We’ve had some dear friends visiting from out of town, which, along with the holidays, has given me the opportunity to cook. I’ve been eyeing the leftover baked ham from Christmas for a week now. Now, I’ll eat ham for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I’m observing the Russian Orthodox Nativity fast right now, so after Christmas guests left, the ham lingered, sadly unmolested by Your Working Boy. Yesterday, while Julie and our pals were in New Orleans, I had an idea for how to send off the last of the Christmas ham in a blaze of glory: incorporate it into a gratin dauphinoise, a potato dish I’ve wanted to attempt since reading the recipe in the great, great French country cookbook, The Auberge Of The Flowering Hearth, which is probably my favorite cookbook of all on my shelf.
It’s a simple recipe, but I tell you what, it was one of the best things I’ve ever made. I had to taste a mouthful to see how it was, and … man! The day was cold and rainy here, and this was the perfect thing to serve. Everybody really, really liked it. One of our guests said, “This is the best thing I’ve eaten here in Louisiana.” I say this not to brag. The recipe is so easy you can hardly fail. I’m going to make it next week for our Nativity feast in the parish. Classic gratin dauphinoise, I understand, does not include ham, but I would definitely include it next time, or perhaps rendered lardons of smoked bacon.
Here is my adapted recipe from the cookbook:
Gratin Dauphinoise de Votre Jeune Travailleur
(Your Working Boy’s Gratin Dauphinoise)
4 tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup milk
2 lbs waxy potatoes (Yukon Gold preferably)
1/2 pint heavy cream
2 cloves garlic
freshly ground nutmeg
freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cup roughly chopped ham, or 1 cup rendered bacon bits
Wash and peel potatoes, then slice them into rounds about 1/4 inch thick. Put slices loosely into black iron skillet, with a generous dusting of nutmeg (e.g., nine or ten passes along a microplane grater), plus salt and pepper to taste. Pour in the cup of milk and bring to boiling. Peel and mince one clove of garlic and sprinkle into the milk-and-potato mix. When the milk boils, turn down the heat and simmer moderately, until all the milk is absorbed. Turn the potatoes often to make sure the warm milk and seasoning is evenly absorbed by all the slices, and that no slices stick to the skillet. A spatula is the best tool for this, to avoid breaking the slices. This process takes 10 to 15 minutes.
If you are using ham, roughly chop it. If bacon, chop uncooked bacon into one-inch strips, then fry them until done, but not crispy, then let cool and drain on a paper towel. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t measure the amount of ham I used last night, but it wound up being about 1 1/2 cups, as I recall. You may use less than this if you like, but I don’t think you’d want to use too much more, or it would dominate the dish. I’m estimating how much bacon you’d want to use, but you may wish to use more. I’d be hesitant to overdo it, though, because this is a very, very rich dish already.
Prepare an ovenproof lidded earthenware casserole in which the dish will be served (N.B., I don’t have a lidded one, so I covered the one I do have with foil for the baking). Thoroughly rub the inside with the other clove of peeled garlic, then grease the inside liberally with butter, about 2-3 tbsp. Turn on over to 300 degrees and set shelf so that casserole will be in center. When potato slices are ready, put them into the casserole dish in interleaved layers, with the meat scattered evenly throughout. Then pour the 1/2 pint of heavy cream over the potatoes evenly, and dot the casserole with the remaining butter.
Cover the casserole and set it in the oven in a larger dish filled with water about one inch deep. Bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, then check to see if it needs more salt. The recipe does not call for turning the potatoes in the casserole, but I found the slices on top were not getting sufficient cream, so I took the casserole out of the oven and gently turned the potatoes, so that the relatively dry slices on top were on the bottom.
Here’s where it gets tricky. According to the recipe, the dish ought to have been ready by now, but I found it needed longer. I had to leave the house for an errand, so I turned the oven down to 200. When I came back 90 minutes later, they were perfect. This is a rather long time to have to cook potatoes, and it stands to reason, obviously, that you wouldn’t have to go nearly that long if the oven were hotter. I advise keeping the oven hotter, and checking from time to time to see if the potatoes have reached desirable tenderness. Accordingly, you may wish to turn the potato slices sooner in the process, but there’s no need to do so more than once.
When the potatoes are done, the recipe calls for running the casserole, without its top, under the broiler for a minute or two to brown the potatoes. I didn’t do this because that particular casserole is not suited for the broiler. The dish was just fine without the browning.
Roy Andries de Groot, the cookbook author, says, “All the cream will generally have been absorbed into potatoes, making them unbelievably soft and velvety.” This is true. I’m told the dish was excellent last night, but even better today. Really, it’s hard to go wrong with ham, cream, and potatoes.
I’m going to try making it again next week for the Nativity feast, though this time I might use bacon, and prepare it in a casserole dish that can withstand a couple of minutes in the broiler. I wish I could give you more precise instructions on the baking time, but I’m going to have to refine that as I prepare the dish again and again. I wanted to share the recipe with you, imperfect as it is here, because it really is extraordinary food.