You might think it's not the season for such hearty dishes as potatoes au gratin, but let me tell you that the temperature in Saint-Aignan never got much above 45ºF yesterday afternoon.
Clouds rolled in before noon and hid the sun. As a result, our high was 9ºC, and that temperature lasted only an hour or so.
It felt pretty chilly when I went out with the dog at 5:00 for the afternoon walk. And this morning's low temperature was 1.2ºC. There was a lot of frost out in the vineyard at 8:00 a.m.
So to get to the point: Maybe you've heard of the potato gratin called « la tartiflette ». If you live in France, I'm sure you have. It's a specialty of the Savoie region up in the Alps. It has been all the rage for at least the past 5 or 6 years, and you find it on many restaurant menus all around France.
A couple of web sites I've looked at, including French Wikipedia and Chef Simon (recipe), say that tartiflette was invented in the 1980s as a way to help sell more of the cheese used to make it, Reblochon, a product of the Haute-Savoie area. In other words, it was a marketing tool for the local cheese producers.
People who live in Savoie had never heard of tartiflette until it started appearing on restaurant menus in the big Alpine ski resorts. Like fondue savoyarde — cheese fondue — it's the kind of food that is particularly satisfying after you've spent a day outdoors in cold weather.
None of that makes tartiflette any less delicious. And it's a very simple thing to make.
Cook 1 kg (2 lbs.) of waxy potatoes at a low simmer for 20 minutes. Don't overcook them. When theyre done, take them out of the water and let them cool.
Peel and slice 2 medium onions and 4 cloves of garlic.
Cook the onions and garlic in butter with ¼ or even ½ lb. of smoked pork lardons (bacon cut into matchstick shapes) until the bacon starts to brown.
Add a cup of dry white wine to the pan and let the onions, garlic, and bacon mixture simmer for 5 minutes. You can add a pinch of dried time and a couple of bay leaves if you want.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into thick rounds.
Arrange half the potatoes in a layer in a baking dish. Pour the onion, garlic, and bacon mixture over all, with the liquid. Then spread a thick layer of crème fraîche over all.
Grate a little nutmeg over the cream (don't overdo it), sprinkle on some salt, and grind on some black pepper.
Arrange the rest of the potatoes in a second layer. Salt and pepper them. Add another layer of cream if you want.
Lay slices of cheese over the top. The idea is to use Reblochon cheese, which you cut in half through the middle so that you have two big, thin disks. (Here I'm using Coulommiers, a kind of Brie, instead of Reblochon.)
A lot of recipes say it is important to put the cheese cut-side down on top of the potatoes, and a lot of other recipes say it is important to put the cheese crust-side down.
You pays your money and you takes your choice. Another option is to cut the crust completely off the cheese, as I did with the Saint-Nectaire cheese in the picture above.
Put the baking dish (or dishes) in a 350ºF (180ºC) oven for about 30 minutes or until the cheese is lightly browned. As you see, I made two tartiflettes because I had two different cheeses I wanted to use.
What I've given here isn't a recipe, really, but a method. Adapt it to your ingredients and preferences. Substitute liquid heavy cream for the crème fraîche. Add other herbs or spices. Leave out the nutmeg. Leave out the bacon. Use the cheese you like or have on hand. Find the combination you like and make it yours, or vary the recipe each time you make it.