The Thousand Layer Potato Journey
I knew as soon as I saw the recipe that I had to make them. Had. To. Make. Them. I have been extremely privileged the last few years in that the only meals I very much had to cook were certain holiday meals that the family expected (like whatever quiche variation I could drag from my memory at Christmas or the spatchcocked turkey that saved Thanksgiving by freeing up the oven). Every other meal was just an opportunity to make something extravagant or decadent or just extremely inefficient. I’ve made pork tonkotsu ramen over the course of 48 hours starting with pig feet, for example. That is the zone I was fortunate enough to travel in for 7.5 years. I stockpiled these recipes, mostly from Serious Eats or that Food and Wine subscription my mother got me as a way to use her frequent flyer miles, all too secure in the notion that I would have the opportunity. At some point. They are all jumbled up in my brain as Things I Must Make and Always Have.
I’m like officially old™ at this point, but something about my sense of time is just . . . askew. Life as a freelancer is a continuous game of knowing either the day or the date but rarely not both at once. My most common daily experience when the workday is shorter than 14 hours is just pulling up in a panic at random moments thinking “Wait, what day is it?!” banging around in my head. It’s not current events has slowed down and being a Twitter junkie certainly does not help. Whatever the reason, my sense of time is basically broken.
Food and Wine insists that this recipe for Thousand Layer (spoiler alert) Duck Fat potatoes appeared in the February of 2019 edition of the magazine, which I would have gotten in January. That seems impossible. But it also reminds me of Terry Pratchett talking about that 5,000 year old rock that wasn’t there yesterday in Interesting Times (I think) or the out of time shop from Color of Magic (pretty sure that’s the one). That bit about the rock is the spiritual truth of every encounter I’ve had with a recipe that truly captures my imagination: it is always immediately present and it has always been there, even if technically that was yesterday or like, 11 months ago.
As ever, life comes at you fast and the particular multi-generational family living arrangement that had enabled my freelancer life in the first place was coming to a very definite end and the strong but relatively inchoate desire to make something fun, like these potatoes became an urgent imperative. There will be a final meal for the family in this place. So it better live up to the hype. And Thousand Layer Duck Fat Potatoes can’t help but do that.
Ok, I know, everybody hates the glib little stories that preface nearly every recipe on the interwebs. Apologies. It’s a BFD™ for me, though. This time. I won’t do it again. Promise.
Anyway, the allure of the Thousand Layer Potatoes recipe for me was the bog standard simplicity of the ingredient list, everything else a tiny bit of technique and plenty of time. Potatoes, salt, rendered fat, oil for frying. Basta. That’s it. It’s 4.5 lbs of potatoes, btw. King Edward (which, what? Never heard of that) or Yukon Gold — something soft, closer to the mashable side than the bakable side of potatoes. Peeled (damn. it.)
But also sliced. The most efficient way to do this is with the most dangerous implement in anyone’s kitchen — the mandoline. Out of fear for my own safety and because the gold potatoes from Whole Foods (wherever tf they came from) were quite small, I sliced them as rounds. This cause problems later, I believe. The video Food and Wine attaches to the recipe indicates that you should get larger potatoes and slice them along the length of the potato (don’t be mad that their video is not even 2 minutes and it actually takes at least 10 hours to make these potatoes — it’s worth it).
No matter who you slice it (HA!), the next step is to toss the potatoes with rendered fat, in this case duck fat because go big or don’t open an expensive restaurant like Quality Chop House and like 1 TBsp of kosher salt. I use Morton’s in most of my cooking and that was plenty salty for this journey (using Diamond will be a bit less salty — but hell, you know what you’re doing if you’re arguing about which kosher salt you run with). Then you layer all your potato slices in an 8"x 8" baking dish until you run out of potatoes on 2 layers of parchment paper with plenty of overlap. And then you pour whatever is left of your melted, rendered duck fat all over the top.
This concoction is going spend the next 2 to 3 hours or in the oven at a comfortable 300° getting nice and soft (the recipe calls the result a confit — see how irresistibly fancy this recipe is?!?). The Jenn-Air in this house that I will never set foot in again after January 2020, probably, managed the trick in 2 hours, no problem.
The next part is incredible easy. Get another baking dish, set it on top of the now baked, sorry confited?(I don’t think that’s right) potatoes and, cram that dish with as many canned goods as you can to keep those potatoes smashed together. Let it cool to room temp so your dish doesn’t crack because of thermal shock, and then it goes into the refrigerator for at least 8 hours. I let it go for 12.
The end result is a potato layer cake completely doused in rendered fat AKA grease monster. Everything it touches will need a good cleaning with some soap (not the potatoes, for heaven’s sake, don’t get carried away). When you dump it out and discard the parchment, the cake looks like it’s been wrapped in wax paper, but don’t worry, that’s just the solidified fat.
I said decadent, right? Did you think I was kidding?
After you invert the potato cake onto the cutting board (this recipe is like a spa day for a good wooden cutting board, you’re welcome), throw away the parchment paper, then wash your hands so you can hold a knife without fear. No you can cut the cake into 7 strips. Cut them strips in thirds. Then cut the thirds in half. Or just create pieces small enough to fry in a few minutes but look like they’d still be a nice forkful. Do you. My glass dish was probably too rounded, so I had some offcuts that didn’t make it past the next step. C’est la vie, amirite?
I didn’t take pictures of the next step, probably because I had to prepare the luscious, brisket based beef stew that was technically the main course (by protein based rules). That’s just my bad as a blogger, because it’s quite surreal to put an entire baking sheet of potato morsels into the freezer for at least half an hour (I left them in for closer to 2 thanks to all the beef stew stuff). Still smelled great, despite their time in the chiller.
When the beef stew was in a good place burbling along, it was time for the final steps in this long potato journey: the frying!
375° is actually a crucial temp for timely frying of the pieces. Your oil should actually be pretty close to 375° AFTER you put the potato cake morsels in the oil. If you don’t, you get a bunch of crispy potato flakes, like the folks on the left (I think this is also a consequence of my small potatoes —crashing 100° in the frying oil did not help). After I pumped the heat, I started to get the good stuff like the folks on the right in a timely manner.
This particular culinary journey was bittersweet. I thought it would end horribly after that first batch mostly turned to potato flakes (VERY tasty potato flakes, but not the same), but I ended up with some gloriously layered chunks, I even got the pictures to prove it. I didn’t achieve the glorious ideal that haunted my imagination but, what the hell, I’m a n00b and you know what? Everyone liked them. I am always way harder on my food than my diners are, which is generally where I land in my creative endeavors as well: as long as I am the least satisfied person in the room, I am doing something right enough to make the journey a good experience for most folk. If I’m lucky they will reheat as well as these pillow soft potatoes reheat (200° in a toaster oven until you can smell them in the farthest reaches of your abode). If not? Well, it was a fun ride.