I’ve been trying and failing to make Pommes Anna since April 2007. Well, that’s misleading; I’ve only tried it a few times, and then I quit in frustration. I had two unsuccessful attempts under the watchful eye of a chef-instructor, and a few more abortive attempts at home.
I blamed the the pan, I blamed the potatoes, I blamed it on the rain. Mom would tell me to look at the common denominator, and she would be right. I was not committing to the full process of making this extremely simple and yet elusive side dish. I finally nailed it in the privacy of my own home last week.
It’s nothing but a fried cake of thin potato slices, but if you do anything wrong, it will fall apart. It will still taste good, but it won’t have an elegant presentation. To make pommes Anna, you only need four ingredients (butter, a potato, salt, and pepper) and two pieces of equipment (a knife and a skillet). If you follow these directions exactly, you’ll have no trouble at all.
First, you need to clarify some butter. I’ve tried it with whole butter, and the potatoes brown too quickly. Making clarified butter is easy, and you can make a good amount of it and store what’s left over in the fridge indefinitely. Heat butter over low heat until it’s melted completely. Skim off the foam that rises to the top, and ladle out the clear liquid that’s left in the pot, leaving behind any sediment on the bottom. You’re done.
Clean and peel one large Idaho potato. Slice it as thinly as you can manage by hand, or use a mandoline. Put the slices into a bowl and coat them well with some of the clarified butter. Heat a small stainless-steel skillet (you don’t need a nonstick pan for this). Once it’s quite hot, start layering the potatoes in the pan (they should sizzle immediately), starting from the center and working your way out, overlapping each other slightly, until you reach the edge of the pan. At this point, season the first layer well with salt and pepper. Make a second layer the same way, and season again. If you have more potato slices, continue to layer, or reserve them for a smaller second cake.
Let the cake cook for a few minutes until you see it browning on the edges. If the pan looks dry, drizzle in more butter. Give the pan a little shake; the cake should move freely. When it’s well browned on the bottom, flip it (with a flick of the wrist or a turner). Be careful of boiling butter splashing on your skin. Once the second side is browned, turn down the heat and let it cook through, or finish it in a 350ºF oven.
Drain the cake and serve it in thin wedges. It should be crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, like all delicious things.