French cuisine is often called difficult, but it isn’t, really. Fairly minimalist in nature, it relies on rich flavors. A better word might be “fussy.” It relies on immaculate, perfect execution. And butter. Lots of it.
Few dishes exemplify the contradictions of time-consuming French minimalism better than the deceptively simple-looking pommes Anna. The dish is literally just potatoes and butter, but it is considered a true test of skill in cooking circles.
A bit of history: Pommes Anna was created by chef Adolphe Dugléré at Paris' Café Anglais sometime during the reign of Napoleon III (that's 1852 to 1870, for those of you not up on French history). Café Anglais was the most famous Parisian restaurant of the 19th century and Dugléré was the most acclaimed chef. Dugléré most likely named his creation after Anna Deslions, who entertained dignitaries in a private salon above the dining room. Thus, we have a dish with a nice mix of prestige and sex. This makes it very, very French.
There is, in fact, a fancy pan designed just for pommes Anna. It'll cost you somewhere in the $300-$500 range. Don't buy this. A cast-iron skillet or well-seasoned non-stick will work just as well. Otherwise, you just need an oven-safe lid. You'll also want a mandoline unless you have amazing knife skills, since the slices need to be very uniform. You're also going to want a spatula and tin foil. Finally, you might also want to remember to not expect perfection your first go-round. It's a finicky dish.
5 lbs. russet potatoes
1 cup butter or clarified butter, melted
Grated Parmesan for garnish
Salt and pepper
Pre-heat your oven to 450 degrees with the rack in the middle or lower position.
Potato time! You want the slices to be thin, about ⅛ inch thick. No need to peel unless you don’t like the skins. Use a towel to dry the slices—you don’t want excess moisture in there; you’re about to add a ton of butter.
Liberally coat the bottom of the skillet with butter and heat on low until a potato will sizzle when placed in the center of the pan. Quickly place slices in a circular pattern. You want the slices to overlap. Do this to the edge of the pan. It should look like the center of a sunflower. Toss on some salt and pepper to your preference then add about 2 tablespoons of the melted butter. You can drizzle or brush it on. Layer one is done!
Repeat until you are out of potatoes. There will be a bit of a hill in the center of the dish, but don’t worry—this will sink as it cooks. By the time you finish the last layer there will be a good bubbling of butter going on. Give the pan a shake to make sure nothing is sticking, and then press the lot down firmly with the spatula. Increase the heat to medium and let cook for 10 minutes.
This is where things get tricky. You’re going to flip it. Don’t freak out. It’ll be ok. Your best bet is to put a plate on top of your pan, flip it onto the plate, then slide it back into the skillet. BE CAREFUL. The potatoes are not your friends. The potatoes want to escape. Go slow. Breathe. Use your hands to reform things on the plate before you put it back in the pan. If you are too afraid to do the flip, you can cover with foil, press down firmly, and skip to the oven. You won’t get a uniform all-over crust, but it will still taste fine.
Once back in the pan (I’m assuming you got it back there and it’s not on the floor), cook for 5 minutes. Butter one side of the foil and press firmly down onto the top of the potatoes and put the lid on. You can also put something heavy on top of the potatoes instead of a lid—I used the top half of a panini press when I made mine.
Oven time! Bake for 20 minutes then remove the foil. Press down again. Return to the oven without foil this time for 20-25 minutes. I lightly burned mine when I did this because I left them in for 30 minutes. Don’t burn them. This is a lot of work to choke on the landing.
Remove from the oven and rest for 10 minutes. Use the spatula to make sure the potatoes aren’t stuck to the pan, then oh-so-carefully turn the cake onto a serving dish and garnish with Parmesan. Slice into wedges and serve warm.
The options with this are nearly endless. Anything that goes in quiche would be fine here. Shallots. Ham. Cheese. With chive and bacon it would be a spectacular substitute to mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving. But apple, beet or sweet potato would also all be at home. Don't fear the complications and potatoes; butter and bragging rights await.