Editor’s Note: This is one of five essays by Post staffers explaining how they realized a solution to a persistent Thanksgiving problem.
Thanksgiving, a holiday largely dedicated to thinking about others, should not be a time of self-centered stewing. But for several years now, I’ve sat around the family’s dinner table, loaded with dish after dish of sweet and savory pleasures, and obsessed only about the sorry state of my potato gratin.
When I’m thinking about others at all, it’s only to steal looks at their plates and gauge their reactions: How much do they hate this square of undercooked, layered spuds with the texture of water chestnuts? Are they taking only a few courtesy bites? Do they ask for just a small portion? Do they refuse seconds?
It’s a silent, masochistic act of comedic proportions, and it makes no sense. I know the gratin is a failure, yet I still want external acknowledgment that it’s not some instrument of torture. The only explanation I can offer for this temporary madness is that I’ve invested too much time in this cheesy enterprise to see it ruined by a lack of time and oven space.
Every year, I follow the same steps to reach this crazy place: I spend an hour or two slicing potatoes, layering the razor-thin rounds in a Pyrex dish and glazing them with garlic-spiked cream, nutmeg, seasonings and lots of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Once I finish building this tuber casserole, one shalelike strata at a time, I parbake it and transport it to the in-laws to finish in their oven. You know, so it’s hot and brown and bubbly.
You may be wondering why I don’t just bake the dish completely and reheat it. One reason: I don’t find these cooled-and-reheated spuds to be satisfying, either in flavor or texture. The dish quickly tastes like last week’s leftovers; I suspect it has something to do with the wild temperature swings of the heavy cream.
So, I try to plan the timing precisely. Too often, my planning runs into a brick wall. Or, more accurately, it runs into an oven loaded with a slow-roasting turkey that hogs all the available rack space. You’d think this would be no big deal. Just pop the Pyrex dish of potatoes into the oven when the browned beast is removed and resting. Problem solved, right?
Except it’s never that easy. Other pans and sides must be raced into the oven before the dinner bell rings: rolls, sweet potatoes, you name it. And they don’t all require the same 350-degree heat as my dish, so those potatoes just sit in their lonely corner of the oven, taking their sweet time reaching a creamy, luxurious state. They, in fact, never reach such a state by the time the bird is carved and on the table.
This year, I’ve been researching DIY methods of holding cooked dishes, something that wouldn’t require the purchase of heat packs or a $50 travel warmer. The holidays are already expensive enough.
I opted for a simple Coleman cooler, lined with a bath towel to prevent the hot dish from burning the interior and transforming my potential solution into a giant stinking mess of melted polymers. The trick is to clean and scrub your cooler thoroughly, to rid it of any lingering aromas that might penetrate your gratin. I don’t know what I had in the Coleman last, but the thing smelled as though a marathoner had left his used socks in there for a month.
To test the cooler approach, I built and baked two separate Pyrex dishes of gratin potatoes, based on a recipe that I’ve loved ever since Susan Watterson, my instructor at L’Academie de Cuisine and co-founder of the CulinAerie recreational cooking school, gave it to me 10 years ago. I stuck one foil-wrapped dish into the cooler, with a digital thermometer poked into the molten potatoes. The instrument read 175 degrees Fahrenheit. The other dish remained on the counter as a constant to gauge how much heat the potatoes would have normally lost.
I decided to keep the dish entombed in the cooler for at least three hours, which is generally the amount of time that passes between my arrival at the in-laws’ and the start of dinner. When I checked the thermometer at exactly the 180-minute mark, it registered 144 degrees, still a few degrees above the so-called danger zone where food can go wrong. What’s more, the glass Pyrex was almost hot to the touch. The dish on the counter, by contrast, had dropped to a tepid 89 degrees.
The cooler-stored potatoes were warm enough to eat straight from the pan, without additional heat, but still, I’d never serve them as is. I’m aiming for a pan that steams and bubbles and causes your nose to do a double-take, as though it had just encountered the Milan runway model of aromas. These potatoes would need another blast in the oven to regain their volcanic sex appeal.
But at least they still have enough residual heat to make the task a relatively quick one. The dish can even reach this bubbly state in a crowded oven in the final minutes before the Thanksgiving meal. And best yet: I don’t have to bite my nails as the clock winds down. I can instead focus on my relatives — and maybe realize they’ve always been thankful for those gratin potatoes no matter how they turn out.
More Thanksgiving Aha! moments: