Friday, December 30, 2011

Ham and Potato Gratin

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.

Printable Recipe

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.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Salted Caramel Cheesecake

I LOVE cheesecake. So much so that it’s been my birthday cake for the past 11 years! It started out with my best friend making me a Cherry No-Bake Cheesecake for my 20th birthday, and it’s a tradition that stuck because I love it so much. Over the years it’s evolved into real cheesecake, but there is still usually cherry in it somewhere.
After cherry cheesecake, I would have to say that this is my favorite cheesecake. I came up with the idea to make this the cheesecake of the week at my work, and I’ve made it a couple times since, for private parties and such. It always goes over well! Who doesn’t love the age-old combination of salty and sweet?!
The cheesecake base is just a very simple recipe, as it should always be. I don’t know what the deal is with some recipes calling for you to add flour and a bunch of other stuff, but it’s really not necessary. The graham cracker crust is also pretty straight-forward, except that I don’t always add sugar to mine. I’ve never actually measured how much of those ingredients I use, but I would guess the measurements I listed are accurate. I don’t like an overly dry nor an overly greasy crust, so I only mix enough butter until it just holds together when you press it with your fingers. The caramel sauce is also very basic, but quite delicious. When you put everything together, and then top it with the Fleur de Sel, which you HAVE to use, it’s so amazing! I like to put a little of the caramel sauce on top of the cheesecake and set it back in the refrigerator to cool on top of the cheesecake, saving the rest to drizzle on top, but either way is just fine.
My favorite part about this cheesecake recipe is that the base is so perfect you don’t need to mess with it very much. If you want to have fruit in it, simply warm some berries with a little sugar and lemon juice until they’re softened, then puree the berries and swirl them into the cheesecake. If you simply want it to be another flavor, add that flavor to the already-made batter. I’ve made so many delicious variations from this one base recipe, I can’t even remember all of them… And they always turn out wonderful!

Printable Recipe

3 (8 oz.) pkg. cream cheese, room temperature
1 c. sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 Tbsp. vanilla

Graham Cracker Crust:
2 c. graham cracker crumbs
6-8 Tbsp. butter, melted

Caramel Topping:
10 Tbsp. butter
⅔ c. firmly packed dark brown sugar
⅔ c. heavy cream
3 tsp. vanilla extract
Fleur de Sel

For the cheesecake: In a large mixing bowl, cream the sugar and cream cheese together until well combined. Slowly mix in the eggs and vanilla until smooth and creamy. Allow the cheesecake batter to sit overnight. (Mix in any flavorings before leaving it to sit overnight, making sure that any additions are also room temperature before being added.)
Preheat the oven to 325°. Prepare the graham cracker crust by mixing graham cracker crumbs and butter until just moistened; gently press the mixture into the bottom and partly up the sides of an assembled springform pan. Pour the cheesecake batter over the graham cracker crust.
Place the filled springform pan into a large pan and fill the outside pan halfway with water. Place the pan into the preheated oven and bake until the cheesecake is almost set in the middle, about an hour and a half. Remove the cheesecake from the oven and let it continue to sit in the water bath for about a half hour. Remove the springform pan from the water bath and place in the refrigerator to continue cooling.
For the caramel topping: Place the butter, brown sugar, and heavy cream in a medium saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar dissolves; increase heat to medium and bring to a boil, allowing the mixture to boil for a couple minutes. Remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Cool slightly and spoon over the cooled cheesecake. Sprinkle the cheesecake with fleur de sel just before serving.