Gratin, a classic French dish of cream, butter, cheese, and starch, is crafted for winter comfort. In downtown Traverse City, Bistro Foufou’s Chef Guillaume takes us to the delicious realm of French food with three gratin recipes.

Featured in the February 2016 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.

Dividing ingredients among a constellation of cast iron baking dishes, Chef Guillaume Hazaël-Massieux works amid a gratin scene that mirrors the palette of winter itself. Salt crystals, snow white carafes of fresh cream, glassy shards of diced shallot and coarse brown nutmeg all get layered over thin slices of potato, folded with blanched cauliflower florets or whisked into silky béchamel. Coarsely quartered Yukon Golds are buried in caramelized onions as smoky lardons get covered with slices of raclette. Rectangles of pasta filled with spinach and feta are deftly rolled into cannellonis and bricks of softened butter disappear, one by one, in Chef Guillaume’s building of four classic French casseroles.

These off-white alchemies of cream, butter, cheese and starch slide into a hot oven and 30 minutes later Bistro FouFou’s kitchen is thick with savory maillard, that magical reaction where fat browns, then flavor compounds are created, and we instinctively move to grab a fork and dig in. This month we join one of the North’s favorite Frenchmen, Chef Guillaume Hazaël-Massieux at his newest venture, Bistro FouFou, for a winter lesson in gratin, the creamy and essential French comfort food.

Recipe: Gratin Dauphinois

“Comfort is the very idea behind gratin,” Chef Guillaume cites, grating a nutty blond brick of Emmenthaler cheese. “It originates in the colder parts of France, where they grow potatoes and produce a lot of dairy.” A lot of dairy is the order of the day, and we should say that classic gratin will find no friends among the lactose intolerant. There’s cheese, typically firm washed-rind cow’s milk creations like Raclette, Comté and Emmenthale, heavy cream—“the higher fat content the better,” says Guillaume—butter, of course, and milk for those recipes requiring béchamel or mornay sauce.

The word gratin is a mash-up of the French verb gratter, which means “to scrape or grate” and gratiné, the transitive verb form of the word meaning “skin or crust,” as in the delectable golden layer that forms on top of the casserole as it browns under high heat. Gratin’s delicious texture is owed to the interplay of dairy and starch, found in potatoes, vegetables or pasta, that happens as the two elements combine while cooking to form the dish’s intrinsic sauce.

Recipe: Canneloni Gratin

“My whole life I grew up with this dish,” says Guillaume, whose childhood was split between France and the West Indies. “Gratin is typically eaten from September through April and each region has its own style. You’ll find the French eating gratin in their home kitchens and the finest Michelin restaurants; it is by no means a peasant food.” Based on the essential French truism that almost anything can be improved with butter and cream, regional gratins incorporate everything from endive to anchovies, though the most iconic among them is Gratin Dauphinois, a simple but sublime recipe of thin potato slices, cream, nutmeg, garlic, salt and pepper, from France’s alpine Dauphiné region.

In gratin, as in many things, the French are hell-bent on maintaining tradition. “Some people try to put cheese in Gratin Dauphinois,” Guillaume derides, “but my mother taught me this is absolute heresy.”

Recipe: Cauliflower Gratin

Heretic or apostle, any chef worth his sea salt knows that a good gratin is the sum of its parts. “These are relatively simple recipes,” Guillaume posits, dousing a casserole of spinach cannelonis with warm béchamel before shoving it in the oven. “The quality of your gratin will be determined by the quality of your ingredients.” To this end, Chef Hazaël-Massieux recommends seeking out heavy cream from local dairies like Shetler’s and European-style unsalted butter. Nutmeg, an essential spice in many gratin recipes, should always be grated fresh and “used with great parsimony,” according to Guillaume, as too much can hijack and ruin other flavors.

Timing too is critical, especially with potato gratins, as fantastic final texture depends on a quick melding of cream and starch. “Have your dish buttered and your mise en place in order so you can pour the cream over each layer of potatoes as soon as they’re sliced,” says the chef.

Recipe: Tartiflette

Once the ingredients have been sourced, prepped, assembled and set to bake, it’s imperative that there’s un bon vin uncorked to add an extra measure of winter comfort. If gratin is the main event, Hazaël-Massieux, a sommelier as well as a chef, recommends white wine. “In the Savoie, stand-alone gratins like tartiflette are usually served with Aprémont, which is an aromatic white wine with acidity that cuts through the richness.” Like Savoie, Northwest Michigan’s cool climate kicks out world-class wines of the high acid variety. Dry riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris and white blends will all find delicious synergy with the universe of gratins. You need not be a wino though as places like Lille on the France-Belgium border take their gratins with beer, whereas in Normandy, dry cider is the preferred pairing. Guil- laume recommends a simple green salad with mustard tarragon vinaigrette as a textural foil to creamy casseroles and points out that potato or cauliflower gratins make ideal accoutrements to standing rib roast or veal scallopini.

As the oven door swings open, and the gratins emerge, crisp, tawny and bubbling at the edges, Guillaume fills wine glasses, and we set about eating our way out of winter, grateful for the savoir faire.

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