Ever since having a bad, undercooked version of what I thought were Scalloped Potatoes at Christmas dinner, I have been craving the real thing. Thin slices of soft potatoes in a rich, creamy cheese sauce and — wait — there’s no cheese in Scalloped Potatoes?
Yes, it’s true. When I searched I was surprised to see that none of the Scalloped Potatoes recipes I came across contained cheese. I always thought the only difference between these two dishes was preparation, with Scalloped having a flour and cream mixture poured over potatoes and yes, cheese, before baking and Au Gratin layered with a Mornay sauce. Note to self: I need to do a story on “Sauces” at some point.
Back to the potatoes…this cheese lover was actually seeking Potatoes Au Gratin. And since I know how to make a cheese sauce, and I know how to slice potatoes, I figured I’d wing it.
I didn’t have an adjustable mandoline and didn’t feel like dragging out the food processor. So, I washed and peeled 6 large Russet potatoes before cutting them by hand into about 1/4-inch slices. As I finished each potato, I dropped the slices into a bowl of cold water just to keep them from turning brown. I thinly sliced half of a large onion and dropped that into the water as well.
On to the sauce. This basic white sauce is the starting point for a whole list of pasta bakes, pot pies and chowders that I especially like to make for a crowd. The easiest way for me to remember the recipe is for every 2 tablespoons of butter, I need 2 tablespoons of flour and 1 1/4 cups of liquid. I’ve found this ratio to be the best consistency for all of the recipes I make. It’s not so thick that it becomes gluey when I add cheese to it. But thick enough that if I want to use it for a chowder, it can hold up to the addition of stock. It’s just the perfect creamy, velvety sauce!
For this recipe, I needed a good amount of it. I melted a stick of butter, whisked in some flour and let that cook for a minute. I then slowly added a mix of milk and half & half, a little at a time since the sauce quickly tightens up at first and I wanted to work out any lumps before adding more liquid. Once all of the milk was incorporated, I switched over to a silicone spatula and slowly stirred the mixture as it cooked, being sure to run the spatula along the corners of the pot where the flour tends to collect. Normally at this point, I would add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. But since I was adding salty cheese to the sauce, I waited to season afterwards.
For the cheese, I used a mix of sharp cheddar and parmesan. Cheddar seemed like the traditional option for this dish but I like the salty, nutty flavor that parmesan adds. With the sauce off the heat and still plenty hot, I added the cheese and stirred until melted, then added my seasonings to taste. Next, I suppressed every instinct to grab a spoon and eat this delicious sauce as is!
Back to the potatoes. In a casserole dish, I layered the potato and onion slices between the luscious cheese sauce, ending with a layer of sauce. I sprinkled the top with a little more cheddar and popped that beauty into the oven.
It came out of the oven like bubbling lava. Even after standing for 20 minutes while I baked salmon and vegetables, it was still piping hot.
I spread a little mustard on top of salmon filets and sprinkled them with seasoned breadcrumbs. I placed them on an foil-lined baking sheet surrounded by carrots and zucchini and baked at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes.
When the fish was done, I used a spatula to pick each piece up just above the skin. It’s much easier than trying to remove the skin while the salmon is raw. The fillets come off in one clean piece while the skin stays with the foil.
Potatoes Au Gratin
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 1/2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, shredded, plus 1/2 cup for topping
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
8 large Russet potatoes
1/2 large onion
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1 cup half & half
Fill a large bowl with cold water. Scrub and peel the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into 1/4-inch slices and add to water. Cut the onion into thin slices and add to the potatoes.
In a large sauce pan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. Add the flour and stir with a whisk until well combined. Allow the butter and flour to cook together for 1-2 minutes, whisking often.
Slowly add the milk while continuing to whisk, allowing the milk to be absorbed a little at a time. The mixture will tighten into a paste at first. Just continue to add the milk in spurts, working out any lumps. Once the mixture is the consistency of peanut butter, add the remaining milk and half & half.
Cook the mixture on medium-high heat and stir with a heat-proof spatula until the sauce thickens (about 8-10 minutes). Be sure to scrape the the bottom and sides of the pot where the sauces tends to thicken first. If lumps appear on the spatula, turn down the heat slightly and stir vigorously until smooth.
Once the sauce is thick, turn off the heat and add the parmesan and 1 1/2 cups of the cheddar. Stir until the cheese is completely melted and the sauce is smooth. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste.
Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees. Spread a few tablespoons of the sauce on the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Add a single layer of potatoes and onion and top with more sauce. Continue to layer potatoes, onions and sauce until all of the potatoes are used. End with a layer of sauce and top with the remaining 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar.
Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake at 350 for 45 minutes. Then remove foil and bake for another 30 minutes. Remove and allow to cool slightly. Sprinkle with parsley before serving.