Everyone has a signature recipe - that one thing they make that no matter how lovingly or thoroughly shared the recipe is, they make better than anyone else you know. For my Mom, it was her scalloped potatoes. They were her go to recipe, the one thing she could utterly depend on to turn out - and the one thing everyone always loved.
Mom would often make this recipe with thick slices of ham, putting them right on top of the potatoes in the last hour or so of cooking time. It was one of my favourite dinners when I was a kid. Mom would often make it for visitors, especially her own Dad when he would visit us with his second wife, who was a difficult woman and always set us a bit on edge. Grandpa and ‘Aunt’ (“there is no way you are calling that woman Grandma”) Helen loved it, and Mom could depend on it to turn out every time, so it was one less thing to worry about. Ironically it was the last meal Mom cooked for her Dad before he died, and I vividly remember how Grandpa remarked on how much he enjoyed dinner that last time he visited us.
One of the first meals my Mom cooked for my husband involved her meltingly tender scalloped potatoes, and even my son remembers them, although by the time he was about ten, Mom was too ill to cook anymore.
Mom told me the recipe so many times, and in the early days of my own marriage we’d laugh over how I could never make it work. The trouble was, being me I struggled not to play with it, to accept its utter simplicity and just do what she said. I was sure there must be something else and because her simple recipe never seemed to work for me, I ended up developing endless variations with breadcrumbs, cheese and goodness knows what else. They tasted great, but they were definitely not as good as Mom’s. And then one day she was too ill to remember how she made it at all.
It’s one of the only recipes my Mom never wrote down, so my attempts to make it these last three years since she died have been sporadic, and I had almost given up. But one quiet evening in the kitchen not so long ago, I got out the casserole dish Mom always used - a classic yellow one with a lid that is older than I am - and as I put it on the counter, I swear I heard my Mom say, “It has a lid, April, use it.” And in the end, that was the key. Covering the potatoes for the first hour of cooking transformed the dish, and giving it the time it needed to bake to tender perfection - and for the milk to absorb - was the one step I had missed every single time I had tried before.
The looks on my husband and son’s faces were enough to let me know that this time I had finally done it, and I very nearly cried when I tasted those potatoes myself. Mine will never be my Mom’s, because there was something about how she made them that will always be uniquely hers, but I got as close as I think it is possible for anyone save my Mom to do - and for me, that is what bringing great family food memories to life is all about.
To serve four generously as a side dish, you need:-
3 to 4 large baking potatoes, peeled and very finely sliced
1 large (or 2 small) onions, peeled and very finely sliced
3 generous tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups milk
one casserole dish, about 8 or 9 inches square and at least 2 inches deep - with a lid, or use aluminum foil to cover.
Don’t be tempted to make this more difficult that it really is like I did. It really is this simple - and yes, with the long slow cooking, there is enough flour to thicken the sauce. (Not being bossy, just sayin’!)
Preheat the oven to 400℉ (200℃).
Place one third of the potatoes in the bottom of the dish. Add one third of the onions.
Sprinkle evenly with one generous tablespoon of flour. Add another layer of potatoes, another of onion, and sprinkle with one generous tablespoon of flour. Repeat these layers one more time. Now cover the last layer with a final layer of potatoes, overlapping them slightly. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper.
Dot with the butter. Heat the milk in a pitcher in the microwave for two to three minutes, or in a pan on the stove, until bubbles just being to form around the edges. (Don’t let it boil.) Carefully pour the hot milk over the potatoes, cover the casserole with a lid or a layer of aluminum foil and put in the oven. Immediately turn the oven temperature back to 375℉ (190℃ or 180℃ for a fan oven).
Cook, with the lid on, for forty-five minutes before so much as peeking at it. At this point, remove the dish from the oven, take off the lid and gently press the potatoes down into the milk with a fork. (Don’t squash them too much, you don’t want them to break up.) Put the lid back on and return the casserole to the oven.
Cook for about fifteen to twenty minutes more, and then remove the lid from the casserole. You may want to reduce the heat just a little at this point if your oven is very fierce. Continue to cook for at least another thirty to forty minutes until the top begins to go beautifully golden and crunchy, and quite brown around the edges.
I kept the tiny amount of potatoes that were left over in the fridge overnight and they reheated beautifully for my lunch the next day.
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