Why It Works
- Cutting the potatoes into fine strands ensures they will coalesce into a cake and creates a different texture from the grated potato in something like a latke.
- Seasoning the potato before cooking ensures it's delicious throughout, not bland.
Bards and philosophers have long grappled with the question of what's in a name. Apparently recipe developers do too, as I have recently while delving into the world of potato pancakes. It doesn't take long when trying to define one kind versus another to realize that they have more in common than they do differences. As I flipped through cookbooks and online sources, I was left to wonder, am I just recreating the same recipe over and over with trivial variations, all to justify each individual recipe's existence? No recipe challenged me more in this sense than France's pommes Darphin.
On my potato pancake to-develop list, I had Darphin along with pommes Anna (easy to distinguish from the rest thanks to its shingled design) and rösti (on the surface a potato pancake like any other, but upon deeper research its uniqueness emerged: unlike the others, it must be made from cooked potatoes). All the while I was also comparing them to classics like latkes and hash browns, which both looked an awful lot like Darphin.
Few of my classic French references even mention pommes Darphin. Not Larousse, nor Escoffier, nor Fernand Point. Julia Child makes no peep. Jacques Pepín does in his complete techniques, though he uses Darphin's other name, pommes paillasson ("doormat potatoes"). I found a handful of videos on YouTube showing French chefs making them, some cutting the potatoes into fine julienne, others simply grating them on the teeth of a box grater just like latkes; some Darphins were large and thick, others small and thin and very, very latke-like.
I also turned up a 1988 Chicago Tribune article written by the late chef, cooking teacher, and founder of the Institute of Culinary Education, Peter Kump. In it he describes visiting the chef Jacques Cagna one evening in Paris, in which the chef quickly whipped up some pommes Darphin by grating "some peeled potatoes quickly, directly into the pan, salting and peppering them from time to time," before cooking them in a skillet and serving the crispy cake with duck breast.
In the end, I had to conclude there wasn't necessarily a firm definition of this particular preparation, though the tendency is towards a potato pancake that's larger, more evenly round, and thicker than latkes or hash browns. Plus, they don't typically have onions like latkes do. And while recipes seem to use both grated and julienned potato, the long, fine strands of julienne seem these days to be more standard.
With that, the rest of the recipe was easy to work out, and just as easy to make:
- First, choose your potatoes. I prefer simple starchy russets for this, as their fluffier texture makes a less slick interior compared to Yukon Golds, though the latter can be used and are preferred by some.
- Next, cut your potatoes. I recommend using the julienne teeth on a mandoline or food processor blade for fine, even strands about 1 to 2mm thick. Beware of hand-slicing the potato unless your knife skills (and knives) are sharp, as too-thick stands will be resistant nesting together into a cake.
- Season the potatoes well, then fry in a skillet while forming the cake until tender inside and very crispy outside. Pepín recommends washing and drying the potato strands before cooking them to remove surface starches that can make the interior of the cake slightly gummy, though this step has the downside of also making the strands less inclined to fuse together into a cake. I opt to not rinse them for this reason, but feel free to experiment and decide for yourself whether the increased risk of a fallen-apart Darphin is worth the small improvement in texture.
- As for serving, Darphin would be good just about any way one might want to eat pan-fried potatoes, though in France it's most often served alongside roasted meats. I can attest that it's also mighty tasty with crème fraîche and seafood like smoked fish and fish roe.
(Note: Be sure not to confuse pommes Darphin with the similarly named pommes Dauphine, which are puffy fried potato balls.)
- 2 medium russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (about 14 ounces total; 400g), peeled
- Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons (45g) unsalted butter, plus more as needed, divided
Using the julienne setting on a mandoline slicer or the fine shredding disc on a food processor, shred potatoes into strands. Transfer to a medium bowl, season with salt, and toss to combine. Immediately proceed to Step 2.
In an 8-inch nonstick, cast iron, or carbon-steel skillet (see note), melt 2 tablespoons (30g) butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add potatoes and cook, using a silicone spatula to push the shredded potatoes into a round cake about 3/4-inch thick. Continue cooking, using the spatula to form a nicely rounded and evenly flat disc shape while rotating the cake for even browning, until well browned and crisp on bottom side, about 8 minutes; lower heat as needed to maintain an active sizzle while avoiding scorching the potato. (It can also help to weigh down the potato cake as it cooks, either by setting a small, heavy skillet on top or a cooking weight like the Chef's Press).
Set a heatproof plate on top of the skillet, then quickly and carefully flip to invert the potato cake onto it. Gently slide the potato cake back into the skillet so that the browned side is up.. Add remaining 1 tablespoon (15g) butter and continue to cook, rotating the cake in the pan for even browning and using the spatula to press any loose potato shreds in and form an even disc shape, until well browned and crisp on second side, about 8 minutes; if using a weight, set it on top of the potato cake again to compress it and cook it evenly. Add butter at any point if the pan becomes too dry, as you want it to gently fry in the fat.
Using a spatula, transfer the potato cake to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Season with salt, then serve right away as desired.
8-inch nonstick, cast iron, or carbon-steel skillet; second small, heavy skillet or cooking weight (optional)
Even in a well-seasoned cast iron or carbon steel skillet, potatoes have a tendency to adhere, which can lead to failure; if you use one, make sure potato shreds are blotted dry and that the skillet is very well seasoned. In our testing, though, nonstick worked beautifully and came with none of the risks.
Make-Ahead and Storage
This style of potato cake is best made shortly before serving, though it can be kept warm in a 200°F (95°C) oven for up to 30 minutes.