August 19, 2022

why it works

  • Building Anna apples in a cake pan and baking them in the oven gives you stress-free pebble time and ensures the potatoes cook thoroughly without burning.
  • Browning and crisping Anna apples cooked in a non-stick skillet provides the finishing touch to Anna apples without the risks of the traditional method.

In my years as a recipe developer, there have been times when, after rounds of testing and tinkering with a recipe, my advice to the reader has been blunt: the path to success is not with new methods or tricks, it is by practicing the classic technique. (To see: French omelet and spanish tortilla.) I couldn’t let that be my message with the Anna apples.

A visual must-have, Anna’s Apples are thin slices of potato layered in a cake of pretty concentric shingled rings that’s baked until tender inside and crispy and golden on top. Traditional recipes require a capricious and failure-prone approach of constructing the cake in a hot pan, with the cook having to meticulously arrange the potato slices. which they fry in boiling butter. It’s a questionable method on the best days, one that, yes, with regular practice can be perfected. But it’s not the kind of dish that most home cooks are likely to make often – certainly not often enough to get to the point where failure isn’t a distinct possibility.

How can Anna apples be wrong? Oh, let’s see:

  • You burn yourself frantically layering slices of potato in a hot skillet with searing butter.
  • The potato sticks to the pan, ruining one of the Anna apples’ biggest selling points – its appearance – because you turned the heat down, worried about all that stuff burning your skin.
  • The top layer browns unevenly because you’re not a potato virtuoso.
  • The top layer burns because you failed to build the next (still raw) layers fast enough.
  • Anna apples look terrible or, worse, crumble as you rush to the plate, because the specter of failure looms over your every move (see all of the above).

Some recipes attempt to circumvent these risks by building – not a cake – but something more like a potato chip that is one or maybe two layers thick. It still involves building the layers in a hot pan, so it’s still not exactly risk-free. I guess that’s an option, although I think it shortens the Anna apples, which I think are best when done with multiple layers, providing more substance, more textural contrast, and more factor” wow”.

A well-executed Anna apple is, without a doubt, breathtaking. It’s amazing enough to fully justify making it, at least on occasion, for someone you like or at the very least want to impress with culinary talent. So if the traditional method is too haphazard and the modified methods produce a cracker that isn’t big enough, what should a recipe developer do? Welp, I guess I could rethink the technique.

Reinventing Pommes Anna: the path to an (almost) infallible method

Trying to fit the intricate concentric rings and multiple layers of potatoes together in a pot over high heat was clearly a bad idea. But my first inspiration still came from tradition: Anna pan apples. Yes here there is a pan just for that, and at least the linked model can be had for the low price of just $500 (at press time). To be clear, I don’t think you should buy this pan unless you’re a billionaire, in which case you should buy ten to use as hatboxes for your melon collection.

The Anna Classic Apple Pan has straight, cylindrical sides and a flat bottom, and measures approximately nine inches in diameter. You know what else has straight sides and is about nine inches in diameter? An 8 inch cake pan. I knew I wanted to get my Anna apples away from all that hot stovetop building stuff, so why not put them in a cake pan and bake them instead? This would allow plenty of time to carefully build all the layers without worrying about speed or burns.

One of the challenges of the traditional Anna apple method is choosing the perfect time for the top to be perfectly browned and crispy at the same time as the under layers are cooked and tender. By building the Anna apples into a cake pan and baking them first, I was also able to solve this problem by separating the tenderizing and browning stages. The fully baked Anna Apple Cake, when unmolded, might just be golden and crispy in a skillet at the very end.

A few weeks after developing this method, I realized that I was not the first to come across the epiphany of the cake tin: Jacques Pépin had preceded me by several decades, recommending a similar approach in his classic, Complete Techniques. It doesn’t do the last browning step in the pan, which I found essential to give the Anna apples their ultimate shape, but it shows that very little in this world is new, and Jacques Pépin is a legend for a reason.

Choosing and Handling Potatoes

My alternative method was becoming clearer, but I still had details to settle. First: choose the potatoes. Here in the United States, the potato options are slim. We have starchy Russets, silky Yukon Gold, basic white and red potatoes, and it’s more or less most of the time. Lots of people are looking for russets here, but my testing has convinced me that the Yukon Golds are the best choice. They are silkier, which creates a more appealing texture inside the potato cake, more elegant and less powdery. They also have more flavor, which makes a difference in a simple, albeit ornate, potato cake like this.

The other thing to understand in terms of handling potatoes was whether to bother making perfect circles by punching them with a round ring mold. For one thing, it improves the appearance of Anna apples, and as I mentioned, appearance is a big reason to do this. On the other hand, the slaughter of rounds is tedious and creates food waste.

I ended up writing this step in the recipe as optional; that’s how I prepared the potatoes in the pictures you see here, but there’s also a little trick with that. Much like the fake building facades on a film set, the potatoes in the Anna apples only need to be stamped for the top visible layer (that’s, to be clear, the bottom layer when you build upside down in the pan) . Punching out a few dozen potato rings is far less troublesome than punching out a few hundred, which is a pretty good compromise in my book. Shine it where you can see it, don’t bother where you can’t.

Tips for Apples Anna Success

With my method, anna apples become a much more doable, much more manageable, much more foolproof recipe. Nonetheless, there are a few key points to keep in mind as you do so:

  • Remove water: Cooking potatoes in a cake pan in the oven traps more moisture than in a hot skillet on the stove, so it’s important to squeeze out excess water. I do this in several ways. First, I leave the potato slices unrinsed, which many traditional recipes call for to remove excess starch and slow browning from that top layer; my method does not require it. Second, use clarified butter, whose water content has already been removed. Third, lightly salt each layer of Anna apples as you assemble them, then press the assembled Anna apples into the cake pan after letting it rest; the salt-drawn water can then be carefully poured and discarded so that the potato cake cooks instead of simmering.
  • Compress the Anna apples: In these photos I am using the chef’s press and a small lid that fits inside the 8 inch cake pan to weigh it. The Chef’s Press is a versatile weight that we recommend for many recipes, but if you don’t have one, you can improvise with a lid and oven-safe items to add weight.
  • Carefully return: The traditional Anna apple method requires flipping, and my method can’t avoid it either. Be sure to drain any fat or hot liquid before attempting a flip so you don’t splatter your arms with scaling juice, choose a flat, smooth plate or lid, then do it decisively. Slow reversals run a higher risk of everything collapsing.
  • The non-stick is very good: We at Serious Eats tend to ask for nonstick pans in limited situations, but my testing has convinced me that it’s a great choice here for the browning step. You can get a crust as crispy and brown in nonstick as in cast iron or carbon steel, without any risk of the potato cake sticking to the pan. Do these other pans work? Yes, they do, but the margin of error is smaller. They should be perfectly seasoned and sufficiently preheated, and you should turn the cake more to account for hot spots typical of cast iron and carbon steel that can produce uneven browning.

Follow these tips and you really won’t need much practice to get Anna apples worthy of a glossy magazine cover.

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