But Brie was an important gateway food. It let us know that cheese could be soft and gooey, that there was such a thing as a rind and that cheese was not a means to an end (a layer of a sandwich, a topping on a burger) but an end in itself. Without Brie, we might never have been ready for robiola, Époisses and the like. And while you may not want to serve the industrial junk now found in every grocery store for a cheese course, it retains some charm as a cooking ingredient for its creamy texture.
In the late 1980s, Regina Schrambling, a writer for The Times, used Brie in a delicious take on a potato-and-mushroom gratin. The dish is a happy mash-up of 1980s fads: French bistro food was catching on, so potatoes au gratin (oh-GROT-in) was becoming a potato gratin (gra-TAN) a leaner, meaner iteration with less cheese sauce and more attitude. Brie was entering the mainstream, and shiitakes had become the urbane antidote to pedestrian white mushrooms, preparing the way for the “wild mushroom” deluge of the 1990s.
To make the gratin, you layer sliced potatoes with slivers of shiitakes and cubes of Brie and then batten them down, first with cream, garlic and thyme (followed later by a covering of bread crumbs and Parmesan cheese). Into the oven you send them, assured of a tasty outcome. Schrambling has you bake the gratin for an hour or more, far longer than necessary, but the extra time in the oven gives the top a chance to crisp and brown.
The modern spin on this dish was created by Tim Wiechmann, the chef and owner of T. W. Food Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. At Taillevent in Paris, where Wiechmann once worked, he said, “they have, on rare occasion, taken a wheel of Brie and sliced it open and filled it with truffles, so I know the connection between Brie and mushrooms.”
Nonetheless, Wiechmann couldn’t get on board with the 1980s gratin. “I don’t not like it,” he said. (Always a promising start.) He was distressed by the cubing of the Brie. “There’s a particular way to slice Brie; these people have taken a lot of time to make the cheese.” A wheel of Brie is sliced either in very thin strips or like a pie but in two concentric circles. The outer circle is sliced and served first, followed by the inner.
Today a piece of cheese isn’t just something to eat; it is a reflection of your worldview. And so Wiechmann came up with a heady and surprisingly light custard-based gratin, made entirely of local ingredients butter and cream from Hatchland Farm, eggs from Chip-In Farm, Bayley Hazen Blue cheese from Vermont and cornmeal from Rhode Island. It also includes mustard greens and red Russian kale his nod to the 1980s, when the three-star Restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, France, was famous for a Swiss-chard-stem gratin. And for the record, the cheese is respectfully melted in a pan.
1989: Potato, Shiitake and Brie Gratin
This recipe appeared in The Times in an article by Regina Schrambling.
6 good-size red new potatoes, scrubbed but not peeled
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
½ pound shiitake mushrooms, stems removed
½ pound fairly firm Brie, rind removed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon chopped thyme
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup fine dry bread crumbs.
1. Using a mandoline or sharp knife, cut the potatoes into slices about 1/8 of an inch thick. Place them in a large bowl of cold water and soak for 30 minutes, changing the water twice. Drain and pat them dry.
2. Arrange two oven racks so that one is in the bottom third of the oven and the other is in the middle. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Butter a shallow 10-inch gratin dish or glass baking dish.
3. Thinly slice the shiitake caps. Cut the Brie into small cubes. Layer a third of the potato slices in the dish. Lay half the shiitakes and half the cheese evenly over the top. Liberally season with salt and pepper. Add another third of the potatoes and top with remaining shiitakes and Brie. Season with salt and pepper. Arrange remaining potato slices on top. Combine the cream, garlic and thyme and pour over the potatoes, pushing down so that all the liquid is absorbed and spreading the garlic and thyme evenly. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake on the middle rack for 30 minutes.
4. Combine the Parmesan and bread crumbs and season the mixture with more salt and pepper. Remove the foil from the pan and sprinkle the crumbs over the potatoes. Place the pan on a rack in the bottom third of the oven and bake 30 to 40 minutes longer, until the potatoes are very tender and the top and bottom are crusty and dark brown. Serves 6 to 8.
2008: “Totally Local” Gratin
By Tim Wiechmann, owner and chef at T. W. Food Restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.
All the ingredients listed in this recipe are local to New England. If you don’t live there, do your best to substitute them with your own local ingredients. Or grow and make them yourself. (Just kidding.)
Maine Sea Salt
4 tablespoons Hatchland
Farm full fat butter
1 pound medium-size Big Ox Farm mustard greens
1 pound medium-size Big Ox Farm red Russian kale
¼ cup Rhode Island coarse cornmeal
6 Chip-In Farm large brown eggs
1 ½ cups Hatchland Farm heavy cream
8 ounces Bayley Hazen Blue cheese.
1. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and set out the butter. Rinse greens well and drain. Remove and discard any tough stems. Cut greens crosswise into thin strips. In batches, add the greens to the boiling water and let wilt for 30 seconds, then transfer to a bowl of ice water. In two or three handfuls, gather the greens into a ball and squeeze tightly to remove excess water. Evenly spread the greens in the base of a large gratin dish.
2. Place the room-temperature butter in a bowl. Add the cornmeal, and using a wooden spoon, work the cornmeal into the butter. Transfer to a piece of wax paper and roll into a log that is 1 to 2 inches in diameter. Chill.
3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a blender, purée the eggs and the cream. In a medium saucepan, melt the blue cheese over low heat, using a whisk to gently stir. Add yolk-and cream-mixture, and stir until smooth and slightly thickened, about 2 minutes; be careful not to scramble the eggs.
4. Pour the cheese and egg mixture over the greens it should almost cover them. Cut 10 thin slices of cornmeal butter, then break them up and spread them over the top of the gratin. Bake for 10 minutes, then turn on the broiler to brown the top. Serves 6 to 8.