There is something special about a gratin; serving one turns any meal into a feast. The luxurious aspect of a gratin makes it an ideal choice for entertaining. In my experience, guests are always filled with great anticipation for the meal to come when they see a gratin emerge from the oven.
The history of this classic dish is long. The name gratin comes from the French word gratte, meaning “scraped.” This was originally a reference to the thin, tasty crust formed at the bottom of a pot or pan that could be scraped up and eaten. Nowadays, the term is used for baked dishes that have a golden crust on their surface, an effect often created by sprinkling grated cheese and breadcrumbs on top and broiling after baking. Key to a gratin’s charm is the combination of textures that it offers: the melting, tender center, often enriched with cream or cheese, contrasting with that appealing crisp crust, created as a protective layer as it bubbles away in the oven.
The best-known example of a gratin in French cuisine is potatoes a la Dauphinois, a rich, creamy potato dish from the region of Dauphine. While some recipes for Dauphinois call for eggs or cheese—or indeed both eggs and cheese—to be used in addition to cream, Elizabeth David in the classic French Provincial Cooking opted simply for cream, observing: “And if it seems to the thriftily-minded, outrageously extravagant to use half a pint of cream to one pound of potatoes, I can only say that to me it seems a more satisfactory way of enjoying cream than pouring it over tinned peaches or chocolate mousse.” Another fine example of a potato gratin dish is Sweden’s Jansson’s Temptation. The source of the appealing name remains a mystery, incidentally, as no one knows who Jansson was. This much-loved classic of Swedish cuisine is traditionally served as a main course rather than as an accompaniment. Made from finely chopped potatoes, it’s a simple, homely meal flavored with fried onions and chopped cured anchovies or herring, which, when cooked, becomes far more than the sum of its parts, truly as irresistible as its name implies. And that’s just the thing about gratins. They are at the same time extravagant and homey, decadent and comforting.
While both of these classics call for potatoes, the gratin is actually a versatile casserole that can be made from a variety of ingredients. As these recipes demonstrate, beets, sweet potatoes, indeed all root vegetables lend themselves to the gratin treatment, and they make great cold-weather eating. Lighter-textured vegetables, such as Belgian endive, fennel, or leeks, also work well in gratins.
Making a gratin involves a certain amount of preparation, especially if the peeling and slicing of the vegetables are done by hand. Bear in mind that this is a leisurely process and is best treated as an opportunity to slow down your day. To ensure a pleasing finished texture, it’s important that the main element is cooked through until tender. Some gratin recipes, therefore, involve a preliminary stage where this element—such as a root vegetable—is blanched or boiled. The liquid element of the dish can be as simple as heavy cream or a more time-consuming roux-based sauce. However, once the gratin has been assembled, it can be put in the oven and left alone to cook, allowing you ample time to get on with the rest of the meal or simply await your gratin while you relax by a fire.
One last bonus of gratins, especially for entertaining: they are the ultimate make-ahead dishes. They can be assembled ahead and refrigerated overnight before baking on the day, or they can be baked ahead and then reheated in the oven before the meal. If you’re looking for the perfect accompaniment to a holiday roast, look no further than one of these gratins.