I confess I didn’t grow up watching Julia Child. I was certainly aware of her. How could anyone, particularly one with a foodie father, not be? Dad watched her program, and if memory serves, even claimed to have seen the infamous, albeit mythical, “chicken/turkey dropping incident” that has made its way into urban legend and secured a place on snopes.com. While other cooks talk fondly about how Child inspired them to venture into the kitchen or even to pursue a career in food, I had a different televised introduction to the culinary universe, watching chefs like Jeff Smith, Martin Yan, Graham Kerr, and Jacques Pépin. As a result, I sometimes feel like I missed out on a crucial bit of cooking heritage, like I’m the new kid at school who has to take special classes because her old school was behind in certain subjects.
Pépin’s program, “Jacques Pépin’s Kitchen: Cooking with Claudine” was the first one I remember watching on my own as an adult. I was flipping through channels one sunny Saturday morning, looking for something to serve as background noise while I puttered around the apartment. Instead I became transfixed by a segment that featured Pépin demonstrating to his daughter how to cook a fish. Although I had never prepared fish before (heck, I was still nervous as all get out to work with chicken back then), by the time the episode was over, I was convinced that even I had the ability to produce perfect poisson. I made sure to catch the show every week after that, and have harbored a quiet fondness for him ever since.
Years later, while brushing up on my Julia Child trivia, I learned that Jacques Pépin had been a decades-long friend and frequent collaborator of hers, and my internal “new kid” felt a little less out of place. The book “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home”, which I happily discovered while once again browsing the cooking section of my local used book store (I LOVE my local used book store!), was one such collaboration. As with their television program of the same name, the two shared with their audience favorite tips and techniques for basic, time-honored dishes that every home cook should have in their recipe box.
At the time I spotted this title, I’d somehow managed, in spite of all my kitchen shenanigans, to never have cooked a single recipe created by Julia Child. (Sacrilege, I know.) Knowing that no self-respecting cookbook challenge would be complete without a dish from the original Grande Dame of cooking, I eagerly snatched up the book and bundled off home with it. As for my choice of recipe, I wanted to do something simple and classic, something I’d never tried before. Plus I had a lot of potatoes.
Julia’s Pommes de Terre Dauphinoise
Yield: A large casserole, serving 6 to 8
- 1 tsp salt, plus more if needed
- 1 tsp chopped garlic
- 3 cups milk, or mixed milk and cream, plus more if needed
- ½ tsp freshly ground white pepper, plus more if needed
- 2 poounds boiling potatoes, peeled and covered in water
- 1 to 2 Tbs butter for topping the potatoes (optional)
A food processor with a slicing disk (optional); an 8-to-10-cup flameproof gratin dish, lightly buttered; a cookie sheet
I didn’t have a gratin dish, so I opted for a medium-sized cast iron skillet.
Preheat the oven to 400º F. Slide the rack on the lower third level and set the cookie sheet on it to catch boil-overs.
Sprinkle ½ teaspoon of salt on the chopped garlic and mash together with the blade of a knife, to make a purée.
Pour about half the milk (or milk-and-cream mixture) into the gratin dish and add the garlic purée and the rest of the salt and the pepper.
Cut the potatoes crosswise, by hand or in a food processor, into very thin slices (⅛ inch or less) – do not rinse them again.
Spread them evenly in the gratin dish…
…and pour in the remaining milk. The liquid should come right to the top layer of potatoes – ad more milk or cream if needed.
Place the dish on a burner, bring to a slow boil, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, until the liquid has thickened slightly. Scrape the bottom gently with a wooden spoon to prevent scorching. Taste the liquid and adjust the seasoning.
Turn off the heat and dot the top of the gratin with a tablespoon or two of butter, if you wish. Place the dish in the oven, on top of the cookie sheet, and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until the top is nicely browned, most of the liquid has been absorbed, and the potatoes are tender all the way through when pierced with a knife. If not served at once, keep warm in a turned-off oven or set over a pan of simmering water.
For about twenty minutes before this was to come out of the oven, my apartment was filled with the most incredible smell of roasting garlic, potatoes, and even a slightly cheesy note as the top of the gratin caramelized. I pulled it at 45 minutes, although it was still a little loose, for fear the top would burn.
The potatoes were delicate and soft, though, and as it cooled it set up more. As you can see from the picture below, it seems to have come out alright. It was a little rich for my taste, but that just means that next time I should perhaps use more milk and less cream. I’m looking forward to making it again, perhaps even nailing it at some point, as it is such a classic French dish, and a lovely way to highlight the humble potato.