I've always been the kind of person who would read a tricky recipe and know that, in my hands, everything that could go wrong would go wrong.
For this reason, I never had the nerve to try pommes Anna, the beautiful cake of crisped potatoes that, according to Julia Child, is "the supreme potato recipe of all time."
Too much could run afoul. You have to have a good pan, a pan that doesn't stick. There are even special \o7 pommes \f7 Anna pans, though a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet is said to be just as good. I knew, however, that my cast-iron frying pan, no matter how glassy its present surface, had a hidden weak spot just waiting to reveal itself as a sticking zone.
And even if I did have a pan that wouldn't turn on me, there was no way that I, a mere fumbling mortal, could clarify the butter in such a way that some little renegade fleck of milk solid wouldn't cement itself to the pan wall and pull the whole house of potatoes apart.
Then I had a small potato galette in a restaurant, a kind of single-serving \o7 pommes \f7 Anna, and the memory of it stuck with me and planted the seed of a craving. When I again ran across the recipe in the second volume of Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," I felt a certain tugging that soon blossomed into full-blown determination.
I'd try the recipe just for fun, I thought. Not for any meal. Not the first time. First, I'd just see if I could do it.
I came home from work on a Friday afternoon. It was hot outside, not the kind of day to fire up the stove. But what did I have to lose? I wasn't making the dish for anybody. There would be no guests to apologize to or explain to. If my \o7 pommes \f7 Anna flopped, nobody would even have to know that I ever made the dish.
In fact, I was going out to dinner. I'd make it and look at it, and taste it, and no matter what, I'd probably throw it away or feed it to the dog and then trundle off to the restaurant with my friends. (Such conditions are, as it happens, a very good way to test a recipe: to know that whether or not it works out, the dog gets it. Takes the pressure off. And makes the dog happy.)
So I rolled up my sleeves, washed my hands, stood in my kitchen and thought, \o7 I'll just whip up some pommes Anna.\f7
Almost immediately, the process downshifted out of whip mode, because first I had to clarify two whole sticks--half a pound--of butter. I melted it carefully, then began to skim off the foam. Skim, skim, skim.
I was very careful not to disrupt the evil slime of milk solids accumulating in the lower regions of the pot, like vegetal matter in the bottom reaches of a pond. Skim, skim, skim.
There were, I realized, worse things than standing over the stove smelling hot butter. Hot butter is actually quite pretty, bright yellow, transparent and shiny as liquid plastic, and the milk solids are kind of fascinating, forming a kind of pale underwater continent or swirly galaxy.
But soon enough I reached a point of exhaustion and boredom anyway. Suddenly I didn't care if I'd skimmed enough or ought to keep hunting those small trails of microscopic foamy bubbles. Even if my potatoes ended up sticking, I was done skimming.
This was not anger or cynicism, or giving up: I was just done, deeply done, ready to get on with the next step, and that was an instinct I had to trust.
Careful not to disturb the molten land mass of milk solids, I poured maybe 98% clear yellow liquid into a measuring cup.
Next, there was the issue of peeling, shaping and slicing potatoes. Peeling was easy. The potatoes looked pretty much the same to me until I tried to whittle them into identical ovoids that would produce perfect, round petals for my potato cake. I realized how individual potatoes are, and how much I had to shape them to look even remotely like each other. This warred with my innate thriftiness: I wished I had a stock pot going, and not just a compost heap for the parings.
Finally, I had half a dozen potatoes that could pass for fraternal, if not identical, twins.
The recipe calls for thin slices: eight potato slices to the inch. I went for my usual slicing knife--you probably have the same one. It's the one you buy when, full of resolve, you go into Williams-Sonoma and say, "I am ready to buy some really good knives."
The salesclerks know you better than you know yourself. They do not offer to sell you a complete collection, from dainty paring knives to murderous 12-inch chef knives and cleavers. Rather, they suggest you buy this pretty, slender, mid-sized slicer, a modest knife, which costs just a little over $50 with tax.
I have a lot of other knives now--it's amazing how a modest slicer develops a taste in one for good cutlery and a kind of immunity to spending money for it. I do use the first knife a lot.
In this instance, however, the slicer failed me. I couldn't get it to give me the required eight slices per inch, only an awkward, uneven five or six.