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Hasselbacking - variations on a theme

"My favorite thing about the humble, mighty potato is that just when you think you’ve tried all the ways to prepare it, you learn about another." Sara Jane - The Kitchn

Well our lunch was a beautiful success, so much so that I forgot to take any photographs. To summarise - the mushroom tart was just right - light and puffy and flaky all at once - but I forgot the bacon I had carefully fried to add to the mushrooms just for David, I forgot to sprinkle the turmeric and paprika over the salmon, but remembered in time for it to have a bit of a cook, and the cake had sunk - but it all tasted pretty good. The potatoes, however, were a triumph. Well I thought so and I shall definitely be making them again. But then I am a potato freak. Always was, always will be.

I came across the Hasselback potato gratin recipe from J Kenji López-Alt of Serious Eats, by googling, crispy potato gratin. A previous search for crispy potato just - of course - came up with recipes for roast potatoes. I had had in mind a thinner and crunchier gratin, because I had vague memories of vertical slices of brown and crispy looking potatoes from here and there - mostly the supermarket magazines, and also of my sister making something flatter and crunchy. I thought the salmon would need something crispy but interesting. Not chips. Besides proper chips are too hard and oven chips always come out soggy for me.

The link will take you to the entire article describing how J Kenji López-Alt 'invented' this. Fundamentally you slice your potatoes, toss them in cream; cheese and thyme; arrange them upright in your gratin dish and bake. It is, of course, a bit more complicated than that but I can assure you the result is wonderful. And easy. Very crispy top, the cream has disappeared into the potatoes making them satisfyingly rich and unctuous, so that you simultaneously get crispy and soft, but not liquid.

The article is interesting though because he dips into the history of the dish. It's ancestors if you like. And it's still evolving.

The original ancestor - the Hasselback potato is said to have come from a trainee chef named Leif Elisson in a Swedish hotel restaurant called the Hasselbacken in 1953. It consists of potatoes sliced into but not all the way through, and then baked in the oven. Not that it was a big hit back then, but somehow in 2011, just one year after the coming of Instagram it went viral.

"Every online food recipe trend has its watershed moment, the point at which it goes from being a fun project to going full-on viral. It's usually when bacon gets added to it. It's the moment when every blog and Instagram feed is so saturated with it that even mainstream media will pick it up. For Hasselback potatoes, that moment was in early 2011." J Kenji López-Alt

Now, of course there are lots of variations, - people stuff things between the slices, scatter stuff over them, slice them thickly or thinly and do the same thing to other vegetables - and fruits too. Felicity Cloake will take you through the basic process and she seems to agree with the Serious Eats man with the impossible name, in that they are not as good as they look:

"one of those dishes that tend to look better than they taste: painstakingly chiselled fans of gloriously golden carbohydrate perfect for the Instagram age, yet sadly soggy on the fork." Felicity Cloake

And you'd have to say that hers certainly look good.

"They're supposed to combine the best part of a baked potato—the creamy, moist interior—with the best part of roasted potato chunks—the crispy edges—but really, they produce only mediocre versions of both. The interior is never as moist as I want it, and the edges are always more dried and leathery than really crisp." J Kenji López-Alt

They do look good though - here are a few examples, including the middle one from Nigella Lawson who likes to do hers with new potatoes unlike everyone else. People went on a lot about what potatoes to use:

Although you can see that the crispy bits are perhaps not that crispy.

So how does something which is ultimately disappointing go viral? Jamie Feldmar of Taste (US) wrote an interesting article on all of this called Hasselback Everything in which he canvassed the opinions of various professionals:

“This is the plague of the search-term-driven content monster, Hasselback starts getting popular, people start searching for it online, and publications start thinking about how to deliver.” Carla Lalli Music / Bon Appétit

“Chefs see it as gimmicky, and they don’t want to be considered uncool by doing something that mommy bloggers are into, because that’s the antithesis of how they want their food to be perceived, ... But is it really frivolous if it gets people to eat more vegetables?” Ben Mimms / Food Network Magazine

"People eat with their eyes, and once guests see it go out, everyone wants to order it.” Tracy Chang, chef

"a simple litmus test for deciding what should or should not get the treatment: “Ask yourself, would I actually make this? And would I tell my neighbor, best friend, or aunt that they should make it? Otherwise, who is it for?” Carla Lilli Music / Bon Appétit

The original Hasselback concept then evolved in several different directions, merging with other dishes on the way.

Instagram - no TikTok in this instance - is responsible for the next one - Accordion potatoes. The ones shown here are from a website called Good Food Baddie, but there are plenty of others. They all say it's simple once you have done a few, but really would you bother? Maybe if you want trendy snacks kind of food. However, Sarah Jane of The Kitchn in her article Hassleback squares (and accordions) wasn't that impressed:

"I’m less excited about this one. Even though the video is so cool, this is one of those situations where when you try it at home, it just doesn’t look like the video. This type of cut requires much more precision than the Hasselback squares and there was much less room for error. If the cuts aren’t perfectly spaced or if you accidentally cut all the way through the plank, you’re back at square one."

And rather endearingly she shows her results. She started with 10 and ended up with two - neither of which would be publishable on Instagram or TikTok I am guessing.

Another direct descendant of the Hasselback is Hasselback waffle potatoes in which, instead of slits you end up with squares. This apparently is another TikTok phenomenon which Sarah Jane of The Kitchn tried - rather more successfully than the Accordion thing. Below is her go at this (on the left) and also another one from somewhere else. Some people were very precise with the shape of their waffles others not so much. I guess if you want to get onto Instagram or TikTok you might have to be precise?

Then we begin to merge with a couple of French dishes. The first of which is Gratin Dauphinois, and Yotam Ottolenghi's Hasselback fondant potatoes are an example of this. Fairly 'normal' looking Hasselback potatoes, but they are in a creamy looking sauce. But you can see we are moving towards my 'starter' dish of a Hasselback potato gratin. You can see the two dishes merging together as ultimately the cuts are made all the way through and packed tightly together.

J Kenji López-Alt's recipe was dated 2020. I do not know whether he was the originator of the concept of the vertical gratin thing, but, at least in America, I know he is very influential. And I have to say it was pretty easy to make. I thought getting the potatoes to stand up neatly would be difficult, but actually the less neat the better, and it is actually easier to assemble than a standard gratin. You just pick up a handful of potatoes and pack them into your dish.

Once invented others pitched in. It's an easily modified recipe of course - stock not cream, different herbs, different vegetables, no liquid at all - just fats of various kinds. Here are just a few: The first is without liquid: Garlic roast potato and sage wreath from Western Star Butter; the second from Woolworths with the dreaded bacon - well pancetta of course and stock; and the last from Taste and very similar to my 'original' but with rather less cream and cheese.

So we have merged with the Gratin Dauphinois, and that merger takes yet another leap into another merger with the French Pavé potatoes - this time popularised by Thomas Keller. Well actually it isn't really a merger, more a direct copy, but a celebrity chef and the internet makes it into something new. In this version you make a gratin, cool and weight it overnight, cut it into squares or rectangles and then deep fry: on the left Thomas Keller's version; in the centre Fried gratin cubes from La Boîte; and on the right Confit Potatoes from The Quality Chop House

I think this one is for the chefs, and is also possibly just a step too far from the concept of Hasselbacking?

Anyway I shall definitely be making the Serious Eats version again - and again - I think. It was truly yum and also something with which you can play around. Special but easy. The only difficult thing is slicing the potatoes, but if you've got a mandoline or a food processor then that's not hard either.


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