Published March 1, 2009.
French cookery’s intensely rich, cheesy take on mashed potatoes flouts the rules. To Americanize the dish, we ignored a few more. Vive la résistance!
When we looked closely at a few recipes for aligot—which comes from the Auvergne region of south-central France—two things became clear. First, aligot calls for so much butter, cheese, and crème fraîche that if we planned to serve it for anything but a really special meal, a little lightening up would be in order. Second, we were going to have to improvise with the cheese. The traditional choice is tomme fraîche, a soft, mild cheese made from fresh curds. Given the U.S. government ban on the sale of raw (unpasteurized) cow’s milk cheese aged less than 60 days, this cheese would be out of reach for most Americans. We also learned that aligot gets its uniquely elastic, satiny texture through prolonged, vigorous stirring. We were intrigued because here in the test kitchen, we’ve confirmed time and again that a light touch is the secret to great mashed potatoes. How could a heavy-handed technique create a velvety puree without any trace of glueyness or stickiness?
Cheesy, garlicky mashed potatoes with a smooth, elastic texture and the same signature stretch as the French original.
After mixing up batches of aligot with different potatoes, we found medium-starch Yukon Golds to be the clear winner, yielding a puree with a mild, buttery flavor and a light, creamy consistency. Next, we considered cooking technique. To avoid glueyness we’ve gone so far as to steam as well as rinse the spuds midway through cooking to rid them of excess amylose, the “bad” starch in potatoes that turns them tacky. A batch of aligot made with steamed, rinsed potatoes compared with one made with boiled potatoes tasted the same. As for mashing, the French use a tool called a tamis, a metal sieve mounted over a shallow drum. Food is pressed through the screen to create a super-smooth puree free of even the tiniest lumps. Both a ricer and a food mill seemed like close cousins to the tamis, but neither gave us velvety texture. Normally we wouldn’t “mash” potatoes in a food processor—its metal blade would burst every starch granule in the mix. But since glueyness wasn’t a fault in aligot, it worked beautifully.
To add creaminess, traditional aligot uses butter and crème fraîche to add flavor and loosen the potato puree’s texture before mixing in the cheese. Crème fraîche isn’t always easy to find, and whole milk proved the best substitute, providing depth without going overboard. We found that the amount of milk needed to loosen the texture varied from batch to batch, depending on the moisture content of the potatoes. As for butter, some recipes called for as much as two sticks, but with the cheese still to come, that was overkill, so we reduced the amount significantly.
At last, we selected the cheese. Grabbing a quick piece of pizza one day and watching how ribbons of gooey mozzarella stretched between two slices, we wondered: Why not try the prepackaged mozzarella from the supermarket dairy section? This was a stretch in the very best way. Yet its taste fell flat: The mozzarella was too mild. We found that replacing half of the mozzarella with nutty Gruyère boosted flavor.
As for the stirring, too much and the aligot turned rubbery; too little and the cheese didn’t marry with the potatoes for that essential elasticity. Tests eventually revealed the right amount. But we still didn’t understand why stirring worked so well, since the vigorous motion releases amylose, the pesky starch molecule that turns potatoes gluey. After consulting with our science editor, we learned that in this case, amylose was an asset—the sticky molecules were binding with the proteins from the melted cheese, enhancing its stretch without causing glueyness.list of recipes