Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Potatoes Dauphinoise

So everyone loves scalloped potatoes, and it’s not as if they’re a difficult food. Even my mom makes a passable version – she basically whips up a béchamel sauce with cheese, as one would do for macaroni, and bakes fairly thick-cut potato slices in this cheesy goop.

Other American versions of scalloped potatoes that I’ve had have been pretty similar, and while I enjoy this dish just fine, I’ve never been so blown away by it that I felt like making it myself. I really hate peeling potatoes, so if I’m going to go through the trouble, I expect something magnificent and not merely edible.

Then I went to France and learned about the truly great heights to which scalloped potatoes can aspire.
These are not American-style scalloped potatoes. These are tender, airy morsels that evaporate into buttery flakes against the roof of your mouth. The potatoes are in delicate slices rather than thick slabs. If there’s any cheese, it’s merely sprinkled atop.

Basically, the potatoes are baked for a really long time with a lot of fat until the turn into the vegetable world’s equivalent of foie gras. Not that I’ve ever had foie gras; I’m just guessing.

I went home determined that Potatoes Dauphinoise would become a culinary mainstay in my own kitchen. I thought I’d go with a French source in attempting to recreate it. Luckily, I was given I Know How to Cook for Christmas by my in-laws.

I love this cookbook. I wouldn’t recommend it for new cooks, as the ingredients and instructions are quite specious in some instances, but if you know what you’re doing (and know that you need more than a stick of butter for 2 cups of flour to make a single pie crust, for example), it’s a great source of ideas. And it’s also a reminder that French cuisine is not, at its core, especially fussy. The recipes are fairly uncomplicated variations on a theme and highlight the use of simple, widely available ingredients.

I’m sure I’ll gush more about the cookbook in the future. For now, here’s the recipe for Potatoes Dauphinoise with comments and suggestions.

Potatoes Dauphinoise
Adapted from I Know How to Cook

2 ¼ pounds waxy potatoes (thin-skinned and not russet, but you should be fine with the plain yellow potatoes sold in bins at the grocery store)
1 cup crème fraiche
salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons finely-grated gruyere cheese (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Peel potatoes and slice into very thin, even pieces – I used the slicer attachment of my food processor to accomplish this, as it would have taken years by hand. A mandolin slicer would probably also do a good job.

Pat the potatoes dry and season generously with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

Grease as large baking dish with butter (I used a shallow glass dish of about 8x10” that I picked up at TJ Maxx years ago; one could probably use a 9x13” pan, though one might want to shorten the baking time. A large casserole, uncovered, would also work but might require a slightly longer baking time).

Arrange the potatoes at the bottom of the pan. Pour crème fraiche over the top and dot with butter. The recipe doesn’t say to do so, but I sort of tossed the potatoes with the crème fraiche before I dotted the top with butter.

Bake uncovered for an hour and a half. If desired, pull out of the oven after an hour and 10 minutes and sprinkle the top with grated gruyere; continue baking as directed.

These potatoes tasted pretty much exactly like the potatoes I had in Lyon. That, to me, is the ne plus ultra of success. I think the key is to generously salt the potatoes and make sure they’re in very thin slices. The crème fraiche, having fat content similar to heavy and sour cream, does the rest of the work for you.

That said, I will make very minor tweaks next time I make this. The potatoes with crème fraiche were delicious, but so rich and heavy that I could only eat a few bites (which is probably the idea). Next time, I might use ¾ cup crème fraiche diluted with ¼ cup milk to make it slightly less dense.

Crème fraiche isn’t always easy to come by in the states. If you can’t find it, you could probably substitute a cup of light cream, but I’m going to keep using (mostly) crème fraiche since I know it works so well.

Including cheese isn’t terribly authentic, but I think it really enhances the flavor. Luckily, I don’t have any French grandmothers looking over my shoulder in the kitchen to tell me I’m violating sacred rules of the cuisine when I sprinkle a bit of gruyere atop my potatoes dauphinois.

Printable recipe here.


  1. num num num!!!

    Part of my problem was that my potatoes were not fresh and young and waxy enough - but the flavor tasted pretty damn good. So I'm really curious about the difference between your recipe and the one I followed (from the lovely Clotilde Dusolier of Chocolate and Zucchini). So she had me cook the potatoes in milk first and then layer with a bit of heavy cream and the milk thickened through cooking on the stove. An idea for saving one from the decadence of creme fraiche? I think we should cook this both ways and taste test :)

    (Also love that the ad at the bottom of this page is how to use an inch of belly fat)

  2. I imagine Clotilde's strategy is probably a good one for avoiding a calorie bomb. Though they actually have fat-free creme fraiche at Nica's -- one could probably blend it with full-fat creme fraiche or cream, and that would probably still be good (though I wouldn't use all fat-free creme fraiche).

    I agree that we should try it both ways and see which we prefer!

  3. This looks so good. I studied in that region of France! Despite the starvation inflicted upon me by my crazy host mother, I did get to enjoy this staple. Love it!

  4. Thanks! How lucky to have studied there ...

  5. I would certainly never tell you you shouldn't put gruyere on your potatoes. This looks fantastic!

  6. Thanks! It's the fat ... delicious, delicious fat. ;)

  7. How many people would you say this would serve?

  8. Probably 6 or so fairly comfortably.