Gratin Dauphinois

Du pain, du vin, du gratin
- almost a French proverb.

Winter hit us hard this year, probably to even the score with a particularly fine Autumn. When it's -16 Celsius (3.2 Farenheit) outside the window and a heavy layer of snow covers everything, it looks beautiful, but that's about it. The cold creeps into our houses, saps our strength and even grocery shopping becomes a feat of survival.
So what does a smart Kitchen Witch do in such circumstances?
Bakes gratin dauphinois.
This traditional French dish originates from the Dauphiné region and is only one of many bakes (or casseroles, if you wish) that French cuisine has to offer. It is also one of the simplest, and just perfect for the freezing weather that we are experiencing right now.
The delicious smell that accompanies its baking will, together with the warmth from the oven, instantly fill Your house with comfortable, cozy atmosphere. The aroma is also very delicate, so it will not linger unpleasantly. The dish itself is very sustaining, and of course delicious. It has the additional virtue of being gluten-free.
You will, obviously, need a casserole to cook this. Be prepared for some scrubbing afterwards, but I assure You, it's worth it (I use an old clay casserole that's been in the family for generations. It looks really menacing, all brown-black and with the words "heat-resistant ceramic" in heavy gothic script. Wonderful.) This is a very easy recipe and requires minimum supervision, so You can put it in the oven and go about Your business.
  • Potatoes - about three per person, unless You're dealing with real potato fans (or huge potatoes).
  • Sour cream - for covering the surface,  so the exact amount of cream depends on the dimensions of the dish.
  • Milk - the amount of milk depends on the amount of potatoes.
Yes, those are all the ingredients You need. Don't add anything: no cheese (that would be gratin savoyard), no bacon, no salt, no pepper. Trust me. Or, at least try it once as it is before deciding whether it needs seasoning.
Peel the potatoes and slice them. Not too thinly, because then the slices will stick together and won't allow milk to flow in between. Remember they will shrink as they bake. About 4 mm is a very good thickness here.
Oil up the casserole (or coat with butter if You're feeling generous) and fill it with layer after layer of potato slices. The best way to do this is to imitate the way bricks are being put, with edges overlapping and covering loose spaces. However, You don't have to worry about gaps too much.
Layers of potatoes, half-covered with cream. You can see the milk level on the left.
Actually, the slices sticking to each other flatly are worse than gaps, because when You're done with potatoes, You need to pour in the milk. Not as much as to cover them all and drown them, but about two-thirds of the whole height. It's best for the milk to flow freely between the potato slices, because their baking in it is what gives this dish its unique taste. Hence the need to avoid impenetrable potato walls and columns. All this looks confusing in writing, but shows plainly on the photo.
With milk sloshing around the potatoes, You can coat the surface with cream. As it bakes, it turns into a smooth, creamy golden blanket, the most delicious part of the dish, so You might want to be generous about it.
Once You've put on the cream, You're done! Just put the whole thing into the oven and watch out not to overdo the heat - You must remember that the whole dish should bake smoothly. Too big a fire would result in the bottom layers burning and the top ones still being raw.
Since the heat must be mild, it bakes slowly. The thicker the layer, the slower it cooks, so You need to plan Your timing. My "greatest" achievement in this field was 2 hours in the oven, but it was a huge portion put over a coward's fire - my first gratin. Still, be prepared for an hour+ of baking.
When the crust develops a golden tint with brown patches, it's ready.
Gratin dauphinois is a strong, filling meal and, in all probability, will suffice to feed a number of people on its own. The only company it needs is a salad, to supply vitamins and refreshment (carrot and sunflower salad goes great with this), and dry, white wine.

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