Recipe: Mark’s Twice-Baked Potatoes Au Gratin

Lately I’ve been cooking like a boss in the woods.

Just because I live in a cabin doesn’t mean I don’t want to eat well. There’s no plumbing, but I do have an outdoor sink with running water from the neighbor’s pump. There’s a stream with fresh water just down the gully, so rinsing my potatoes is no problem.

There’s a two-burner propane Camp Chef stove and I have both a small electric oven and a small propane oven. The electricity to the cabin is supplied by a rickety piece of romex running across the rickety bridge, but I also have a large generator.

All this adds up to being able to cook effectively on or off the grid. I can make my famous potatoes au gratin with its classic cheese sauce from scratch in the woods.

Since usually the glass dish is scraped clean no matter where I make it, I’ll share my recipe.

Mark’s Twice-Baked Potatoes Au Gratin

5-6 small red potatoes
2/3 cup milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2-3 cups shredded cheddar cheese (medium or sharp)

2 dashes of salt

2 dashes of white or black pepper

dash of onion powder

dash of dry mustard powder

Instructions: Potatoes

  1. Bake the red potatoes in tin foil at 450 degrees F for 90 minutes. Let them sit in the oven for about 10 minutes after the timer goes off, then take them out and put somewhere where they can cool off without getting condensation on them, like a baker’s cookie rack. I use the oven rack on top of the stove. If you can’t do that, just turn them over once and a while or maybe pat them with a paper towel to keep them dry as they cool.
  2. Let the potatoes come up to room temperature or even sit in the fridge over night. You can also put them in a metal bowl in ice to hurry the process up, though I always try to plan for that time. The goal is to make them firm and easy to cut.
  3. When the potatoes are close to being ready, grease a small glass baking dish. I use margarine, though you could use butter or brush it with olive oil. I guess you could even use non-stick spray as long as the potatoes don’t stick to the dish.
  4. When the potatoes are firm enough to cut, start slicing them and laying the slices into your dish so that they are overlapping. You want to make sure there is plenty of little nooks for the cheese sauce to take up.
  5. At this point I usually just put a dash of salt and pepper on the naked pan of potatoes.
Note: You can slice the potatoes a little thicker than your grandma did, because she didn’t bake them first. In fact it’s one of the things that give away that it’s a special dish because everyone else slices them really slow so they cook all the way.

Instructions: Cheese Sauce

The sauce is finicky, and you want to try to use exact amounts here. Make sure to level the flour in the spoon as you measure it.
  1. In a small sauce pan over medium heat, start melting the butter.
  2. Once the butter is completely melted, whisk in the flour and keep whisking
  3. Keep whisking just short of it starting to brown and then whisk in the milk.
  4. Keep whisking until the point where it just starts to thicken. This is the crucial step. Stop too early and you have the consistency of soup. Wait too long and it’s play-doh. 
  5. Turn off the heat and quickly whisk in a couple handfuls (about 2 cups) of shredded cheddar. If you whisked it in too fast, keep whisking. If it’s not melting like you think it should, or you added the cheese too fast, you can always turn the heat back on low.
  6. The sauce should be nice and smooth if you did it right. Now whisk in a dash of salt, pepper, onion powder and mustard powder. Some people say it tastes better with a dash of garlic powder.

Finishing Up Preparations

Take your cheese sauce and immediately pour it over your potatoes in the glass baking dish. What I do is first pour it around the edges and then work it back and forth across the dish as I’m pouring, so it’s nice and even. 
Extra goodies like bacon bits, chives, etc. should be sprinkled on at this point.
Now sprinkle over a cup or two of shredded cheese on top. Make sure it’s nice and even. 
Note: I suppose you could also sprinkle on some bread crumbs last. I like to make artisan bread from scratch just for the bread crumbs I put on my baked dishes, but I don’t usually put bread crumbs on this dish just because it’s so rich. In fact, I usually use medium cheddar for the same reason. But you could always make it over the top and there’s lots of variations.

Baking Instructions

Cover the dish with tin-foil and bake at 350 degrees F for about 30 minutes in a pre-heated oven, though I often just put it into a cold oven for 35 minutes because that way I don’t forget the oven is pre-heating.
It should come out looking nice and creamy. You could probably bake it fine with the tin foil and get it golden brown, but I like it to be creamier, especially with the thicker slices of potatoes.

The potatoes seem to soak in the cheese better because they were baked first. Notice the thick slices
Ty says “Can I have some, pretty please?”

Final Thoughts

It’s rare that there’s any leftovers when I make this, which is why I used to make a double or quadruple batch when I used to entertain large groups of people. The next size up Pyrex baking dish in my little set is just about perfect for a double batch.
This recipe reheats great the next day. I suppose you could microwave it, but it’s almost perfect if you put it cold in some tin foil in the oven for about the same heating instructions you baked it with. It tastes much better reheated if you don’t traumatize the cheese sauce!
Last week I was at lunch with my mom remarking that I hoped I was doing justice to Aunty’s potatoes au gratin. She listened to my recipe and said “Ah, Aunty used canned potatoes and canned white sauce to make her cheese sauce.” DOH!

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