The saga of the au gratin dish
At some point in 2012, I was bitten by the French cooking bug. If I recall correctly, it started when I watched the movie Julie and Julia, based on the book by the same name. I read the book, then I read Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, then I started collecting Julia’s cookbooks.
These are her first two books, co-authored with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.
I know that not everyone is interested in cooking in general, or French cuisine in particular, but I still think everyone should be familiar with Julia Child, just because she’s such a cultural icon. Without her, food television as we now know it probably wouldn’t exist, and the American cuisine scene would be a very different place. Plus, Julia Child was a fascinating woman who lived a fascinating life (working with military intelligence in China, anyone?), so I highly recommend her autobiography and biographies like this and this.
When I first got this book, I decided I wanted to try a simple dish. Right? I was a cooking novice, so I figured I’d try something that was tasty, but didn’t require any crazy ingredients or techniques. Scalloped potatoes sounded about right. So I examined the recipe:
Ought to be simple, right? Uses normal potatoes, normal cheese, nothing with an ‘â’ or a ‘ç.’ But there was a problem:
That’s a pretty specific dish: no more than 2 inches deep, a little more relaxed on the width, but it has to be BOTH ‘fireproof’ and ‘ovenproof.’ When talking about cooking, the term fireproof (or flameproof) means that it’s safe for use on top of the stove (think flame like the flame of a gas burner, not flame like flambéing something in it). Okay, lots of stuff is flameproof: saucepans, skillets, etc. And lots of stuff is ovenproof: loaf pan, cake pan, cookie sheet. But not many of those go both ways, cast iron and stainless steel being the most common exceptions. And I couldn’t find ANYTHING that met all of those criteria!
By that point, of course, I was obsessed. I started researching cast iron, which has resulted in my tiny kitchen being stuffed to the rafters in the stuff, and my husband even set me up with a nice set of stainless steel cookware. Au gratin dishes are everywhere, but most are only ovenproof. And to be fair, a lot of recipes for Gratin Dauphinois only utilize the oven. But I was determined to make Julia Child’s scalloped potatoes!
And then, after over a year of searching, I found it:
An enameled cast iron au gratin dish! It is absolutely perfect: the cast iron goes from stovetop to oven without missing a beat, it’s just a little under two inches tall, and a little larger (14″x10″) than the recipe called for. This is the large version; it holds about 3 quarts, but there is a smaller (and cheaper) version if you’re not bound and determined to make this exact recipe.
I made the scalloped potatoes, months and months after my first attempts, and have to say that they were SPECTACULAR. You know how scalloped potatoes are supposed to have that very distinctive texture, almost al dente? Well, I’ve made scalloped potatoes before and they always turned out more like a mashed potato casserole. Tasty, but not the same. Julia’s recipe is PERFECT. I thought it was going to turn out bland because there isn’t a whole lot of seasoning, but they were SO flavorful!
I can’t wait to make these potatoes again in the future, and also use this dish for other stuff: roasted vegetables, roasted potatoes, desserts, breads, anything. It’s a beautiful serving piece, and those little handles are actually wonderful, especially given how heavy cast iron is. I wish all baking dishes had handles like that.