One night last week, Jenny and I were in the kitchen, cleaning up after dinner, and Phoebe was sitting at the table, finishing her homework, surrounded by the contents of her scoliosis-inducing backpack. As Jenny checked Instagram and I scrubbed a pan of rice, talk turned to Thanksgiving — and our total lack of planning for it thus far. The way it usually works around here, Thanksgiving-wise, is that Jenny’s mom provides the turkey and the Jell-O chocolate pudding pie, and we are (happily) responsible for everything else: i.e., pan-roasted Brussels, cauliflower with anchovy breadcrumbs, three pepper cornbread stuffing, and mashed potatoes. “I assume we’re just making the usual?” I said.
“Actually,” Jenny said, “I was kind of thinking we should try scalloped potatoes this year instead of mashed.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s radical.”
“I’ve had a total craving ever since Todd mentioned that he made them recently. How good are scalloped potatoes?”
At this point, Phoebe’s pencil stopped moving. You should have seen the look on her face. It was like she’d just overheard us say we we’re going to give the dog away. “Wait, wait, wait,” she said. “You guys are joking, right?”
Phoebe, it should be noted, is a true creature of comfort. The stuff she likes, she really likes. Her bed, for instance, with its disintegrating quilt. Her house. Her little chair in her reading nook. Her Tintin collection. Her water-damaged Timex watch. Her pair of jeggings with the hole in the right knee. Her mashed potatoes. God, the kid loves mashed potatoes.
“Please,” she said. “It’s Thanksgiving. How can we not have mashed potatoes?”
Fast forward to the next day. I am at work and, in my building, there is an hour-long panel talk going on between Sam Sifton (author of Thanksgving: How to Cook it Well) and Gabrielle Hamilton, superstar chef and author of Prune. They talk about the beauty (and difficulty) of the three-ingredient recipe, the perfect temperature of butter when smeared on fresh radishes (waxy, never oily, and sprinkled with sea salt), and how they feed their kids (at this stage, Gabrielle says, her goal is simply caloric intake), and when they’re done, they take questions from the audience. First question: How do you guys feel about a traditional Thanksgiving? Pro or con?
Sam, after pointing out that felt obligated to answer first since, as he noted, he “literally wrote the book on Thanksgiving,” said he believed in tradition, and in Thanksgiving as the Great American Secular Holiday — it was pretty stirring, I have to say — and one that should be properly celebrated as such. How many times a year, he asked, do you eat a turkey? Are you sick of turkey or something? Gabrielle agreed, and launched into this beautiful paean to the familiar smells and tastes of the Thanksgiving table, and talked about how there is no night she looks forward to more at the restaurant — where, after the place clears out and the customers have all gone home, the staff gathers for their “family meal,” with all the fixings. The point was, however you celebrate it, and whoever you celebrate it with, tradition matters.
So it was decided. We would make the scalloped potatoes this weekend, when the stakes were low, and Phoebe would make the call: yea or nay. And this is what she sent me, via text, upon being asked her where she stood, when all was said and done: “Though your new potato dish is good,” she wrote, “in no way does it live up to the greatness of mashed potatoes, and I DO NOT permit you to serve these potatoes in mashed potatoes’ stead. The end.” So we’ll be eating these again soon, but not for Thanksgiving. At least not this year. — Andy
Scalloped Potatoes for Thanksgiving or Otherwise
From Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, by Sam Sifton
Note: I baked them in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, so upped the quantity on the milk/cream mixture a bit. The important thing is the instruction to make sure the milk comes “almost to the top” of the layered potatoes.
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup cream
1 large garlic clove, peeled, smashed, and minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and ground white pepper, or freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 pounds Yukon gold potatoes, peeled, sliced thin, and kept in a bowl of cold water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Preheat oven to 425. Combine milk and cream in a small saucepan and bring to almost a boil. Remove from heat and add garlic, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Set aside.
Lightly butter a 9-inch square baking dish or a 9-inch casserole with half the butter. Drain the potatoes and dry them lightly, then layer half of them in the dish so that they overlap slightly. Add half the milk, pouring it all over the potatoes. Layer the remainder of the potatoes in the dish, then add the rest of the milk so that it comes almost to their top.
Top with dots of the rest of the butter and place in the upper third of the oven until the potatoes are browned and the milk has been absorbed, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Serve in its container.