Once we built the house our immediate family had a tradition of coming up to Maine for Easter and Thanksgiving holidays. As you’ve no doubt discerned, we love to eat foods from many cultures and our festivities weren’t always accompanied by the “turkey for Thanksgiving, ham for Christmas” type offerings. In fact we typically would serve lobster and steak for Thanksgiving in Maine. But no matter how we digressed from the all American offerings, I think my family would have boycotted the meals if I didn’t have scalloped potatoes on the menu.
Many families have a dish that is almost always served for a holiday meal and this one is always a crowd pleaser. I was a very fortunate child in that both of my parents were superb cooks. I fondly recall my father sitting at the dining room table directing his 4 children on how to prepare meals. Many hands made short work as each of us would have a role in the preparation. Consequently, we all learned to be good cooks. I bet all of us make this dish and each time we do, we remember the joy we had growing up.
My parents were Midwesterners from Missouri. While they too were experimental in their cuisine, there are some dishes that were homey and seem to relate to their upbringing. I don’t know if this was a dish from their youth but it has the key ingredients of any comfort food – simple and fattening. This is neither low fat nor low carb but it is heavenly and very satisfying. We like to make more than needed and munch on the leftovers for days after the feast.
Over the years as we expanded our nuclear family to include friends and their children at holiday meals, our love of this simple comforting dish spread. I’ve promised my children and others to start compiling recipes so that they too can include them in their family traditions. So here’s to honoring the traditions and eating well:
Scalloped (aka Au Gratin) Potatoes
4-5 medium Yukon Gold potatoes
¼ to ½ lb sharp cheddar cheese
1 ½ cups milk
½ cube butter
salt and pepper to taste
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Peel potatoes and put them in a bowl with cold water (keeps them from turning brown). Using a food processor grate the cheese. If you like cheesier potatoes, use a full ½ lb. Switch the blades and use the food processor to slice the potatoes thinly. Butter the bottom of a casserole dish and place one layer of potatoes, sprinkle cheese and pieces of butter, salt and pepper lightly. Continue creating layers (probably will get 3 but depends on size of dish). Make sure you save some cheese for the top layer. When you have finished, pour whole milk over the casserole until it is about ½ from the top. (Use more milk if necessary but do not overfill the milk or you will have a bubbly mess at the bottom of your oven.) Cover the casserole with tin foil. Bake for 1 ½ hours or until a knife plunged in the middle has no resistance. Remove tin foil and increase oven temperature to 400 degrees. Bake for another 5-10 minutes until the top is a light brown. (Careful, don’t burn the cheese.)
Serves 4-6 people.
Note: The only thing that can go wrong with the recipe is not to bake it long enough. No one wants to eat crispy under cooked potatoes. I once made this fatal mistake when serving it to crowd of 15 people. I had increased the amount of ingredients but failed to increase the bake time. The scalloped potatoes were fine on the edges but the middle was too raw. Even worse, one of the guests was the chef Neil Kleinberg. Horrors! He made me feel better by telling me about a time he served paella to his ex-wife’s (Sonia Grullon) Dominican family. The rice was undercooked and people kept spitting crunchy pieces of rice out on their plates. His story made me laugh and made me realize that even the best of chef’s have an off day. Luckily my potatoes could be put in the microwave and “nuked” for a few minutes but I learned a valuable and embarrassing lesson.