No matter how you prepare it, the root is tasteless and starchy. It cannot be regarded as an enjoyable food, but it provides abundant, reasonably healthy food for men who want nothing but sustenance.
~Denis Diderot, Encyclopedia (1751-1765)

So the tale goes…the potato, solanum tuberosum, a starchy, herbaceous, tuberous crop from the perennial nightshade family indigenous to the Andes was brought from the New World to Europe by curious Spanish mariners around the second half of the 16th century. The origins of the potato can be traced to the highlands of the Andes mountains on the border between Bolivia and Peru around 8,000 BCE. The beginnings were far from humble as the Andes are the lengthiest mountain range on earth running some 5,500 miles with peaks exceeding 22,000 feet — an often harsh territory where temperatures fluctuate wildly, and which proves seismically intense, rift with geographic faults, earthquakes, mudslides, and often active volcanoes.

Somehow, the potato made it to French shores and burrowed inland, introduced to the Franche-Comté, the Vosges of Lorraine and Alsace. At first, the French were so suspicious that in 1748 the government issued an edict forbidding their growth, as it was foolishly rumored that potatoes caused leprosy in humans. Later, the tuber was allowed to be used only as animal fodder.

Enter Antoine-Augustin Parmentier (1737-1813), a trained French pharmacist and veteran of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) having been captured by the Prussians no less than five times. To most in North America this conflict is known only as the French and Indian War, but the strife was quite global in scope affecting Europe, North America, Central America, the West African coast, India, and the Philippines. France, Austria, Saxony, Sweden, and Russia were aligned on one side against Prussia, Hanover, and Great Britain and their respective overseas colonial territories on the other. In the end, Britain established as a distinct colonial power, with control over India and North America seemingly secured, while Prussia emerged as predominant force in Europe, and the preponderant voice within Germany. While imprisoned, Parmentier quietly subsisted on potatoes which led to his devotion to the spud as a staple for his homeland.

It should be remembered that regional and national French famines had become routine in the preceding centuries. The country simply could not feed itself. So, soon after he emerged from Prussian prison, Parmentier exalted the potato, laboriously aspiring to scrub the tot’s bad pub. He wanted potatoes to become an integral part of the French food supply, a staple. He went on a barnstorming tour of sorts hosting dinners at which potato dishes were featured prominently and guests included such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier.  In Examen chymique des pommes de terres (1774), Parmentier touted the potato’s prodigious nutritional prowess.  About this time, some say that Marie Antoinette even adorned her hair with potato blossoms while her husband, Louis XVI, put one in his buttonhole as part of an attempt to persuade French farmers to plant and French diners to consume S.tuberosum. Other members of royalty and aristocratic wannabes followed suit, strutting about in tuberous bouquets. Finally, the Paris Faculty of Medicine declared that potatoes were edible.

This opened the French culinary sluices with such classics as pommes Anna, gratin dauphinois, pommes de terre sarladaises, pommes aligot(e), pommes de terre boulangère, pommes purée, etc. A recipe for pommes duchesse even appeared in a cookbook, La Nouvelle Cuisinière Bourgeoise in 1817.

(M. Parmentier was entombed in the renowned Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, and both a Parisian avenue in the 10th and 11th arrondissements and a station on the Paris Métro bear his name.)

Pommes Duchesse are simply an exalted spud rendition. They are dollops of mashed potatoes with butter, eggs, cream and nutmeg that are shaped in a way that resembles meringues. The textural variances are sublime. Once baked, the interiors of the potatoes remain soft and creamy, while the edges of the contoured tops become crispy.

POMMES DUCHESSE

2 1/2 lb russet potatoes

4 T unsalted butter, softened
2 egg yolks, plus 1 egg mixed with 1 t heavy cream, lightly beaten
1/2 t freshly grated nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 eggs, whisked

Preheat oven to 400 F

Using a fork, prick potatoes all over and place on a baking sheet. Bake until tender, about 1-1 1/2 hours, allow to cool, then peel and pass through a food mill or ricer.

Mix potatoes, butter, yolks, egg, cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper in a glass or metal bowl and transfer to a piping bag fitted with a 3/4″ star tip. On a parchment paper lined baking sheet, and working in a tight circular motion, pipe twelve 2 1/2″ in diameter rosettes — first fill the pastry bag in one corner with the riced potato mixture to squeeze out any air bubbles, while exerting steady pressure from the top with one hand while guiding the flow of the mixture with the other make a solid foundation, then carefully pipe a tight spiral, build a cone shaped mound and finish with a slightly pointed tip until each potato is about 2″ in height.

Brush with egg and then bake until golden brown, about 40–45 minutes.

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