Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Finnish Sweetened Potato Casserole

We have entered the magical month of December. It's cold, dark and miserable. But it's also an excuse to start thinking about Christmas food. One of the must have foods on the Finnish Christmas Dinner table are an assortment of oven baked vegetable dishes, called "laatikko" in Finnish. Basically laatikko is the Finnish word for a drawer or box, but it's also used for oven baked dishes. For Christmas you usually make "porkkanalaatikko" (oven baked carrot casserole), "lanttulaatikko" (oven baked swede casserole) and "perunalaatikko" (oven baked potato casserole). They are all relatively easy to make, but take a lot of time. First you need to peel the veg, cook them in water until soft and mash them, and then mix with the rest of the ingredients (usually bread crumbs, syrup, cream and butter) and bake very slowly in a low temperature oven for 2-3 hours to let the flavours really develop. 

The potato casserole, perunalaatikko, takes even more time to prepare than the other two. It needs to be sweetened over night so it should be started the night before. It is also completely in the hands of the food gods to decide whether the sweetening is successful or not. It's a combination of using the right potatoes and having the right temperature for the sweetening process. But no worries, the sweetening process is an old cooking process used before sugar was available. It's a process where the starch in the food is enzymatically broken down to shorter chained carbohydrates, i.e. sugar. These days, you can achieve the same by adding syrup. But I love the tradition of making the casserole using the traditional way. And last year was finally the year when I had a successful sweetening process. I'm not exactly sure what the key to success was, I think it was the right potatoes combined with pure luck.

I nicked the recipe for the potato casserole from the Finnish cooking web site Kotikokki, but most recipes for the casserole are pretty similar. Make sure to pick a starchy, or floury, potato. If it says "good for mash" on the pack, you have pretty much got what you are looking for.

Finnish sweetened potato casserole:
2 kg floury potatoes
2 dl (200 ml, 3/4 cups plus one tbsp) plain flour
50 g butter
0.5-1 l milk (I like to use full fat, as it is Christmas after all...)
2 tbsp syrup (if sweetening is not successful)
salt to taste (start with about 2-3 tsp)

The howto:
Peel and chop potatoes. Cook in salted water until soft, pour off the water and mash potatoes. Let the mash cool until about 50 degrees C (feels warm but not hot), add half of the butter and half of the flour into the mash and mix well. Sprinkle the rest of the flour on top of the mash, put the lid back onto the saucepan and let sweeten in a warm place for at least 6 hours, or over night. The temperature should stay between 50 and 75 degrees C, but I wrapped my saucepan in a towel and left in the kitchen over night and the sweetening process worked well. The next morning you should find your mash softer than it was the night before, and with a sweeter flavour. The mash also changes colour to almost grey on top where the flour was. Give the mash a good mix, and add milk until soft (softer than normal mash, but not quite runny). If the sweetening has not been successful, also add the syrup for extra sweetness. Mix in salt to taste. Place in one big or two medium sized oven proof buttered bowls and dot the rest of the butter on top of the casserole. The casserole will bubble while cooking, so leave one and a half to two inches space in the bowls. Cook in 200 degrees for the first 30 minutes and then in 150 degrees for another two hours. The casserole will turn dark around the edges of the bowl. I love this crunchy bit, but you can just leave it uneaten if you find it unappetising. If the top gets too dark, you can cover the casserole with aluminium foil when baking.
The verdict:
I have had varying success with this dish through the years. Last Christmas it turned out perfect. The reason I like the traditional sweetening instead of taking the easy way out of just using syrup is that it tastes different, or maybe that's in my head but I think it's sweet but not too sweet. But each to their own. Year after year one of the subjects being discussed during the Christmas dinner is whether that year's potato casserole is as good as the one Mum/Grandma made and whether it's better or worse than the year before. 

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