10 December 2011

Pommes de terre « boulangère »

Having an oven at home to bake and roast food in has only "recently" become a widespread luxury. In France, the U.S., and everywhere, people used to have to cook their food in a fireplace. Baking was not easy. All that changed over the course of the 20th century, as people got electricity and modern cooking stoves equipped with ovens.

In France, many villages had at least two ovens that people cook use for baking cakes, roasting meats, and slow-cooking vegetable casseroles (gratins). Many villages had what was called « le four banal » — the community oven — and residents of the village could take their dishes there and bake them along with everybody else's. Friends of ours have a house just across the street from their village's old four banal.

Pommes de terre à la boulangère, cooked with
onions in seasoned chicken broth

The other oven in the village was the one the local boulanger baked breads, brioches, and pastries in. When the baker had finished his day's work, the oven was still hot. His family, friends, and neighbors could then bring over their dishes that needed baking and put them in to cook as as the hot oven started to cool down.

A tradition of calling dishes baked in those ovens [whatever] « à la boulangère » — "in the style of the baker's wife" — developed. Some of the best-known recipes of the genre feature fish (colin à la boulangère), lamb (gigot or épaule d'agneau à la boulangère), other roasted meats (rôti de porc à la boulangère), and of course potatoes and various vegetables.

Dishes prepared and cooked à la boulangère are the kind of food that country people in France traditionally cook and enjoy. They're rustic, not sophisticated. Often, meats are roasted on a bed of sliced potatoes, for example, with onions, garlic, and whatever herbs are available. The potatoes bathe in the cooking juices of the meat or poultry cooking over them.

These potatoes have been "scalloped" — thinly sliced — on a
mandolin. You might slice them using a food processor.

From there, it isn't a huge leap to imagine that you could cook potatoes by themselves in pretty much the same way. Instead of meat juices, you can use broth. You can add some fat you've saved from cooking poultry or meat in a pan in a hot fireplace. You wouldn't leave out the onions, herbs, and garlic either, right?

So one of the classic "baker's wife" dishes is called « Pommes de terre à la boulangère ». Or « Pommes boulangère », the « de terre » and « à la » parts being understood. "Potatoes the way the baker's wife would cook them" are scalloped potatoes cooked in broth with onions, garlic, and herbs. "Scalloped" means thinly sliced. The term doesn't have too much to do with the shellfish called a scallop, except that the meat, vegetable, or fish that is scalloped is cut as thin as the scallop's shell. Think escalope de veau milanaise in French, or veal scallopini.

To make pommes boulangère, thinly slice a couple of pounds of waxy potatoes (red, Yukon gold, or boiling potatoes). Arrange the thin slices in layers in a baking dish along with a couple of layers of sliced or diced onion that you have cooked slowly in butter, oil, or fat so that they are tender and translucent. Optionally, add fresh garlic, sliced or diced, with the onions, and some fresh or dried thyme and bay leaves.

Pour on enough seasoned chicken broth to just
cover the layers of potato and onion

Once those ingredients are layered in the dish, pour on enough hot, well-seasoned chicken broth to barely cover the potatoes. That should be two or three cups for about two pounds of potatoes, depending on the shape of your baking dish. If you want to give the cooking a head start before you put it in the (conventional) onion, cover it with a lid or plastic wrap and heat it up on high in the microwave for 10 or 15 minutes to get it boiling.

Finally, set the dish of potatoes in the oven at 180ºC (350ºF) for an hour or so, uncovered, until most of the broth has evaporated or been absorbed and the top layer has browned nicely. Adjust the oven temperature and cooking time as necessary. Jacques Pépin says pommes boulangère are better if they are prepared ahead of time, left to cool, and then re-heated just before serving.


  1. It was really the introduction of the cast iron range that changed everything. Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was so successful because it told housewives and cooks how to use the new technology.

    Interesting point about the pommes boulangère being better if left to get cold then reheated. It would never occur to me to do that with this dish. I must try it sometime.

  2. PS I've heard many a story about small boys being 'tortured' by being sent to fetch the evening's meal from the baker's and running home with it smelling unbearably delicious and their hunger gnawing.

  3. Susan, the reason it improves is probably the additional "slow" cook time. Lets all those juices from the stock get further into the potato.
    Ken, have you ever tried it with herb stock cubes? I think they'd give a variation on the theme. We did confit yesterday on some duck thighs from Intermarche [now bottled in pairs] and Pauline decided to use your "whole cloves or garlic in thye fat" method. I then used them and the sieved out marinade in our mashed spuds yesterday.... scrummy!

  4. This is very interesting, and yummy-sounding to boot :)) Ken, you're a world of information!


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