Morbiflette (French Mountain Potato Gratin)

A couple of years ago, on a trip to France, we ended up poking around a Christmas market in Dijon. It was lunchtime and we were staring at a giant skillet (a poêle, linguistically related to paella) with potatoes and onions and bacon and cheese, all being stirred by strapping French country men. It was love at first sight. Chunks of Morbier cheese with its signature dark vein running through the center were on display, being tossed in as the cooks saw fit. We got a portion and split it. That was dumb; should’ve each gotten our own. After cross referencing multiple recipes, we FINALLY hit on a good reproduction.

The method is based on that of tartiflette, a potato dish developed in the 80s to promote Reblochon cheese. Reblochon is a much softer, brie-like cheese, as opposed Morbier, which you can slice. The firmer texture of Morbier is why I’ve upped the crème fraîche; runnier Reblochon made for a creamier finished product.

A note: you guys, it is SO EASY to mess up a gratin. Believe it or not, a pile of cheese and starch will be sad and bland if you don’t do the detail work. Think “eh, I don’t need to boil the potatoes, they’re going in the oven,” or “ew, I don’t want to cook the onions in bacon grease! I’ll use olive oil instead,” and you will ruin all your hard work. The potatoes need to be boiled in salted water or they’ll be gummy and bland. The onions need the bacon grease because of the smoky saltiness it imparts. The salt levels need to be checked and adjusted throughout the process to keep the flavors balanced. If you’re worried about this not being healthy, make something else. Cutting corners on this dish will render it inedible. A salad with a tart vinaigrette is the perfect accompaniment.

1 k or 2.2 lbs large waxy potatoes, peeled and cut into halves or thirds
2/3 t salt
200 g or 1/2 lb bacon
2 large onions, sliced into ribbons
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
100 mL or 1/2 c white wine (we forgot this, so we drank it with)
1/2 t dried thyme
75 g or 1/3 c crème fraîche
3 T heavy cream (forgot this too, but the texture would benefit)
300 g or 2/3 lb Morbier cheese, rind trimmed and sliced thickly (1/2 cm or 1/4 in)

In a large pot, cover the potatoes with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, add salt, stir and lower heat to a steady simmer. Cook potatoes for 15-20 minutes, or until easily pierced with a sharp knife. Drain potatoes and set aside to cool. Do not rinse potatoes!

Heat a large skillet to medium high and cook the bacon until browned and crispy. Set on paper-towel lined plate to cool. Turn heat down to medium and add onions to the skillet to cook in the bacon drippings (if there are a lot of drippings, remove all but 2 T and set aside to add in case pan starts to look dry). Cook until softened and starting to caramelize, stirring only occasionally. Add a pinch or two of salt if needed (onions shouldn’t taste salty, just very oniony) and chopped garlic for last 2-3 minutes of cooking. Remove onions to deep bowl.

Preheat oven to 220° C or 425° F. Lightly but thoroughly butter a medium to medium-large baking dish (several individual deep crocks would also be great for a crowd). Chop cooled bacon into bits and add to onions. Add thyme, crème fraîche and cream to onion mixture and stir until well distributed. Slice cooled potatoes into generous 1/2 cm or 1/4 in pieces.

Layer half of potatoes on bottom of buttered dish, using broken bits to fill in gaps. Top with half of onion mixture, spread evenly. Top onions with half of Morbier slices (try to leave small margin around sides of pan). Repeat sequence until all ingredients used up.

Put pan in oven and lower heat to 200° C or 400° F. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until top is browned and bubbly. Let sit for 5-10 minutes before slicing.

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