Julia Child is a touchstone to most American cooks – the lady who brought French cooking techniques into American homes via her masterpiece Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She was good enough to create a PBS program called The French Chef despite being neither French nor a chef. I’ve been making recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking here and there, and I’ve always been impressed with how Julia and her partners Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle made their recipes accessible to the home cook. I will admit, though, that sometimes they defeat my attempts at recreating their dishes.
Tonight’s dish is Gratin Jurassien, a potato dish made with Swiss cheese and cream, baked at low heat until the potatoes absorb the cream and brown lightly. Julia tells us up front: “you must never let the cream come quite to the simmer during the baking; thus it will not curdle.” Well, okay, Julia, we’ll do our best.
Here’s how you do it. Or should I say, here’s how you try to do it. Take a pan and smear it with a tablespoon of butter. Layer thinly sliced potatoes in said pan. A good way of making those thin slices is to slice them on your hand grater – that side of it that has the one cutting edge you never use? Use it right here. Cover that layer of potatoes with salt, pepper, dots of more butter and grated Swiss cheese. So far so good, right? I thought so, having seen Julia do her potatoes, butter, and cheese the exact same way on The French Chef.
Keep alternating layers of potatoes, salt, pepper, and cheese. Julia doesn’t really tell you when to stop, but I figured halfway up the side of the pan was sufficient for me. Finish with a sprinkle of cheese and “dots of butter.” I admit, I finished with a layer of potatoes and only remembered the last sprinkle of cheese about 5 minutes after I put the dish in the oven. Perhaps I should have read the intro to Mastering the Art of French Cooking a bit better, because Julia is pretty adamant about reading and learning an entire recipe in advance of trying it. That is probably warning sign number one.
Julia asks us to place our pan on the stove-top and bring our dish “slowly almost to the simmer.” I admit, I’m pretty much a failed line cook turned amateur house cook, so perhaps I missed the lesson on the “almost simmer.” I kept this thing on medium-low heat and when I saw little bubbles starting I cut the heat down. If there’s a better way to accomplish this, please tell me in the comments section so I can get smarter.
Julia tells us, “the gratin is done when the potatoes are tender and have absorbed the cream, and the top is lightly browned.” She also says that 1 to 1 and 1/4 hours of cooking time is enough to bring the dish to perfection. During this time, we’re to be busy “regulating oven heat,” so as to never let this concoction bubble in order to make it be creamy and good. Well, this is the step in which I found my failing. I don’t exactly know how. I kept my heat regulated, and after 45 minutes of non-bubbling baking, my cream mixture looked curdled. After another 3o minutes, it was still soupy looking and there was definite cream separation. Perhaps I had not drained my potatoes enough, and they had too much moisture for the dish. Perhaps I had added too much butter (although I maintain that I kept the butter within recipe guidelines). Perhaps I had been too cautious in my fear of the mixture bubbling and the slow cooking had curdled the cream anyway. I’m really not sure, but the fact is: the cream was a bit curdled when I pulled the dish from the oven.
Keep in mind, “curdled” in this case doesn’t exactly mean the same thing as it does when you keep a quart of milk in the fridge too long. The sauce in this dish isn’t ruined in flavor at all, but the texture is completely wrong. The dish is still edible, but instead of a smooth, rich sauce that the potatoes absorb, we were left with a slightly separated sauce, that while rich and tasty wasn’t at all what one expects when eating this dish. It was, in fact, a yummy dish, and the potatoes were just as tender and good and Julia said they should be. Jess and I were both happy with the flavor, but the fact that the sauce was partially oily and partially creamy instead of creamy all the way through makes this a failure in my eyes. Certainly, a failure that results in something that is still edible is better than a burnt mess, but this is certainly something that needs further work to succeed.
Being unsatisfied with your dishes and never settling for that feeling is part of becoming a good cook. This was a first try, and although I can take a lot from it that went right, it remains a disappointment. But there are always other meals, and each one provides a chance to try again and get it right. I don’t think Julia would have it any other way. Happy cooking!