As our first full Christmastide in our Virginia home comes to an end, we're finally beginning to settle in and feel as if we're really at home here. It would be nice to report that settling in included an exuberant outburst of creativity in my sweet, sunny kitchen.
The upheaval of moving, the loss of my car thanks to being broadsided by a careless driver, unexpected changes at the church, the worrying decline of my elderly parents, and the new spikes in the pandemic have led instead to a full retreat into all our comfort food favorites.
We celebrated the season with the usual treats and have had more than our quota of eggnog, cheese straws, country ham biscuits and rolls, roast turkey, potato gratin, homemade fruitcake, and cookies. And, despite being laid out with terrible head colds, being good Southern boys we saw in the new year with plenty of collards and black-eyed peas.
But our day to day staples have been homey comfort favorites that I can make blindfolded. With the surplus of holiday country ham, one of them has been this ham and potato gratin from Ilda, the cook who presided over the kitchen of our graduate studies program in Genoa.
I've written of it before and made it so often that I never even glance at Ilda's recipe, so when I pulled up my last published version and compared it to hers, it didn't surprise me that they weren't quite the same. It was, however, a surprise that neither were quite like the one I'd just made with leftover Christmas ham.
The truth is, we none of us stay the same. And as we change, so does everything we do, even within the sacrosanct realm of comfort cooking. Whether it's because we're learning, have fine-tuned our individual culinary instincts, or have just gone lazy doesn't matter: it happens, so the best we can do is embrace it.
Ilda's Casseruola al Forno (Ham and Potato Gratin)
My Christmastide 2021 evolution of a dish I've been making for more than four decades.
Serve 4 to 6
2 pounds medium-sized boiling potatoes
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk, heated
Salt and whole peppercorns (black or white, your choice) in a mill
Whole nutmeg in a grater
1 cup small-diced cooked ham, preferably country ham
1 cup freshly grated Gruyere cheese (about 4 ounces)
¼ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (about 1 ounce)
1. Scrub, peel, and slice the potatoes about ¼-inch thick. Put them in a heavy-bottomed 3-4 quart pot and add enough water to cover them by about half an inch. Bring it to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer until the potatoes are barely tender, about 8-10 minutes. Drain and set them aside until they are cool enough to handle. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat it to 375° F.
2. Melt the butter in a 2-to-3-quart saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until smoothly blended. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and whisk until it begins to thicken. Reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring often, until it's quite thick and the flour has lost its raw, pasty taste, about 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg, stir well, and turn off the heat.
3. Lightly butter a 2-quart casserole dish (8-inch square, 12-inch oval, or 7-by-10 rectangular) and cover the bottom with a single layer of potatoes. Scatter about a third of the ham over them, then spread a third of the sauce over and top with a third of the Gruyere. Repeat with two more layers of potatoes, ham, sauce, and Gruyere, finishing with the remaining sauce and Gruyere. Sprinkle the Parmigiano evenly over it and bake in the upper third of the oven until the top is golden brown and the casserole is bubbly at the center, about half an hour. Let it settle for 5-to-10 minutes, but serve hot.