Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Thrill of Victory...

After the crushing blow of Maya's Day of the Dead Cookies, I feared I'd lost all my kitchen confidence and mojo. Sunday was Easter, and I contemplated a quick family trip to Papa Murphy's for a take-and-bake pizza, but with a leg of lamb in the freezer calling our name, I rolled up my sleeves and tried to forget the humiliation I'd suffered less than 24 hours previously.

The lamb was super easy. I just stuck it in an oven-proof Dutch oven and lasciviously rubbed lamb spices, salt, pepper, and a separated and peeled head of garlic all over the meat. Then I poured on some olive oil, gave the lamb another rubbing for good measure, and stuck the pot in a 425 degree oven for about an hour -- until a meat thermometer read 140 degrees.

The real conifidence builder was a Pommes Anna, which is just a potato cake that is baked in a round pan and inverted to unmold it, much like a pineapple upside-down cake. My first introduction to Pommes Anna was on an old Martha Stewart Entertaining video. The video showed shots of her husband, who she's been divorced from for a decade or so -- it was that old. The menu on this classic had nothing to do with ease on the hostess. It included spinning sugar to make a nest for the dessert ("be sure your cats aren't in the kitchen when you do this as the hot liquid sugar can burn their paws," Martha warned), individual spinach timbales, and Pommes Anna. In fact, every time I've read about Pommes Anna, it's in the context of how it will be the centerpiece of your table, causing your guests to gasp in delight. Here's what I've learned about Pommes Anna: It is quite beautiful when it's unmolded, with a pattern of golden-brown potatoes on top and softer potatoes inside, all coated in lovely butter and salt. But it's also incredibly easy to make. And our cat was able to walk freely in the kitchen while I was making it without fear of burned paws.

When the Pommes Anna unmolded correctly before dinner, I wanted to do the Touchdown dance. When M said, "boy, this is just delicious!," I wanted to cry. If you're needing to build back your kitchen confidence, here's an easy recipe to try that will cause your guests -- or at least your five-year-old -- to gasp in delight. I think it actually looks more peasant-like than champagne dinner, so I might make it sometime for brunch, as it's a pretty close but dolled-up relative of the hash brown.

Pommes Anna

1-1/2 to 2 pounds baking potatoes (depending on the size of your pan)
4 Tbsp. (maybe a bit more) butter
Sea salt
Freshly ground pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut them into 1/16-inch slices. Immediately immerse the slices in a bowl of cool water. After you're finished slicing, remove the slices and dry them slightly.

Generously brush melted butter on the bottom and sides of a heavy, ovenproof, nonstick, round pan with sloped sides, about 10 inches in diameter -- a high-quality omelet pan would work well. (I used a smaller, 8.5-inch all-purpose round pan.) Arrange a layer of potato slices on the bottom of the pan. If you want, you can put a slice in the middle of the pan and fan out overlapping layers from there to make the unmolding extra-pretty. Now generously brush butter over this layer of potatoes, salt and pepper the potatoes, and then add another layer. Keep layering the potatoes, buttering between each layer and salting and peppering every other layer or so. When you get to the top of the pan or run out of potatoes, generously butter a piece of foil that is the size of the pan, place this butter-side down over the potatoes, and press down fairly hard to compact the potatoes.

Bake the Pommes Anna, covered in the foil, about 25 minutes. Now remove the foil and bake another 25 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are starting to turn a golden brown. Remove from the oven and invert onto a serving plate. Cut into slices like a pie.

One more observation about the Pommes Anna: I've never actually eaten it before this weekend; I'd only read intimidating descriptions of it. Consequently, I don't know what it's supposed to taste like. While I thought that what we had was delightful, I didn't find it remarkably different from the weeknight fried potatoes my mom often made while we were growing up. I never realized what fancy, centerpiece-worthy food we were eating on a Tuesday night!