problem with potato gratin was that we didn't entirely know what was coming, and therefore couldn't force it to be the gratin we wanted. Now we can!
Coleman uses a smarter method, picked up from an instructor at the CIA who had no patience for the by-the-book technique. It saves time (great), most notably oven time (even better), and also the trouble of layering rings of potato, only to watch them float up with the milk, and then poke them back down. But I think the biggest improvement is that you can seize back control of your gratin.
Here, you'll cook the whole thing most of the way through on the stovetop. While you stir and it simmers, the potato starch will slough off and the cream's water weight will steam away, both cooking the potatoes and thickening the liquid around them.
Taste as you go and pretty quickly you'll know what you'll be getting, before you commit to dumping it into the baking dish. Yes, the potatoes will absorb a bit more liquid and the whole thing will cling together more after it goes in the oven, but you've got a much clearer picture than you otherwise would. If it seems bland, add more salt. If it's too dry, a splash more cream. Way too liquidy? Cook it down more or spoon some off.
At this point, you can even halt the process and hold it for a few hours, or in the refrigerator overnight, then whenever you're ready to cook it, strew cheese over the top and reheat it at 400° F, till the top frizzles and the middle is warmed through.
Either way, since it's mostly cooked already, the gratin won't need to take over your oven all afternoon, and will finish in about the time your roast might like to rest, the ice water jug ought to be filled, the red wine opened to breathe, the bread sliced, the salad tossed.
"This is the kind of food you close your eyes to eat," our Social Media Manager Rachel Christensen said, after tasting the gratin pictured here, made exactly as written. But the extra flexibility and control also makes it adaptable -- something we'd be reluctant to do in the black box of traditional gratinery. Coleman sometimes adds hot sauce or fresh thyme, or uses a Dutch oven to make it truly one-pot and oven-to-table. You can switch in a different type of potatoes, dairy, or allium, if that's what you have. And if you don't have the right size pan, you can scale up without worry. Or down -- but why would you do that?
Adapted slightly from "Gratin Made Easy" (Saveur, December 2006)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 to 2 garlic cloves
6 large waxy potatoes (about 2 1/2 pounds), such as red bliss, peeled and sliced about 1/8-inch thick
2 cups half-and-half
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup grated Gruyère
See the full recipe (and save it and print it) here.
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom