Ah… Comfort Food… When it comes right down to it, is there anything better than comfort food? Don’t get me wrong, I love trying new, gourmet stuff! And I love experimenting with new recipes and trying different things. But, some days, you just NEED comfort food. I could eat sushi every day of the week and never get sick of it, but I don’t know if that can be considered comfort food… It always makes me happy, though! This time, what I’m talking about is honest-to-goodness, I-remember-when-I-was-little-and-my-mom-used-to-make-this comfort food. Toasted cheese sandwiches with the American cheese slices (always two) and a little bit of butter on the outside to make it brown really nicely, and always a bowl of hot tomato soup to dip your sandwich in. Mom’s extra creamy homemade potato soup with chunks of potatoes and ham. Now that’s some comfort food!
For me, potato gratin falls into the same category. When I eat it, I think of fond memories and get the warm fuzzies. I remember my mother making it when I was younger, but had shied away from it as an adult until just recently, opting for the bland substitute they offer in the red box on the grocery store shelf. I’m not sure why I didn’t make it myself before, but am going to guess it had something to do with the ease and length of preparation. Slicing 2½ pounds of potatoes is quite a daunting task when one doesn’t own a mandaline! (If you don’t already have a good one of these, I would highly recommend getting one. I have the Oneida brand one, from Kohl’s, and it works so well for cutting anything – I especially love the crinkle cutting side for making my own waffle fries. Whichever one you choose, be sure that it comes with different blades so that it is more efficient for and useful to you.)
When looking for the recipe I wanted to use for my potato gratin, I tried a few of them and eventually came up with this one after changing the one that turned out the best for me. I tried ones with Half & Half (which I don’t recommend because the milk and cheese will curdle more easily, leaving you with a weird gloppy mess) and ones with heavy cream. I tried one with different seasonings. I tried layering the potatoes and pouring the cream over them (which doesn’t work out that well for sufficiently coating all of the potatoes). The base that I used is Tyler Florence’s recipe, and then I added a few things and altered a few of them. The fresh thyme in this recipe is truly amazing! When I’m stirring the cream mixture before assembling everything, I like to try to make sure some of the thyme leaves fall off and stay in the sauce. And I like a little more flavor going on in my base, so I added some bay, shallots, and then a little more garlic, which I put through my garlic press - pressing garlic releases more of the juices than simply chopping it, plus it’s fast and easy! After all was said and done, this turned out to be the best potato gratin I’ve had.
3 c. heavy cream
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 shallot, chopped
6 garlic cloves, pressed
Salt and pepper, to taste
2½ lb. russet potatoes, cut into ⅛-inch thick slices
1 (16 oz.) pkg. diced ham
1 c. grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 c. shredded cheddar cheese, divided
Preheat the oven to 375°. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat up the cream with the thyme, bay leaf, chopped shallot, pressed garlic, salt, and pepper, stirring occasionally. When the mixture is heated, remove and discard the thyme and bay leaf and set the cream aside.
In a large bowl, combine the potatoes, cream mixture, diced ham, and ½ cup of each of the cheeses. Mix until all of the ingredients are thoroughly combined and then divide the potato mixture evenly between four gratin dishes, dividing any remaining cream mixture between the dishes. Set the gratin dishes on a cookie sheet and cover each one with aluminum foil; bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Remove the foil from the gratins and sprinkle with some more of the remaining cheeses; broil until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly.