Sunday, March 9, 2008

Recipe: Pommes Darphin

One of my favorite potato side dishes that I've been introduced to in school is Pommes Darphin (rhymes with "pan"), which is like a thick potato pancake or latke that is made with nothing but potatoes, salt and pepper, and the oil and butter it is cooked in. While most potato cakes like this are held together by the addition of eggs or flour, this is only held together by its own starch.

To make it, you need some way to quickly cut one or two whole potatoes into julienne, which means matchsticks about 2mm in thickness. A bit thinner than that is even better -- at school, we use a mandolin, and at home I use a Benriner slicer, which is a Japanese mandolin. Usually you can't vary the width of a julienne cut on a mandolin, but the thickness of slices can be adjusted any way you like. To make Pommes Darphin, I set it to slice just a bit thinner than the widths of the sticks it cuts, so they have a slightly rectangular (oblong) cross section. The cooked potatoes will look nicer and hold together better if the sticks are thin enough that they flop around easily before you cook them, rather than staying rigid like wooden matches.

There are two things to keep in mind to make this: first, you want all of the starch in the potatoes, so you can't cut them ahead of time and soak them in water or you'll draw the starch out and get rid of it; second, you need to find the right level of medium heat that is high enough to brown the potatoes but not so high that they get burned before they are cooked through.

Pommes Darphin in the pan; the cake is thicker
than it looks in this picture, or at least it should be.
Even though it looks very thin and flat, you can see that
it is thick enough that it still has a lot of unbrowned
potato below the surface.

The process is simple: Have an 8-inch fry pan ready on the stove and a flavorless oil (like vegetable oil) at hand. Peel a potato, or two if they are small. Put your burner on low to begin heating your pan. Cut the potato into julienne (matchsticks about 1.5mm-2mm thick, and about 3 inches long, or as long as you can get them on whatever device you are using). As soon as the potato is cut, put oil in your pan (about 1/8" deep - a bit more than the film you'd normally use to sauté something, but not as much as you'd use to really fry). Salt and pepper the potatoes and toss them so they get seasoned throughout. Put the whole pile of potatoes into the pan (it should look like a little too many potatoes for the pan), adjust the heat so they are browning but not popping violently, and use a spatula to press them down and gather the sides up into a nice even circular shape. When the edges of the bottom are very browned (after about 4 minutes; the center will probably be less browned than the edges), the cake should hold together well enough that you can flip it over with a spatula. Once you've turned it, put about a half teaspoon of butter in each of four spots around the edge of the pan (so four teaspoons total, or a bit more than a tablespoon), like you're dotting the points of a compass. At this point, you can probably turn the heat down just a bit to cook it through without burning.

When it's done (after another 4 minutes or so cooking the second side), you can drain it on a cooling rack or on paper towels, and hit it with more salt if you want. If it cools too much or you want to make more than one or make them ahead, you can reheat them in the oven later. The cake is usually cut into slices for serving, sort of like a pizza. If you were plating it as a side dish, you could use a quarter or sixth of the cake on each plate. But usually when I make it, I just eat the whole thing as soon as it's ready, sort of like a pizza.

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