Every kitchen has its quirks. In mine growing up, mom refused to buy Fruit Rollups and made baby food from scratch and packed lunches each weekday. But amidst the dry goods in our homemade pantry, she kept a curious side-dish staple: Betty Crocker Instant Scalloped Potatoes.
Was it hypocrisy that my only-from-scratch mom made boxed potatoes – with a Wonderbread crouton topping, no less? It might have been. I wasn’t complaining. It was one of my favourite things to eat, though the dehydrated science-project potatoes were off-putting in theory.
Scalloped potatoes have their own kind of deliciousness that only comes in thin layers of starch, sauce and melted cheese with a crunchy lid. Some recipes call for dubious additions: canned cream of cheddar soup, American cheese slices or a tub of Philly. Others elevate these layered potatoes to an elegant side, adding leeks, blue cheese, fennel or even coconut milk. The French combine cream and garlic and forgo the cheese to create Gratin Dauphinois.
But where potatoes are concerned, my heart belongs to the simplest of recipes – just milk, flour, butter, old cheddar and starchy potatoes slouching together in a baking dish. My heretic spin is the addition of mom’s bread-cube topping to finish the dish, as opposed to a traditional crumb crust.
It’s not quite what I ate as a kid – lacking bright orange cheese powder and reconstituted potatoes, after all. But come fall, when the sky darkens before dinner and my creaky old house gets a chill, it’s delicious.
Simple scalloped potatoes
(makes one 11×7-inch baking dish, with about 5 layers of potato)
I was always reluctant to make scalloped potatoes without a mandolin. But as long as the slices are relatively even, and you cook this thoroughly, slicing with a knife works well. And the age-old debate of nutmeg-or-no-nutmeg rages on. The Greek inside of me says a little never hurts in milk-based sauces. But if you prefer, leave it out. Also – this dish is fantastic with sweet potatoes in lieu of white. It gives the dish a sweet-savoury contrast, with pretty orange layers. Sweet potatoes take less time to cook – check after 60 minutes for doneness.
4 large russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
5 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup white unbleached flour
2 cups 2% or whole milk
7 oz old white cheddar, grated
2 cups soft white bread, cubed
nutmeg, salt to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.
In a heavy saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Whisk in flour and cook for about 4-5 minutes, continually whisking. Once golden and giving a toasty scent, slowly add milk. Bring to a boil and whisk over medium heat for about 5 minutes, until thickened (the sauce should coat your finger).
Remove saucepan from heat, and add three-fourths of the cheese, whisking into sauce. If using nutmeg, add a few good grates at this point. Taste sauce for salt and adjust. Because the potatoes are bland, the sauce should be slightly saltier than your ideal seasoning.
In a metal or glass 11×7-inch baking dish, alternate slightly-overlapping layers of potato and sauce, starting with potatoes. You will likely get about 5 layers. Spread remaining cheese over the final layer and cover with foil.
Bake covered for approximately 90 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a bread knife into the centre of the casserole. It should slide through with ease. If resistant, continue to bake covered for 10 minute intervals until cooked through. A little overdone is okay, but nothing is worse than raw potatoes!
Top evenly with bread cubes and place uncovered under broiler until crust is toasted and golden, about 3-4 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes, slice, and serve. This refrigerates and freezes very well. If freezing the whole pan, leave the bread topping off until you intend to reheat and serve.