Recently on Instagram I posted the picture above, inviting suggestions for what this dimpled shell might originally have been used for and – better still – what kind of creative/anti-waste/recycling purpose it might now serve. Various ideas came up involving eggs, plums and golf balls. Finally someone came up with potatoes in a salt crust…bingo!
The shell is, in fact, the recently vacated remains of a tatin de pommes de terre, a sort of tarte tatin except the crust is salty and it’s made with pommes de terre (aka spuds) rather than pommes (apples). [The recipe came originally from Geoffroy Vieljeux, erstwhile host at one of the world’s most stylish B&Bs, Mas Parasol near Uzés, now sadly no longer functioning]. I love this dish. It’s simple to do, it looks a million $$$s and the potatoes taste divine, so it gets wheeled out at regular intervals – over Christmas, most recently. If you haven’t made one yet, just promise yourself to do it. Soon.
You’ll need a bunch of firm, waxy potatoes, a cake tin, olive oil and a salty dough (a bit like Salzteig, with added egg white to make it pliable). You arrange said potatoes in said cake tin, drizzle with olive oil, cover with the salty dough and bake. And here’s where we veer away a bit from the real tarte tatin, for the very salty, very hard crust is completely inedible. Its sole purpose is to imprison all the goodness and flavour of the potatoes beneath and to season them gently the while. When the tatin is ready, you turn it out to reveal the by-now-gently-golden spuds, sitting up and begging to be speared with a fork.
First the potatoes. These can be new, freshly dug and scrubbed clean (for more ideas for super newper recipes, see my piece on Zester). Outside the new potato season you could use a firm, waxy variety (at least in France or Switzerland) like Nicola, Charlotte or Amandes. Rattes are wonderful too, but a bit small. You can even live dangerously and use different-coloured spuds – a mix of white, red and purple makes quite the statement. Whatever…you need potatoes that hold their shape and don’t need peeling, not too huge (baking potatoes please abstain) and roughly the same size/shape, so they look pretty when you turn the tatin out.
Then you need a baking tin/pan. Don’t use a springform tin, or olive oil may leak out during the baking and make a lot of sound and furious fumée, not to mention a frightful mess in your oven. Cut a disc of baking paper to fit the bottom of the tin and place it inside, oil the inside wall and then arrange your scrubbed potatoes tightly in the bottom, in a flower formation. Allow 3-4 per person, but be warned: folks have been known to eat more – these are seriously more-ish (and wicked cold, raided from the fridge at midnight). Drizzle with oil.
Next comes the crust, which you make by mixing together flour, herbs and coarse salt and adding egg white(s) and enough water to bring the whole thing together into some semblance of order. For a huge pan like my Mexican cake tin above, which measures 30cm across, you’ll need 400g flour + a pinch of thyme + 300g coarse salt + 2 egg whites + ca. 200ml warm water. (For a smaller tin and fewer potatoes, you’re on your own.)
Mix the flour, herbs and salt together in a big bowl, make a well in the centre, add the egg whites and enough water to give a firm dough, not too dry, not too wet. You need to be able to turn it out onto a floured board, squash it into a ball and then roll it out thickly to the size of your tin. If it’s too crumbly and dry, add more water; if it’s too soft and lolls about when you lift it to lay it on top, scrunch it together again and work in more flour. Lay the dough on top of the potatoes and tuck it in snugly – you don’t want any hanging out of the tin or you’ll be in bother when it comes to inverting the tatin for serving.
Heat the oven to 200C and bake the tatin for an hour to an hour and a quarter, or until the crust is golden brown and you can hear the potatoes making excitable, sizzling noises beneath. If you run over the time by another fifteen minutes, no problem. For a longer wait, leave the finished tatin in the turned-off oven, or on the counter.
Finally we come to the fun bit. Take a plate big enough to cover the tin comfortably and equip yourself with good oven gloves. Assemble your guests (if you like an audience). Invert the plate over the tin, take a deep breath and turn the tatin out onto the plate. Tada!
Pretty good, huh?
I always feel kind of wistful that you can’t eat the crust, which is rock-hard and impossibly salty. It’s but a husk that has now completed its task and is no longer useful. Say goodbye and consign it to the bin. Then again, you could – as one Instagram friend suggested – keep it till Easter, fill the holes with painted eggs and give it another outing…