02 March 2009

like an old friend, with no surprises

It was a baking weekend again. Not as maniacally stuffed with baked goods as three weeks ago, but still.

Soon the scent of fresh bread will fill my kitchen...All the ciabattini I had made were gone already, so I made new ones. Slowly, the sight of the blue and gray linen on my kitchen table, bulging with the small breads during their final proof, is becoming one of my all time favorites.

Apart from that, I started a new experiment: Indian naan.

My wife loves it, and I think some of our visits to indian restaurants were inspired more by her desire for flatbread than for curries. I found a heap of recipes online, and so I boldly ventured where I had never gone before.

It turned out to a mixed success. The taste was right, but the texture was close to awful. Instead of downy, slightly elastic disks, I ended up with rather soft, entirely un-elastic slabs that were a bit sticky inside. Meh. This will need a lot more experiments before I can check this off as well.

Also, the weather has become warmer and rainy, which means it's about the most unbearable weather I can personally think of. Drizzle just above freezing point should be prohibited by law.

So, I had two good reasons to insist on comfort food on Sunday. Which, for me, means simple and a little classy, preferably something with a bit of cheese and some garlic. Something trusted, like an old friend, with no surprises.

All combined, I ended up with a distinctive longing for potato gratin the way my mother made it.

See, in my parents' home, boiled potatoes were a consistent staple. Actually, they were so much part of my childhood diet that even today I can barely stand them. But out of the oven, with a creamy, ever so slightly garlicky sauce and some cheese - I loved them.

Most unfortunately, my attempts at replicating the recipe so far had been mediocre at best. So what's a boy to do? He calls mum.

And look, just a tiny phone call later, I had all I needed to set my world right again. Okay, it wasn't that tiny a phone call and naturally encompassed not only food but also their dog's love for mud, the new tree in their garden and my brother's broken toe, but still it was much faster and way less fraught with risks than attempting another try just based on my memory.

Which, as it seems, wasn't too reliable in this case, because I could have sworn the potatoes had to be in the oven with a mix of cream and eggs. But no, seems I was to make a plain bechamel, making this gratin actually a very classic 'gratin dauphinois'. But that's just names, because for me, this was right what I was looking for - warm, cheesy, garlicky, well-known and entirely without surprises.

Well, actually there was one tiny surprise - it was even better than I remembered.

healthy, wholesome and plain delicious - steak, salad and potato gratin

gratin dauphinois
(generously serves four)

1,5kg potatoes
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon caraway seeds

3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1/2l chicken stock
1/4l cream
1 clove garlic, minced
salt and pepper

150g mild cheese (gouda or similar), grated

If necessary, wash the potatoes, but do not peel.

In a sufficiently large pot, cover the potatoes with cold water, add the salt and the caraway, and boil until the potatoes are just about done. Drain and leave to cool a little.
As they will continue cooking in the oven, rather undercook them now.

In a small casserole, gently heat the butter until it foams, then add the flour. Stir gently until the flour starts to smell aromatically. Swiftly add the stock and the cream, stirring vigorously.
I have come to the conclusion that it is easier to add cold liquid instead of hot (at least for me). Provided you pour in the stock swiftly enough, the roux won't have time to thicken, and instead is still able to dissolve properly in the cool mix while you heat it.

Bring the bechamel to a gentle boil while stirring constantly, then keep cooking for about ten minutes. Add the garlic and about one third of the grated cheese and season to taste. Stir until the cheese is completely incorporated, then set aside.
Rather err on the pungent / salty / hot side here, as the potatoes will drain quite a lot of taste.

Peel the cooled potatoes and cut into slices about as thick as a pencil. Stack them in a slightly buttered oven dish.
If you want to, go for nice scale or roof tile pattern. Also, this is perfectly adaptable into portion-sized timbales or cups, if you want to make an impression at the table. But it doesn't taste one bit different if you just pile and pour...

Cover the potatoes with the bechamel and the remaining cheese. Bake in the pre-heated oven at about 180°C until bubbly and golden, about half an hour.
In the dish for the pictures, I was a little too generous with the flour and consequently had to add more liquid and ended up with much more bechamel than I usually would have made. It looked a little sloppy, but tasted great. There's never anything wrong with more gravy, in my book...

This is a classic side dish for good cuts of meat. But honestly, together with a salad it makes a perfectly decent main course just as well. Also, any leftovers can be microwaved perfectly and make great office lunches - just add a few chives or a pinch of herbes de provence for a slightly more complex taste.

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