All Come Dine With Me fans are familiar with dauphinoise potatoes – a classic French dish made with potatoes cooked in cream. In South Africa, however, we call it potato bake, and it can be made with cream, bechamel sauce, sour cream or a mixture of these. Get it right and potato bake is one of the best ways to enjoy carbs – and it can be accompanied by almost any quintessential South African meal, from braai to bredie. But get it wrong and you could be sitting with a burnt, undercooked, tasteless dish. Here’s how to make the perfect potato bake.
The potatoes can go badly in one of two ways: after hours of cooking, you’re still left with hard spuds – or you’ve allowed them to cook for too long, resulting in a soggy mess. To speed up the cooking time and ensure your potatoes are tender enough, parboil them in salted water. Only do this for a few minutes – if they’re too soft before they go into the oven, you won’t be able to cut them evenly. And that’s the second potato trick: be sure to cut them into equal slices so they cook evenly. Use a sharp knife or mandolin to slice them thinly and thus lower the overall cooking time.
The classic French dish calls for double cream, but it can take a while for the liquid to cook away – so if you go this route, it’s best not to parboil your potatoes as you may end up with mushy potatoes floating in liquid. A better technique – albeit it a more hands-on one – is to whip up a bechamel sauce. The flour in the sauce will allow the mixture to continue to thicken in the oven, binding the ingredients together.
A plain cheese topping (ideally mature cheddar or gruyère) works well, but if you have stale bread, you can amplify your dish with a cheesy breadcrumb topping. Remove the crusts, blitz the slices in a food processor and mix it with a hard cheese and herbs.
Amp it up with extra flavour
Potatoes, sauce and a cheesy topping are the standard layers in a potato bake. But you can certainly mix it up by including sliced onions, anchovies or chopped bacon. For a subtle garlic flavour, you can also rub the baking tray with garlic before adding your layers. Whatever you do, be sure to season your sauce well – potatoes have a very subtle flavour and can taste bland without salt.
Putting it all together
Much like lasagne, the order in which you layer your potato bake can make or break it. To ensure the potatoes are enveloped in the sauce that is going to cook them, start with a layer of potatoes, then any added extras, cover it all in sauce and repeat at least twice. Place it in the centre of the oven at 180⁰C and allow to cook for 1–1.5 hours (if you parboiled your potatoes, the cooking time will be less). If your potatoes are cooked through but the top is still pale, you can pop it under the grill for a few minutes to brown.
If you notice that your cream is splitting, your oven may be too hot. Lower the temperature to 160⁰C.