Often, scalloped potatoes are made with a good couple handfuls of cubed, cooked ham incorporated in their layers. This imparts a lovely smoky flavor to the whole, as meat will tend to do. However! Those of us who do not eat meat (or pork, at any rate) must make our potatoes with no ham, and as such are left with a dish flavored entirely by black pepper and cheese. Fine and good, but what if you want to recapture some of the smoky ham taste? What if you're having meat cravings, or want a more complete comfort food?

Well. You can give your scalloped potatoes that smoky taste without using any ham whatever. You just have to use the proper cheeses.

You need:

  • 2 cups sharp cheddar, grated.
  • 1 cup smoked cheddar (I used applewood, which is rolled in paprika), grated.
  • 1 cup good salty unsmoked gouda, grated.
  • 2 cups milk (more if necessary; don't let your sauce get solid).
  • 1/2-1 cup cream or half and half (less if you're using whole milk).
  • 4 tbsp butter.
  • 2-3 tbsp white flour.
  • 6-8 good-sized Yukon Gold potatoes.
  • 2 medium yellow onions.
  • Salt, pepper, paprika, other spices.
  • A 3-qt saucepan, wire whisk, 13x9 casserole dish, cheese grater, cutting board, spoon, and knife.

Start by preparing your potatoes and onions. Scrub the potatoes, cut them in half for stability, and cut them, unskinned, into 1/4 inch slices. You want to use enough potatoes to fill your casserole dish. Dice the onion, and set your vegetables aside. Grate all of your cheese as well, and set it similarly aside.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

We're going to make a white sauce with cheese in which to bake the potato slices. Get out your saucepan and melt the butter over low to medium heat. When it is all melted, add the flour and whisk to form a roux. Use more flour if you want a thicker sauce; I think 2 or 2 1/2 tbsp is sufficient. When the roux is yellow and bubbly, add your milk and cream. Whisk over medium heat until satiny and smooth. When the sauce is reaching a good consistency, start adding in your cheeses a handful at a time, whisking to incorporate. Reserve about 1/4 of each cheese (i.e. maintain the proportions: reserve 1/2 cup cheddar, 1/4 cup smoked cheddar and 1/4 cup gouda) for final topping. When all but the reserved cheese is incorporated, the sauce should be a thick yellow-orange and smell delicious. It may be slightly grainy, but this won't matter when the dish is baked.

If you want, you can add a dab of spice: paprika, cayenne, thyme, whatever floats your boat. You don't need to add much salt, as gouda is a pretty salty cheese, but add a sprinkle or two if you like. I like to wait on the black pepper until the potatoes are done, as baking makes black pepper bitter, but you can add it into the sauce if you prefer. All these spices are to taste; use your judgement. I don't use very much of anything but black pepper.

Take the sauce off the burner: you are ready to assemble your potatoes. Spread a layer of sauce in the bottom of your casserole dish. Top with a layer of potatoes, and a layer of onions. Alternate layers of sauce, potatoes and onions until you run out of ingredients, or fill the dish. I use scant layers of sauce, as the top layer will drip down throughout the dish due to gravity, and you certainly want to have enough sauce left to cover the top. Spread the reserved cheese over the top of the casserole.

Bake at 350 F for approximately 1 hour, or until the cheese is bubbling and crisp on top. You may wish to cover the pan to keep the cheese from browning for a while, but I never bother, as crispy cheese is delicious. When it's done, you may need to pour a bit of oil off the top; cheddar cheese is like that. Top with lots of freshly ground black pepper and serve.

The product will vary with the quality and type of cheese you're able to procure. Mess around with the proportions until you find a cheese combination that you like: exchange the unsmoked gouda for smoked, or use half smoked cheddar and half regular sharp. Everyone's comfort foods are different; your mileage may vary.