One of the nice readers reminded me of Pommes Anna. It has probably been late 60’s in Upstate New York since I had this good stuff. If you try it you will wonder how I ever forgot about anything so delicious. Brain cramp?
History – legend anyway – has it that they were invented during the reign of Napoleon and named after a famous courtesan. Dunno’ if that’s true or not, but they are certainly fit for an Emperor.
I was in Elmira, New York for the Remington Office Machine Company in ’68 or thereabouts. There used to be this very nice and surprising French Restaurant in downtown Elmira. It was one of those places that you just had to know how to find, I don’t even remember any kind of sign. You just opened an unmarked wooden door off the sidewalk and climbed a fairly steep set of stairs to the second floor of this building, and walked into a large dining area. The waiters were mostly locals who tried with a fake French accent. That put me off at first, but I had to eat. Oh my. Some of the very best French Cooking I ever had. The waiters may have been phony, but the cook certainly wasn’t. Needless to say, I spent many evenings in that place.
The only other redeeming feature about that time was that there was a bar up on one of the nearby hills run by a little old Italian woman named Clara. A beer was 35 cents and for 50 cents Clara would go back into the kitchen and cook up a fresh batch (dozen) of Clams Casino for 50 cents. You could just pig out all night for 5 bucks.
Anyway, Pommes Anna is just about as easy as it is delicious. All you need is good potatoes, butter, salt and pepper. That’s it!
First thing is – what are you going to cook it in? The French make a very special copper pan with straight sides. You too can have one for about $350.00. Take a deep breath, stop hyperventilating, easy does it. For that much money the dammed things don’t work as well as a good cast iron skillet. For 2 people, a 6” skillet is about right. For 4 an 8” will work. You also need to find a pan or something that will fit down inside the skillet pretty well and a good cover, or use aluminum foil.
Start by clarifying some butter and preheat the oven to 450°. This used to be a big deal when we had butter straight from the cow via the churn. Tain’t so much a deal anymore with the clear butter we get from the grocery. Figure about a stick for every two people, if you don’t make enough, you may be in trouble. If you make too much – big deal. It will keep in the fridge. Anyway – melt the butter, scoop off the surface solids. If there are any solids on the bottom of the pan, don’t get those. We only want the clear, yellow fluid that is so nice.
Take some kind of waxy type potatoes and trim them until you get fairly even cylinders about 1-1/4” round or octagonal. You’ve got to keep moving at this point. Potatoes won’t keep after exposure to air, and we don’t want these potatoes anywhere near water. Heat up the skillet with a layer of butter in the bottom. Now we need to slice these potatoes into about 1/8” thick rounds. Some say use a food processor. I don’t like this, I like the knife. Start a timer. Put 1 round in the center of the skillet. Build a ring of circles around the center circle overlapping clockwise. Keep it fairly neat. Make the next overlapping circle counterclockwise. Keep making circles until you get to the outer wall of the pan. Sprinkle a bit of salt, grind a bit of pepper. Start the next row from the outer edge of the pan. You don’t have to keep with the fancy overlapping on the inside of things, just layer some rounds in as they will fit. We only need the fancy routine on the outside that will show. Anyway, keep layering and salting and peppering alternate layers as you go. Add clarified butter as necessary to keep the frying right up to the level you are working on. Do mound up the center higher that the outside edges. When the center is above the edge of your pan – stop. If 30 minutes has elapsed, great. Otherwise, keep frying for somewhere around 30 since you started the assembly. Oh yeah, do watch the heat, somewhere around medium so that we get a nice fry but don’t burn the spuds. Then – turn off the heat and mash down on the potatoes with the buttered bottom of the pan that fits into your skillet. You want to squish the potatoes down and force them to bond together with the excess starch. (That’s why we don’t want these guys anywhere near water.) Don’t be shy – mash firmly.
Cover the skillet tightly with a buttered cover or some buttered aluminum foil. Better put a pan or some foil on the shelf below the one that you will cook on. This stuff can get messy. Anyway – bake the thing for about 20 minutes, then take it out and smash the potatoes down again with the buttered pan. Put ‘em back in uncovered for another 20 minutes, smash it down again and give 5 to 10 minutes more. You will need to judge done by the nice golden brown color.
Drain any excess butter – you can keep it in the frig ready for another use. Run a table knife around the edge of the skillet, put a plate over the skillet, invert the whole thing and the spuds should drop right down in the plate. Enjoy.