While planning a somewhat elaborate breakfast on a recent visit to my parents' house, I remembered a once-favorite potato dish, the “straw potato cake.” The cake, which has few ingredients but requires care in preparation, gets its name from the similarity between the potato pieces and straw, and offers crispiness and softness in a golden disc.
Although it is somewhat like a big hash brown, Paul Bertolli takes great pains in Chez Panisse Cooking to explain how to make it. There’s the issue of the potatoes: Bertolli recommends using large Russet potatoes because of their high starch content. Then there is issue of cutting: he says they should be cut using a mandoline into 1/8" julienne, or by hand. A grater is no good, he argues, because then cake will be too compact (my results with a grater, however, have been pretty good, so you might give the grater a try if you don’t have a mandoline). And it is important to rinse the cut potatoes thoroughly to remove surface starch – which would cause the cake to be gummy – and then dry them completely in a salad spinner or with towels. Finally, Bertolli recommends using a 10 inch or smaller pan because larger pans are hard to heat evenly on stoves at home. It’s also important to cook this in a non-stick pan, like a well-seasoned cast iron skillet or coated pan, so the potato cake can keep its form.
Serve on its own as a side dish or topped with grated cheese, sauteed mushrooms, or anything else that goes with potato.
Straw Potato Cake
Adapted from Chez Panisse Cooking by Paul Bertolli
20 ounces russet potatoes (567 grams)
3 1/2 T. butter or oil (52 mL) *
Salt and pepper
Preheat the skillet over low heat for several minutes, then add 2 1/2 T. of the butter or oil and increase the heat to medium. Place one-half of the potato into the hot oil, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, then add the rest of the potato. Use a wooden spoon or mini-spatula to shape the potatoes into a cake, trying to leave some space around the edge of the pan. Press down gently to help the cake form and to create even contact with the pan.
Let it cook, shaking the pan now and then to prevent sticking, until underside is golden brown (about 10 minutes). Slide onto a plate. Add the remaining tablespoon of butter or oil to the pan, and then return the potato cake to the pan, uncooked side down. Cook for a few minutes more until second side is golden, again shaking the pan periodically.
When the second side is golden brown, slide onto a plate and serve.
Variations: Add some chopped herbs (rosemary, thyme, etc.), cooked bacon, or spices (Indian spices might be interesting, served with a yogurt sauce) to the raw potato.
* Bertolli’s recipe calls for clarified butter because of its higher smoke point and excellent flavor. I’ve had good luck with regular butter and cooking oil.