Hey, look, mashed potatoes are wonderful. They're smooth and hearty and comforting; they land in your stomach with a satisfying, almost audible whump; they are the food equivalent of dropping your entire body onto a soft, overstuffed sofa. Kids love them, grownups love them, everybody loves them. Mashed potatoes are good.
On the other hand, maybe you find yourself itching to do something with the unassuming yet versatile potato more adventurous than mashing it into a homogeneous paste. Mashed potatoes, for all their virtues, are after all kinda texturally boring, and mostly tend to serve as a starchy delivery vehicle for other stuff. Even if this makes them well suited to the Thanksgiving plate, where they can mingle with and be enriched by the other stuff, there's always the sense that you're doing less with that sector of the plate than you could. Specifically, there's the sense that that sector of the plate contains no cheese, which, really, is just an inexcusable failure.
Thankfully, some ancient French person had the very good taste and judgment to invent the gratin food-preparation technique. In basic terms, this pretty much just means cooking whatever food in such a way that it comes out topped with a nice, brown crust, usually made of cheese. It's done with eggplant and squash and meat and pasta and so on, but who gives a shit about all that, because it's also done with potatoes, and oh, man, when it is done with potatoes, as you are about to do it, it is amazing.
Where mashed potatoes mostly help you transport the runoff of other dishes to your face, potatoes au gratin tower over those other dishes, and scoff at them, and do sexy dance moves in their ashamed and humiliated faces. Potatoes au gratin do not transport other foods. They transport you! They transport you to Enjoymentburg. Pleasuremont. Happinessissippi. Whatever. The point here is how good they are, which is: very.
Food wieners will hop into the comments to insist that, actually, the following food preparation should be called potatoes gratiné or scalloped potatoes or scalloped potatoes gratiné or gratiné de pommes de terre or that's not how potatoes au gratin is reeeeally made, maaaan, or whatever. That's fine. What matters, here, is that the following food preparation is not mashed potatoes: It's different, and distinct, and more interesting, and it has lots of cheese in it, and that's all we require of it. Right? Yes. OK.
So let's make some. Here we go.
OK, so, to begin, preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Now, haul out a deep-sided roasting pan or casserole dish, and rub down the inside of the dish with some cold butter. This'll help prevent stuff from sticking to it; if it also should happen to impart a buttery flavor to your food, no one will complain. No one who does not wish to have the police summoned to arrest them, anyway.
Set the buttered dish aside for a moment, and peel and slice some potatoes. I don't know how big your dish is (for that matter, I don't know how big your potatoes are, I don't know if you have potatoes, and I don't know where my car keys are), so I'm not going to tell you exactly how many potatoes to slice. If you buy a five-pound bag of potatoes, and if your roasting pan is not, say, the Grand Canyon, you probably will not need to use all the potatoes in your bag of potatoes. You'll need enough potato slices so that you can stack up layers of overlapping potato slices all the way up to around an inch below the rim of your dish. Eyeball it; if you find out later, during assembly, that you need more, you'll have time to slice some more.
As for what kind of potato, Russets are good, Yellow Finns are excellent, and Yukon Golds will turn to mush if you overcook them even a tiny little bit, which will be hard to guard against, because how the hell will you even know before it's too late. Whatever kind of potatoes you get, peel them and slice them into thin disks. Not more than a quarter-inch thick.
If you have a mandoline slicer, it'll save you a ton of time, so long as you don't sever your entire upper body with it (this happens to me literally every time I use it). If not, just set aside an extra 10 or 15 minutes to slice the potatoes nice and thin. This will be miserable work, but the reward will be a flavorful and evenly-cooked final product, plus, like, the solemn pride that comes with knowing you did somewhat more than the very least you could do, or whatever.
Potatoes all sliced? Good. Slice some other stuff, too. Turn a big sweet onion into a pile of very thin half-rings, and turn a bunch of chives into a pile of teeny little green rings. Set the chives aside, for now, but keep the sweet onions handy.
OK, that's it for knifework. Now, prepare your dairy items. First, a sorta half-assed saucelike substance; it's just four or five cups of cream or whole milk or a combination of the two, plus, oh, three or four tablespoons of flour, plus a big hearty pinch of salt and another of pepper. Whisk that stuff together in a big bowl. If you have some grated nutmeg, a little bit of that will do wonderful things in there, but it's not necessary.
The other dairy item is three cups or so of your favorite grated cheese, so long as your favorite grated cheese is Gruyère, or your second-favorite grated cheese, so long as your second-favorite grated cheese is good sharp cheddar and you made a good-faith effort to find your favorite grated cheese, which is Gruyère, but were thwarted by an asteroid strike.
Seriously, though, if you can find it, track down some damn Gruyère for this. Doesn't matter all that much whether it's aged or young or what. It's sweeter and nuttier than cheddar, melts exquisitely, and is just goddamn wonderful. You'll be glad you got it.
And now, assemble potatoes au gratin! This is pretty straightforward. Lay down a layer of overlapping potato slices on the bottom of the buttered roasting pan or casserole dish; spread some of the thin half-rings of sweet onion over top of this layer of potato slices; sprinkle some of the grated cheese across all this stuff; repeat. When you get up near the top of the dish, before you sprinkle cheese over this final layer, pour in enough of your half-assed saucelike substance to fill the dish just to the top layer of potatoes and onions, then sprinkle a nice thick layer of cheese over the top.
That's it for assembly. Stick the dish in the preheated oven and set a timer for an hour. Position yourself upwind of the oven, if possible; the sweet onion and Gruyère will heat up and turn fragrant within just the first handful of minutes, and the burn units of our great nation are choked to capacity with the charred husks of poor fools who thought they could resist that aroma coming from a 400-degree oven.
When the timer goes off, use a spatula to scrape your face off the oven door, and remove the food from the oven. This stuff is: heavenly-smelling, but also fission-hot and soupy. It needs to rest so that it can set and cool a bit and become more like a casserole than like a chowder. Leave your potatoes au gratin alone for at least 20 minutes. You can take this time to prepare the feeble main course these potatoes will bully off the table and chase into the wilderness.
After the potatoes au gratin have had some time to settle, scatter those chives across the top of the dish, scoop portions onto plates beside whatever they'll be overshadowing, and serve.
Your potatoes au gratin will go nicely with—which is to say, they will ruthlessly upstage—a steak, or a pork chop, or some ribs, or whatever. They'll make you extra appreciative of a big swig of cold beer between bites. They'll also—yes, dammit, yes!—hold their own on a Thanksgiving plate, so long as the breach of mashed-potato tradition does not give you an aneurysm.
Have some. It's hearty and rich and creamy and nutty and sweet and salty, and oh God, so good. There's enough textural stuff going on in there—between the mild bite of the onion and the unmashed potato slices and the gaps between them filled with creamy, cheesy heaven—to engage and hold your attention; to make the idea of the next bite an imperative, or a mandate; to bring you unthinkingly back to that part of your plate; to make the other stuff around it seem boring and rote and obligatory. It's shameless and decadent and indulgent and gratuitous, in just the best kind of way.
Potatoes, of all the things! What a world. Remember to breathe.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His writing appeared in Best Food Writing 2014 by DaCapo Press. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Sam Woolley.