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Side Dish Surgery: Rescuing Scalloped Potatoes

During a recent Easter dinner debrief my mother mentioned that the scalloped potatoes she and WonderTwin A had prepared ended up being somewhat lackluster. A very sad day, particularly since scalloped potatoes–with their carbs and their cream and their cheese–don’t grace the table very often. If you’re going to cook and eat a dish like that, you want it to be awesome–and worth all the work it takes to make and then burn off on the elliptical.

As we zero’d in on the case of the poorly performing potatoes, Mom said that they’d prepared them in the usual way: layering thinly sliced rounds of potato with grated cheese, and pouring over a seasoned mixture of milk and cream before baking it all off. And though they turned out better than the mashed turnips Wondertwin A decided to add 3 tbs of RAW minced garlic to, the potatoes were still in need of some additional attention.

Having prepared them this way in the past myself, I’ve found the method just leaves too much to chance. There are too many variables–moisture content of the potatoes and cheese, ACTUAL temperature of oven, surface area and thickness of the assembled dish–to control properly to ensure that the result isn’t dry, soupy, or undercooked.

Learning from past mistakes, I’ve landed upon a method that virtually guarantees creamy, cheesy, tender potatoes crowned with a lovely browned top. First, jumpstart the cooking by par-boiling the potatoes. This way, they spend just enough time in the oven to bring the flavors together and acquire a nicely burnished top without baking away to crusty aridity.

Second, prepare the cheese sauce separately. I use the recipe that garners such rave reviews when paired with eggs for brunch. Relying on the oven to magically bring everything together leads to wan flavor and weepy potatoes. Boo to that. Whisking up the sauce on the stove ensures great flavor and spot-on texture that won’t crap out upon baking.

The resulting dish is undeniably rich, but not excessively so. The flavor of the potatoes themselves is still in evidence, along with the cheese and whispers of shallot, wine, and thyme. Certainly not suitable for everyday, but perhaps slightly more often now that we’ve improved the odds of success.

Scalloped Potatoes
Yield: 6-8 side servings

4 lbs waxy yellow-fleshed potatoes
1 tbs unsalted butter
1 c minced shallot
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 tbs fresh thyme leaves
1/4 c dry white wine

4 tbs butter
4 tbs all-purpose flour
1 c whole milk
1/2 c heavy cream
3/4 c grated Gruyère cheese
1/3 c microplane’d Parmesan cheese
2 tsp ground white pepper
~ 2 tsp fine sea salt
smoked paprika & 1/2 c additional grated Gruyère for topping

Preheat oven to 350°F and butter a 9×13 baking dish.

Peel the potatoes. Slice in thin rounds either with a mandoline or by hand. Slices should be about 1/6″ thick. If using a mandoline, for lord’s sake, use the guard. If cutting by hand, take one slice off a long face of the potato and then turn it to sit stably on the cut side. Proceed with thin slicing with much reduced risk to life and limb.

Fill a large stockpot 3/4 full with cool water. Add the sliced potatoes and add a heaping tsp of salt. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil, stirring gently every minute or so to keep the potatoes from sticking. When the water comes back to a full boil, carefullydrain the potatoes into a strainer placed in the sink, and set aside briefly.

While the potatoes are coming to the boil, prepare the sauce. In a saucepan, melt the 1 tbs butter and sauté the shallots, garlic, and thyme over medium heat till translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and continue to cook till evaporated. Remove pan from heat and scrape mixture into a small bowl. Set aside.

Return pan to heat and add remaining 4 tbs butter. Melt the butter over medium heat. In a 2c liquid measure, heat the milk in a microwave for 1 minute. Whisk the flour into the butter and cook three minutes or so, until nuttily fragrant. Gradually add the warmed milk to the pot while whisking energetically. Be sure to get into the edges of the pan to prevent lumps. Cook three to four minutes till thickened and starting to bubble at the edges. Whisk in the cream, then the seasonings, and finally the cheese. Whisk till evenly melted and combined. Taste and adjust seasonings. Add more salt if necessary–it should not taste salty, but pronouncedly cheesy.

Spread roughly 3/4c of the sauce in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Layer 1/3 of the potatoes into the pan. Top with 1/3 of the remaining sauce and spread over the potatoes. Repeat twice more with remaining potatoes and sauce. Top with additional grated cheese and sprinkle lightly with black pepper and smoked paprika.

Bake in a preheated oven at 350°F for about 35 minutes or until melty, lightly browned, and bubbling. Serve with ham, steamed green beans or broccoli, and statins.

Notes & Variations
This lily is already pretty gilt, but one could push it a bit further by tucking other items of deliciousness in between the potato layers. Garlicy sauteed spinach? Lardons? A little MORE cheese–of a flavorful, not too fatty variety (to prevent the sauce from breaking)? Who knows…

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