Baked Good Eugenics and Other Grinchyness

I am officially full of humbug. And, like, Szechuan Chicken.

And before you go giving me that look, I tried. I really did. As Thanksgiving morphed into December and the first snow hit and the houses on my block started putting their lights up, I had high hopes. That I would do cards – thoughtful ones, replete with a personal message that would send the most hardened wintery hearts soaring.

And cookies. Lots of cookies. Sent in tins I decorated myself with little glow in the dark Santa stickers or origami cutouts of reindeer. With ribbons.

Like I said, I tried. I bought extra butter and flour and cleaned the bejeezus out of my little counter. I reviewed my recipe and assembled my equipment.

Meh. I wasn’t satisfied. Too one-dimensional and insufficiently buttery. Not to mention flat and tough. And the royal icing? Downright metallic tasting, with no sheen.

I realize that I am my own worst critic here, but I do have a reputation. I wound up with about sixty cookies but roughly half of them didn’t make the cut.  I distributed all of three gifts, out of the 20 or so I originally intended.

I hit a low moment when my friend Rachel took one bite and said, “Oh, you put bacon in them.” (I hadn’t.)  This is from a girl who waxes poetic about Funyuns.

So the failure of my cookies found me getting progressively grumpier. I turned down a couple of invitations and just decided to enjoy the two days off.

I did, however, make a pretty decent Christmas dinner.

It’s funny how sometimes things evolve around a side dish. And funny also how these side dishes themselves can evolve out of just wanted to get rid of something, in this case, the “Cave Aged” Gruyere I picked up at Jungle Jim’s last month.

I wanted a gratin. I’ve never made one, but it just so happens that I have a beautiful gratin pot which, as I implied, has never been used properly.

This is another one of those cases where I just decided to wing it, and I got lucky. I figured that a gratin is basically a mac and cheese where the part of “mac” is played by Yukon Gold Potatoes.

I am a tuber snob. The one time a year I want a baked potato, I’ll use a russet. For everything else, it has to be the Yukon Gold. They have a dense and slightly buttery flavor that goes well with the roasting and “hashbrowning” I tend to do.

Okay, bacon, butter, Gruyere, Yukon golds, panko, fresh milk, and some onion. Pretty high percentage ingredients, if you ask me.

Quasi-Gratin with Bacon
5 Medium-Sized Yukon Gold Potatoes, sliced 1/3 inch thick. Don’t measure. I’ll feel bad.
6 Strips of bacon, cut into thirds
1/2 large white onion
8 oz tasty high-quality melty cheese, (Gruyere, fontina, sharp cheddar, etc)
“A little bit” of some other sort of melty cheese
3 cups milk
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 t cayenne pepper
1/4 t ground mustard
1/4 cup melted butter mixed with 1 cup panko bread crumbs

Bring a large pot of water, salted, to a boil. Add potatoes and cook for about two minutes, just to soften them. Strain and set aside.

Heat a cast iron skillet to medium, and add the bacon pieces. It may be necessary to do this in two batches. Cook the bacon until much of the fat renders out, remove bacon from the pan and set aside. Try not to munch.

You now face an ethical crossroads, whether to make the roux out of the rendered bacon fat, or use butter. I leave this up to you, but you may correctly infer the course I took. Three tablespoons, in a skillet, low heat.

Sprinkle the flour into your pan, stir with your spatula until combined. Use your nose, the mixture will smell fragrant from the sugars in the flour. At this point, turn the heat up to medium-high, and add the milk, slowly.

Again, the key is not to add the cold milk all at once. SOME lumps will cook out, but if there is too much of a drop in temperature your entire roux will seize. So, again, go slow. Add a quarter cup of milk at a time, stirring while you add it. The mixture should remain “unlumpy”.

When the milk has been added, turn the heat to medium high, stirring constantly. This will thicken at just under a boil, and it happens kinda suddenly. When it does thicken, turn the heat waaaaaaay down, and start adding the 8 ounces cheese, a handful at a time. Wait until one handful is fully added before adding the next.

Okay. Here is the most important step. This seems annoying, but I promise you if you make this dish twice, once WITH this step and once without, you will notice a profound difference in the texture of the finished sauce. Okay. Simmer for ten minutes on low heat, stirring constantly. You have to trust me on this. See, when good cheeses melt and then re-solidify, sometimes they take on a slightly grainy texture. “American” cheese, by the way, is formulated to prevent this very phenomenon, so that it melts well, despite having a rubbery mouthfeel and little in the way of flavor. Anyway. Simmer.

You’ll thank me.

Okay. Assemble the gratin. You will want about three layers. Line the bottom of a gratin dish (or 9×9 baking pan) with a layer of spuds. Add a LIGHT layer of sauce, and spread it around. Add some crumbled bacon and onion. Repeat – more potatoes, another LIGHT layer of cheezy goodness, more bacon and onion. Add a third layer of potatoes and a little little little bit of sauce.

Add the OTHER cheese and the bread crumbs.

Bake for about 40 minutes, allow to rest on the counter for 20.

Looks like this.

And THIS, by the way, was the complete dinner.  Grass fed ribeye, well marbled, and purchased at Findlay Market.

I mean, I obviously cooked it.  Along with the gratin, a baby green salad, some herb butter and some iced tea, It looked a bit like this…

Could have been worse.

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