~ Classic Pommes Anna: The Ultimate Potato Cake ~
This just might be the most impressive potato dish ever placed on a fancy-schmancy dining room table. It's a gorgeous golden cake constructed of layers of ultra-thin-sliced potatoes that have been baked in the oven (just like a cake layer) and turned out onto a serving plate. When sliced into wedges, each person gets a pretty, pie-sized wedge of potato heaven: buttery-rich, nicely-and-lightly seasoned potatoes, with a crispy golden crust and a soft tender center.
Impressive to look at & surprisingly simple to make.
While pommes Anna does take a bit of time to make, for a French dish, it requires very few steps. Once sliced, the potatoes are layered, overlapping in concentric circles, and each layer is brushed with melted butter and seasoned with salt and pepper. After assembling, the dish is either baked in the oven or fried on the stovetop. The dish was created in the 1800's, during the time of Napoleon III, by Chef Adolphe Dugléré, the head chef at the Café Anglais, the leading Paris restaurant of the 19th Century. He is said to have named the dish after a famous "grandes cocotte" ("a very pretty, flirtatious woman") of the time. There is, however, a historical disagreement of which beautiful female he named it after: acress Dame Judic (real name, Anna Damiens), or Anna Deslions. Whoever the lucky lady was, classic pommes Anna consists of just four inexpensive, readily-available ingredients: potatoes, butter, salt and pepper.
Russets (baking potatoes/starchy potatoes), Reds (boiling potatoes/waxy potatoes) and Golds (all-purpose potatoes/middle-of-the road potatoes). Baking potatoes are high in starch, which makes them ideal for making baked and mashed potato dishes because their drier texture keeps them light and fluffy. Boiling potatoes are considered to be waxy, meaning they hold their shape great during the boiling process, so, the trait that makes them great for potato salad, makes them undesirable for baking or mashing because they tend to get lumpy and heavy. All-purpose potatoes, moister than the baking potato and less waxy than the boiling potato, not only bake and mash well, they are adored for their golden color and creamy texture.
What's up with that expensive pan? Do you need one? No!
The most intimidating thing about making pommes Anna is the suggestion that a 4-quart "cocotte à pommes Anna" is necessary. It is a Mauviel M'Tradition™ copper, very-expensive, double baking pan manufactured in France. The upper and lower halves fit into each other so that the whole vessel, with the potatoes in it can be easily inverted during the cooking process. $268.00 on-line. Seriously?
As much as I would love to add that beautiful pan to my copper cookware collection, I can't justify the price. Why? I don't need one and nor do you. That said, in order to achieve the same classic size and shape, you need an oven-safe pan similar in size (9 1/2" across) and volume (3-4 quarts). The pan should have straight sides too. Meet Cuisinart's, 3-quart, stainless-steel casserole. $49.95 on-line.
Slicing the potatoes -- Russet or Gold, your choice:
When preparing potatoes dishes like pommes Anna or potatoes gratin, Russets or Yukon golds both work great. In the case of both dishes, while the potatoes need to be very-thinly-sliced, the thickness of the potato slice is not as important as the uniformity (uniform potatoes all cook uniformly), but VERY, VERY thin slices (1/16"-1/8" thick) release more starch (more slices = more starch), than thicker sliced ones. I like them sliced thin enough to just see through.
The Feemster's Famous Vegetable Slicer: I have all sorts of fancy mandolins and super-sharp knives, but I ADORE my little blue-bladed Feemsters. I bought 2 of these, for $5.00 a piece, about 20 years ago from a kitchen store, here in Boalsburg. I am sorry to report that The Country Sampler is no longer in business, but "The Feemsters" is available on-line at Amazon.com.
3 1/2 pounds peeled Russet or Gold potatoes, sliced to a thickness of no more than 1/8"
Note: I cannot emphasize this enough, so I'm going to say it again: slice the potatoes as thinly as you possibly can and keep them as uniform in thickness as is humanly possible. I consider "thin" to be "easy to bend in half".
There's More: Do not peel the potatoes in advance (they will discolor) and do not soak them in water (to prevent discoloring). Once pan is prepared (as directed below), peel and slice the potatoes as you are layering them in the pan.
For the mise en place, preparing the pan & layering the potatoes:
17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan lined w/ aluminum foil and parchment paper
3-quart Cuisinart casserole w/lid, 2, 9" rounds of parchment and spatula
1-cup measuring container, for melting butter, and pastry brush
vegetable peeler and chef's knife, mandoline or Feemster's slicer
grinders containing sea salt and peppercorn blend
~Step 1. Line the baking pan as directed above and place the Cuisinart casserole in the pan. Place the first 9" round of parchment paper in the bottom of the pan. In a 1-cup measuring container, in the microwave, melt 8 ounces (2 sticks) salted butter. Place 3 tablespoons of melted butter in the pan and using a pastry brush, paint the parchment-lined bottom and sides of the pan. Using your favorite devices, peel and slice one potato as thin as possible, between 1/16"- 1/8", then position one slice of the potato directly in the bottom center of the pan.
~Step 2. Begin building the first layer of potatoes by overlapping potato slices in concentric circles around the center potato. Brush the finished layer with butter and season with salt and pepper. Arrange a second layer of potatoes over the first, this time, starting at the outside of the casserole and finishing in the center. One-at-a-time, continue slicing, layering, buttering and seasoning potatoes until the potatoes are gone. The casserole will be full to within 1/2" of the top, and the tight-fitting lid, with its 1/2" drop down (see photo 1 in step 1 above), when placed on top, will be short of being able to cover the casserole.
~Step 3. Place the second parchment round atop the last layer of buttered and seasoned potatoes, and using a spatula, press down on the surface to compress the layers. Put the lid on the casserole and bake, covered, on center rack of 375º oven for 45 minutes. Remove the lid and the parchment and continue to bake until golden on the top, about 30 more minutes. The total baking time in a 375° oven in the specified pan is approximately 1 hour, 15 minutes. Remove casserole from oven and allow to rest 10-15 minutes. Run a paring knife around the perimeter of the pan, place a 9 1/2" plate over the casserole and invert potatoes onto that plate.
Special Equipment List: 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; aluminum foil; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" rectangle of parchment paper; 3-quart Cuisinart casserole w/straight deep sides & lid; 9" round of parchment paper; 1-cup measuring container; pastry brush; vegetable peeler; chef's knife, mandoline or Feemster's slicer; spatula; paring knife; 9 1/2" serving plate
"We are all in this food world together." Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2016)