Potatoes au gratin

Even though I’m back in San Francisco, land of chilly summer days and freezing summer nights, I still have a few things on my mind from the weeks I spent in northern Minnesota this summer.

First among these are potatoes au gratin. I became a bit obsessed with them this summer and I blame it all on the White Hawk (a.k.a. “The Hawk”). The Hawk is a restaurant and bar on the lake where is my family’s cabin. There is also a resort with a restaurant that no one on the lake really goes to anymore and a restaurant and bar that has been documented on these pages before, called the Lonesome Pine (a.k.a. “The Pine” – you see how we nickname things up north, hey?). The Hawk had closed, been sold, re-opened, closed again and then early this summer re-opened. Word on the lake was that the food was better than that at The Pine. We found that hard to believe at our house, but one night my mom and I took my son to find out.

Much like The Pine, the menu at The Hawk is Minnesota old-school. Ribs, chicken, walleye (although The Hawk throws in an option of Maine lobster – who orders that I do not know since fancy and expensive isn’t generally how the local crowd rolls). Dinners come with soup or salad and your choice of sides. One of the sides offered at The Hawk is “Awesome Auggies,” which, our very enthusiastic if slightly inept server explained were “the best potatoes au gratin ever – we pack them with cheese and some garlic and there’s pepper in there – they’re great.”

I’m no fool, I ordered the Awesome Auggies. Now I like a nice potato gratin Frenchie-style – either a dauphinoise with lots of gruyère and cream or an austere one with a few bits of ham with the potatoes and just a scattering of cheese shavings on top – but potatoes au gratin, creamy and full of cheddar cheese, leaves me weak in the knees. We never ever had them at home when I was growing up (probably, to her credit, because my mom didn’t buy Betty Crocker potatoes au gratin in a box like so many Minnesotan moms did), but I would sometimes get them at someone’s house or at a restaurant. To a kid who didn’t really much cotton to meat but found cheese irresistible, potatoes au gratin were the bomb, plain and simple. They were the ultimate side dish that I wished I could just order for dinner.

The enthusiastic server’s description of the Awesome Auggies got me pretty excited. A bit of garlic? Lots of pepper? Sign me up. I prepared myself for awesomeness. I started, in my crazy-pants fashion, thinking about ordering an extra side of them in case they were really as awesome as they sounded.

They were not awesome. They were salty. But they were not awesome. One of the ways in which they were not awesome was that they were not potatoes au gratin. They were the insides of twice-baked potatoes in a gratin dish. Sort of mashed, sort of chunky. Orange colored but it seemed to be more from paprika than from cheese.

The Awesome Auggies simply left me with an insatiable desire for good potatoes au gratin. As the addage goes, if you want something done right you need to do it yourself.

Potatoes au gratin

These are made with sliced potatoes – if you have a mandoline this is a good time to break it out, but a sharp knife and  a steady hand will do the job just as well. The real key is to slice the potatoes as evenly as possible, whether that be thickish or thinish.

4 pounds potatoes (Russets or Yukon Golds)
3 tablespoons butter, divided
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
2 cloves garlic (optional)
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne (optional)
2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, divided

Preheat oven to 375. Peel potatoes, if you like, but you can simply give them a good scrub if you like to leave peels on. Slice potatoes into even slices. About 1/4-inch thick is good, but whatever thickness you can manage evenly is just dandy.

Use some of the butter to grease a 9×13 pan and set it aside.

Melt the rest of the butter in a medium saucepan over medium high heat. When the butter melts all the way and stops bubbling or foaming, whisk in the flour. Keep whisking and cooking until the mixture smells like pie crust (this signals that the flour is cooked), 2 to 3 minutes. Still cooking and whisking, slowly pour in about half the milk. Whisk until smooth then ad the remaining milk and cream and whisk until smooth.

Reduce heat to medium and cook, whisking, until sauce thickens slightly, about 2 minutes.

Stir in the garlic, pepper, and cayenne, as you like, and about a cup of the cheese. Whisk until cheese melts and sauce is smooth, about a minute.

Layer about half the potatoes in the pan and pour about half the sauce over them. Layer in the rest of the potatoes, pour the remaining sauce over them, and sprinkle the whole thing with the remaining cheese.

Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove the foil and bake uncovered until bubbling and browning on top, about 25 minutes. Let sit for about 10 minutes before serving. Reheats beautifully. Freezes, like all potato-laden dishes, horribly.