Long-cooked dishes like braises and large roasts require a great deal of fuel energy, a fact that was historically problematic for cooks, especially in urban settings, before the advent of centralized energy distribution networks. In France, this problem was typically addressed by the town bakery (Boulangerie – hence the name of the dish), which would often rent oven space to middle-class housewives on Sundays. French families could deliver their Sunday roast to the bakery on their way to church in the morning, where it would be deposited in the ovens that had already been fired to produce the day’s bread. The meals would cook slowly in the residual heat of the baker’s hearth, and be retrieved after church for the midday meal, sparing matrons the expense and inconvenience of stoking an unattended hearth in their individual homes. Clever home cooks, to capitalize on the utility of their leased oven space, would often place a pan of potatoes beneath the spit on which their roast rested to baste in the meat’s natural juices. This style of potato preparation is an homage to the resultant rich, meaty potatoes that graced many a historic Sunday table.
- 6 ea. Russet potatoes, well washed
- 1 quart good* brown chicken or brown veal stock, reduced to 1/3 its original volume
- 2 T white wine
- 4 grinds of black pepper from the mill
- 2 sprigs thyme
- 1 ounce butter
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
- Kosher salt to taste
* For this preparation most commercial stocks will not work, as they contain very little or no gelatin, which is essential for a glossy finished product with a satisfying mouth-feel. A good stock, in this case, should be pleasant-tasting, richly coloured, and have a jello-like texture when cold.
Start with a small saucepan 1/2 full of cold water. Add kosher salt, approximately 3-4 tablespoons, and stir to dissolve. Taste the seasoned water – it should be as salty as seawater – and adjust the seasoning if required.
Using a melon baller (also called a parisienne scoop), scoop the flesh from raw russet potatoes to form neat spheres, excluding the potato’s skin. As you scoop the potato spheres, drop the directly into the pot of cold, seasoned water so the potatoes will not oxidize.
The shape of the potatoes is unimportant – though it presents well, the melon baller method yields a great deal of unusable trim and the recipe can be just as well executed with potatoes sliced to 1/4 inch thickness, cut into 1/2 inch cubes or even with a naturally petite variety of potato, such as fingerlings.
The scooped potatoes should be covered by 1/2 inch of water – if they are not, it may be necessary to add more cold water to your pot. When you do so, taste the results again and re-adjust the salinity of the water so that it is once again roughly as salty as the sea.
Add the white wine and black pepper to the pot, and place it over medium-low heat. To facilitate even cooking and a creamy finished product, you want the potatoes to come very slowly to a simmer. This will likely take 15 or 20 minutes. If your pot is still tepid after 10 minutes or slow, raise the heat slightly. Once the pot comes to a simmer, the potatoes will likely be nearly done. They should offer no resistance when pierced with a thin skewer.
Once the potatoes are fully cooked, drain them and immediately transfer to a conductive surface, such as an aluminum cookie sheet, and place in the refrigerator. The goal is to stop the potatoes from cooking any further by cooling them as rapidly as possible without diluting their seasoning by rinsing them or placing them in an ice bath.
Once the potatoes are cooled at least to room temperature, it is possible to toss them with 1 tablespoon of neutral-tasting vegetable oil, such as soy or pomace olive oil, and hold them, covered, in the refrigerator overnight to prepare the rest of the dish the following day.
To finish the dish, add the cooked potatoes, thyme sprigs, reduced stock and butter to a medium sized sautoir or fry pan. Warm over medium heat, tossing occasionally to coat the potatoes with the stock and butter. Simmer until the stock is reduced to a thick, syrupy glaze for the potatoes and the pan is nearly dry, approximately 6-8 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and add the lemon juice, swirling and tossing to loosen the glaze slightly and to re-dissolve any of the stock that has adhered to the pan. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with a small pinch (aprox. 1/2 teaspoon) of kosher salt. Serve immediately.