Simple is best in the kitchen, especially a busy home kitchen, with life, family, world crises and whatnot a constant maelstrom. In the winter, that means comfort food, and with next week’s forecast calling for single digit temperatures, high winds, and snow, something rib-sticking is on my mind. We’re finishing up the last of 2019’s excellent local beef with a lovely brisket, and that requires an inspired side dish. This is where a classic French gratin dauphinois comes into play.
I like cooking aphorisms that make sense. I’ve got a small handful of them that I use when something in the kitchen frustrates me. This happened the other day, and the mantra I turned to was this – Whenever you feel moved to cook simply, do so. A dauphinois is a perfect example of that concept – good potatoes and dairy with seasoning, cooked low and slow – it really doesn’t get any better.
You’ve certainly made something like a gratin dauphinois – scalloped potatoes, for instance. Like Pommes Anna, dauphinois is French cooking at its best – simple, rustic, regional fare that strikes the bullseye. Any and every culture that has dairy and potatoes in their quiver has combined them in myriad ways. Of course all that glorious French cheese starts with great milk, a thing we’re also blessed with here.
Gratin dauphinois is potatoes, milk, cream, a soured cream of some sort, butter, garlic, a bit of nutmeg, salt, and a little cheese on top – you don’t want more than that, ‘cause if you do, it’s literally another dish altogether, (and not quite comme il faut, oui?) What you’ll end up with is super tender potatoes in a distinctly garlic infused cream sauce – c’est magnifique. There are many variants of the dish, but the all important roots are the same – good, local ingredients, simply treated.
In this culinary iteration, ‘dauphinois’ refers to the region, roughly 550 km southeast of Paris, in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Most locals still refer to the area as the Dauphiné or Dauphiné Viennois, even though the modern political iteration is broken up into three smaller departments. Back in the 1200s it was a sovereign country called Albon – The Count from thereabouts had a dolphin on his coat of arms and was nicknamed le Dauphin – and there ya go. Tucked between national parks and mountains south of Lyon and north of Grenoble, it is a stunningly lovely area. Oh, and they grow and eat a variety of potatoes in the Dauphiné, too.
What this dish wants is what we here in the states generically call a baker – a floury, relatively soft variety that will readily soak up all that dairy and garlic. Over there, popular varieties might be an Agatha, Marabel, Mona Lisa, or Caesar – Here, a good old Russet, or pretty much anything else labeled as a baking variety will do just fine – Maybe, sooner than later, we Yankees will get to the point of having varietal potato choices again.
They also make excellent cheese in the dauphiné, naturellement. Reblochon, Saint Marcelin, and Beaufort cheeses all come from here. While the first two varieties are soft, Beaufort is a cow’s milk cheese from the alpine Gruyère family, a yellowish, somewhat firm cheese with a grassy nose and a distinct gruyère tang – and it melts really well, hint, hint. Over here, any good gruyère would certainly do for a topping cheese.
The cooking steps you’ll use are what makes a gratin dauphinois truly unique. Raw potatoes are poached in milk and garlic, then very gently steeped in cream and seasonings, before a final bake. Some swear by slicing the potatoes very thin, rubbing a shallow baking dish with butter and garlic, and then popping everything into the oven for a low and slow bake. You can certainly do that, but I believe the method I’ll share here make a superior dish.
Urban Gratin Dauphinois
2-3 Baking Potatoes
3 Cups Whole Milk
2 Cups Heavy Cream
1 Cup Crema (yes crema, because it’s far closer to crème friache than sour cream, and readily available these days)
1/2 Cup Gruyère Cheese
2 fat cloves fresh Garlic
1 Tablespoon Unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon Kosher Salt
1/2 teaspoon ground White Pepper
2 finger pinch ground Nutmeg
Rinse potatoes and slice to 1/4” thickness, preferably on a mandoline. If you don’t have one, take your time and make your slices as even as you can – that helps the dish cook evenly quite a bit.
Leave the sliced potatoes submerged in a bowl of ice cold water while you finish prep.
Smash, peel, and end trim garlic.
Rub a baking dish in the 9” x 12” range with the smashed garlic, then set garlic aside.
Rub the dish evenly with the butter.
Grate the cheese.
Combine cream, crema, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in an adequately sized mixing bowl and whisk to incorporate.
Add milk, smashed garlic and the potatoes to a large sauce pan over medium heat.
When the mixture begins to simmer, reduce the heat to just maintain that.
Simmer potatoes for 12-15 minutes, until they just turn fork tender.
When they’re there, remove them from heat and carefully pour off the milk – Leave the potatoes and garlic in the pan.
Preheat oven to 350° F and set a rack in a middle position.
Add the cream, crema and seasoning blend to the hot potatoes.
Put the sauce pan on a burner over medium low heat.
Let the pan heat gradually through – you don’t want a simmer here, just a slow, even heat. If the pan starts to simmer, reduce the heat.
Let the mixture steep for 10 to 15 minutes, until the potatoes are fully fork tender, but not falling apart.
Carefully layer the potatoes into the baking dish.
Pour the hot cream blend over the potatoes, then garnish with the grated cheese.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the top layer of spuds is golden brown, and most if not all of the cream mixture has been absorbed.
Serve piping hot.