This month’s book choice for our “This Book Makes Me Cook” club was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaeffer and Annie Barrows. I haven’t been very regular in this club for a while now, even though I cook and I read. Of course, I have a valid excuse as most of the chosen books are not on the shelves of the apology of a library (rather two libraries) that we have where I live.
This time I managed to lay my hands on a copy and am posting my effort, though a bit late.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is set in the post World War II period and is about the people who live on Guernsey, an island in the English Channel.
The book starts with Juliet Ashton, an author, who is not decided on what she wants to write about next.
Then she gets an unexpected letter from a Dawsley Adams of Guernsey, saying he has an old book of hers from which he got her address. He also tells her he loves reading Charles Lamb and is a member of the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society!
He reveals that the Society got its start and name when Elizabeth (another islander) invented it to explain to the Germans (or rather hide the fact) why she and her friends were secretly feasting on a roast pig.
Apparently, during wartime occupation of the Island, life was very difficult and food was so scarce that Germans would risk being executed to steal food from the islanders who themselves lived off turnips and potatoes.
In a nutshell, the story of the Literary and Potato Peel Society unfolds as a regular correspondence develops between Juliet and Dawsley. One sees how the Literary Society takes shape as its members begin to read and discuss books and this becomes the one bright part of their otherwise rather grim existence.
The book is mostly written in the form of letters to and from Juliet Ashton. This is quite confusing initially, as there are about 20 characters in the book, and it takes a little time to establish some pattern in the story and figure where the book is going. Juliet learns more about Guernsey and slowly builds up a relationship with its people, visits the island and remains there.
This book is entertaining, yet moving when touching upon the war stories. It is definitely worth reading.
As far as food mentions in the book go there are many. Given that the people in Guernsey suffered from the ravages and scarcity of food during the war, their meals were made up of making the best of the meager rations they could lay their hands on with things like a Potato Peel Pie, except when they had the rare luck to meet something like the roast pig which resulted in the Literary Society.
Much as I enjoyed the book, I wasn’t quite inspired to cook wartime fare. We don’t like beets and being vegetarian some of the other options in the book weren’t very attractive to me!
So I decided to use the “potato” part of the pie in the title (no peels for me, please) and cook a pie of a sort. I thought I would be austere in the number of ingredients in my recipe rather than in the ingredients themselves.
I found my potato recipe in the French “Pommes Anna”, which translates in English as a rather insipid sounding “Potatoes Anna”! This very classic French casserole is made by layering thinly sliced potatoes and then baking or cooking it on the stove top, with salt and loads of butter, till the potatoes become pie/ cake-like, crisp and golden on the outside.
Pommes Anna is said to have been created by a French chef named Adolph Dugléré who worked at the Café Anglais, one of the best restaurants in Paris during the 19th century. He is supposed to have named the dish in honour of the actress Anna Deslions, though some feel it could have been Dame Judic who’s real name was Anna Damiens.
I remember first coming across a beautifully photographed Pommes Anna in some magazine about 15 years back and marveling at how potatoes could look so delicate. At some point, once I had taken sole charge of the kitchen, the amount of butter that went into this creation held me back from trying it out for myself. This was before the World Wide Web became such a big part of our lives.
This month’s book choice brought back the idea of making Pommes Anna and searching for a comparatively guilt-free recipe, if one existed. After some searching I found two such recipes, one using much less butter and the other using olive oil.
Now apparently one secret to really good Pommes Anna is to cook it in a cast iron frying pan. This makes sense as a steady, high temperature is needed to cook and crisp the potatoes.
I do not have a cast iron frying pan, and the ones I do have wouldn’t fit into my tiny oven anyways. So I was thinking my best option would have been to cook my potatoes on the stovetop, when I came across a version cooked in smaller ceramic dishes at One Hungry Chef.
Apparently the more classic Pommes Anna shouldn’t have any seasoning beyond salt while the less classic version adds a bit of crushed black pepper, and depends on most of it flavour to come from the butter and potatoes.
If like me, you have been born and bred in a home where the warmth and aroma of spices in the kitchen is the norm, then this is rather bland fare and somewhat unacceptable.
So I went the guilt-free way but used half of butter with half olive oil. While olive oil may be healthier than butter, and the jury is still out on this, both are fats and more or less the same calorie-wise. However, olive oil can never be butter as far as taste goes and it isn’t everyday that I bake Pommes Anna so a little butter is fine.
Here is my version of Pommes Anna (or Potatoes Anna, if you prefer) spiced up just a little bit. You will need to use roughly 1 1/2 to 2 largish potatoes per person.
This is always served a side to a main dish, but this will be one side dish where you will have no leftovers.
The crisp and slightly crunchy edges and the meltingly soft middle is so delicious, that it’s a pity the one cannot eat it more often. The slicing and layering the potatoes is a bit laborious, but its well worth the effort.
Pommes Anna (Potatoes Anna)
(Adapted from Cooking Light and One Hungry Chef)
5 to 6 largish potatoes (peeled, washed and dried)
1 tbsp olive oil
3/4 tsp garlic paste
some rosemary (I used frozen, use fresh if you have it)
1 tbsp butter
crushed black pepper to taste
salt to taste
If you are using a cast iron frying pan to cook your Pommes Anna please follow the method described in the recipe from CookingLight (links above).
I made my version as single serves, in ceramic ramekins. You can also follow this method if you are planning to make it like a casserole using a larger round ceramic dish.
Lightly oil (or butter) your dish or ramekins. In a small pan, heat the olive oil and sauté the garlic, but do not let it brown. Add the butter and rosemary, stir a couple of times till the butter melts and take the pan off the heat.
Make sure your washed potatoes are really dry. Slice them thinly.
Now place a layer of potato slices in an overlapping manner to cover the bottom of your dish or ramekins. Brush the oil-butter mixture over the layer. Don’t worry if a bit of the garlic or rosemary comes along.
If you are very generous with the oil-butter while brushing, the oil will come out while baking and your Pommes Anna will have a slightly greasy feel to it.
Lightly and evenly sprinkle some salt and crushed pepper. Now lay another layer of potato slices as before, brush with the oil-butter and season with salt and pepper. Make sure to press down the layers with your fingers, as well as you can.
Repeat this till the ramekins are filled to the top. Cover the ramekins with foil. If you are using a large dish, layer the slices upto the rim, cover with foil and then place another somewhat heavy dish on top. This will help press down the layers while baking.
Bake the Pommes Anna at 180C (350F) for 25 to 30 minutes till a knife pushed through the middle goes through without resistance. This means the potatoes are cooked thoroughly.
Take the ramekins/ dish out of the oven and run a knife along the edges to loosen the potato pie. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes and then carefully invert the ramekins/ dish onto an oven proof plate.
If you are baking it in a dish, it would be a good idea to invert it onto your serving plate.
Now bake the Pommes Anna again, this time at 200C (400F), till the edges are golden and crisp. The original recipe says about 5 minutes, but my individual serves took almost 25 minutes to turn crisp and golden.
Serve warm as it is, as a side to your main dish. If you do not want your Pommes Anna to be served plain, you can up the calories some more by serving it with some Basil Cream. I shall post the recipe for that some time next week.
This recipe serves 4.
Some thoughts to keep in mind when planning for Pommes Anna:
1. The experts advise the use of waxy potatoes rather than floury potatoes. I wouldn’t know as I get only one kind of potatoes here, and that’s the kind that’s piled in a mound at the market, from which I pick out the good ones!
I guess they were the right kind, as my Pommes Anna turned out very well.
2. As I mentioned above, use a cast iron frying pan. The next best choice would be a shallow and wide heavy ceramic dish or smaller ones like I used. I believe there are also specially designed dishes available for cooking Pommes Anna.
3. If you have them, use a mandoline or food processor to slice the potatoes thinly and of uniform thickness to ensure even cooking and crispness. This can also be done by hand, it just takes more time and effort. After all, Adolph Dugléré didn’t have either though he probably had assistants he could order around.
If you want your potato slice cook and crisp well, they need to be sliced quite thin.
4. Do not rinse the potato slices in water as this gets rid of the starch which is needed to bind the layers together while cooking. If the starch is not there, your cooked slices will slide off into a mess when you try to plate your dish.
I peeled my potatoes, washed them, dried them well and then sliced them. Work quickly while layering, else the salt will cause the potato slices to “weep” and not bind while cooking. Also, the potatoes have less time to discolour.
5. Try to layer not more than about 5 to 6 layers of sliced potatoes or the outer layers might crisp (and burn) before the inner layers have cooked.
6. If you’re counting calories or on some sort of diet, Pommes Anna is not for you unless you have the self control to make it and actually stand by and watch the others enjoy themselves!
Of course, you could always give in to temptation and “taste” it, just once. And if you make the less “buttery” version like I did, you can feel happy about it.