As I wrote in my last post, autumn is fast approaching here in Germany. While I am very sad that summer will not linger around much longer. The German summer is a joke both length and temperature-wise, and I would love to live in a country again, where the regular weather is summery all year. Nonetheless, I do look forward to eating soups and oven-dishes. I adore the feeling of comfort that you can only have after arriving home at the end of a long day, in dire need of heating yourself up from the cold and then imbibing many bowls of soups as a consequence. It’s not that cold just yet, but I have been feeling under the weather. I was looking for an easy out, delicious dish. I decided on potato gratin and salad.
My relationship with potato gratin isn’t very old, when compared to other favorites in my culinary repertoire. Back in the day, while a student in Frankfurt, I would often meet with friends in coffee houses near my home or near uni. They would usually be alternative places, with daily newspapers available for the guests, my favorite among them being Café Albatros. Here, study partners and I would pretend to work on group projects for hours on end, enriching our discussions on politics and economics with cigarette smoke, an endless stream of latte macchiato and an occasional apple cake.
They also served incredibly delicious breakfast, which you could enjoy in their garden toward the back on sunny days – if you were early enough to obtain a spot. I was particularly keen on their lunch menu, including a vegetarian option, mainly soups, stews and dishes baked in the oven. I was never a big fan of eating at the university’s cafeteria in Bockenheim, just down the street, so I would either skip lunch or splurge on a proper and delicious meal at Café Albatros. In the defense of the university cafeteria, I should say that in retrospective they did have a fairly decent vegetarian option. I didn’t realize that until I moved to Cologne and ate the worst cafeteria food in the history of cafeterias at work. It made me miss the cafeteria at Neue Mensa. A lot.
At Café Albatros, back in the pre-Euro days, you could get a student menu for seven Deutschmark and fifty Pfennig. Today’s equivalent is three euro and twenty five cents. Good luck finding a bargain like that now! The menu consisted of a soup (or espresso), a glass of tap water and a main dish. I ate myself through many chickpea stews, lentil soups and vegetable curries with little mountains made of steaming basmati rice. I particularly remember their potato gratin with salad though, which was always a treat. I think it may have been sometime around then that I started making potato gratin at home.
Shortly after being introduced to the potato at Café Albatros, at my friend Markus’ birthday party in Mannheim, right around the time I met my husband, I had the best potato gratin ever. Markus’ parents owned a butcher’s shop somewhere in the deep south of Germany (where you will find the best food here) and eventually opened a catering business on the side. As a gift, they catered his birthday party. I remember gorging myself on the potato gratin, eating much more than would be considered appropriate for a single guest. I think it was made of cream and a somewhat strong, and somewhat crumbly cheese, and may have contained a hint of garlic. I am a cheese philistine, so my guess is they used Emmental or perhaps even gruyere or a mix. For myself, a mix of parmiggiano and mozzarella works best. But you can use alternate cheese mixes, if you are so inclined. I have tried adding garlic, onions, broth and herbs to my potato gratins, but I have decided that I like them most in their “bland” state, leaving you to enjoy the potatoes and the creamy cheese sauce at their best. I also prefer potato gratins made with raw potatoes, as opposed to pre-cooking (which I find pretty eeew).
Peel the potatoes, wash them and cut them into thin slices. Place in a bowl.
Heat your oven to 200 °C.
Add the whipping cream, the salt, the pepper and the grated cheese to the potato slices, saving a handful of mozzarella for later. Distribute the cream and cheese evenly among the potato slices with your hands (or a spoon, if you are a coward and don’t like to get your hands dirty).
Pour potato mix into a small oven dish, which you have previously greased or into a small cake form, lined out with parchment paper.
Place oven dish into the oven, cover with aluminum foil or a baking tray. After twenty minutes, take out one slice of potato and taste whether your gratin is just about done. If not, continue baking for a little while longer. If the potatoes are “al dente”, sprinkle the remainder of the mozzarella on top of the gratin and bake for another four minutes.
For the salad
one head lettuce
for the dressing
3 tbsp olive oil
3 tbsp raspberry vinegar
fresh herbs (I used a frozen mix)
half a chopped onion (I used frozen)
salt and pepper to taste
While the potato gratin is busy baking in your oven, clean your lettuce and cut into even pieces into a bowl (run through a salad spinner if you like). Cut the tomatoes, the carrots, the cucumber and the baby corn into even slices onto the salad. Make dressing by mixing all ingredients together. Pour over salad just seconds before you serve potato gratin, as to avoid the lettuce leaves getting soggy.
And for dessert: fruit!