This weekend, I made two dishes of dauphinoise potatoes in two days. A tale of two gratins. We mustn’t compare or pick a favourite – just like a careful parent soothing offspring who are indignant to know the truth of the phrase ‘we love you equally.’ This makes no sense to the children who always have favourites; favourite colours, foods, Barbie dolls. Maybe favouritism is something you grow out of in life? I can testify now, having made and eaten two gratins dauphinois, that yes, grown-ups can still have favourites.
You see, the first dish of dauphinoise potatoes went in the bin. The second took all the negative points of the first and used them as a springboard for improvement. This is where the comparison to offspring resolutely ends because I am a first-born and I refuse to give my sister any further ammunition on the benefits of being the second.
I’ve so far taken it for granted you know exactly what dauphinoise potatoes are, dear reader, and why wouldn’t you? It is an international favourite, a side dish made of potato, cream and butter. Clearly it is French. Where else would they throw so much cholesterol in one baking dish and call it a vegetable side?
This should be a class on how to improve your dauphinoise potatoes, because yes, the second was infinitely better, so much better in fact that I can’t quite fathom they were made by the same person (me) or that I’m even referring to the same dish.
What not to do when making dauphinoise potatoes
I mean, this list could go on forever, don’t do the gardening while making dauphinoise potatoes, don’t try to make it in a swimming pool, oh my god, I’m annoying myself. With pedantic rhetoric out of the way we can get down to business – delicious, creamy, crispy, potatoey business.
What did I learn from that first batch? Don’t be lazy when it comes to slicing the potatoes. Lazy cooking comes very naturally to me and whenever I saw a thickish slice of potato, it always received a ‘that’ll do’. No. No it will not do. The potato slices in a dauphinoise must be paper-thin, flimsy and must make you think ‘wow, I can’t believe I can slice so thinly.’ The best solution is a mandoline but for those of us without one of those finger-lopping guillotines, a sharp knife will suffice.
Next, don’t build too many layers. The first time, I had five whole layers of potato slices, and poured half of the creamy mixture over the first three, then the rest over the last two. The top layer cooked dryly, looking like a leathery sunbather tanning in the sun. What you need instead is complete and utter submersion in the cream. In fact, the second time, I stacked the potato slices sideways like slender dominos which got around the problem as they were practically drowning in it.
Don’t rinse the potatoes. Yes, wash them, then peel and slice, then resist the urge to rinse them. They are covered in starch which will work as the dish’s match-maker, bringing the cream and potato together to be united as one. And, most importantly, use all the cream. It will look like a lot, because it is a lot. But that cream is heavenly nectar, keeping the potatoes soft and tender, and once cooked, is so thick and delicious, you will find yourself spooning up mouthfuls of cream smeared around the dish. And I am genuinely contemplating getting up from my desk right now to tackle that leftover dauphinoise in the fridge.
Ok, dauphinoise tackled. I’m back.
For this recipe, I learnt from my mistakes, dear reader, and I am so glad I did. What had been a dish flavoured with indifference and a touch of disappointment, now what stood before me was a golden, glistening tray of potatoes held together with the strength of full fat cream, and together they’d been cooked in a bath of melting garlic butter.
I’m learning that a lot of French recipes require trial and error – souffles and pain au chocolat come to mind. The first time I attempted croissants resulted in a big jiggly, doughy puddle sitting on the baking tray and I sat on the kitchen floor to have a little cry. The souffles, well just read the blog post, as that failure shaped my relationship with souffles for around four years. With these potatoes dauphinoise on the other hand, I didn’t have time to wallow in my disappointment. I had a blog post to write!
This is I suppose what self-improvement is all about, building upon our setbacks and running to Lidl before it closes to buy another bottle of cream. Never before have I seen so clearly that a failure is literally a recipe for improvement.
So, when it comes to a gratin dauphinois, slice those potatoes nice and thin, stack ’em sideways, oh and don’t go overboard with the nutmeg, as that was another point against dauphinoise no. 1.
And when in doubt, more cream is best.
- A clove of garlic
- A chunk of butter
- 1 kg potatoes ideally potatoes that hold their shape when cooked, I used red-skinned potatoes
- 200 ml milk
- 500 ml cream or crème fraiche
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- ⅛ tsp ground nutmeg or grated fresh nutmeg
- 3 sprigs of fresh thyme leaves shredded
- More butter and salt to finish
- Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/430°F.
- Slice the garlic clove in half and rub the cut side around the inside of your chosen baking dish. Rub it all over then do it again with the butter – the butter might not stick to the dish with the garlic on first, but smear it on best you can.
- Wash the potatoes then peel them. If they are a bag of smallish potatoes, slice them lengthwise so you have as long a strips as possible. Slice each potato as thinly as possible or use a mandoline (and please use them safely, no dauphinoise is worth losing a finger over).
- Once all the potatoes are sliced, mix together the cream and milk, season with the tsp of salt, the nutmeg and thyme leaves.
- Stack the potatoes upright around the dish so that they are on their thin sides but resting against their neighbours. Squash them all in, sprinkle with a touch of salt, then cover in the cream. It will feel like it won't all fit but it will.
- Dot the dauphinoise potatoes with a little more butter so then it turns gold on the top. Place the dish on a tray in the oven (in case of spillages) and bake for 1 hour.
- After the hour is up, remove it from the oven. The cream will thicken as it cools. Serve as a side or simply eat out of the dish.