New London native tackles a classic: Lighthouse Inn Potatoes
Many who grew up, lived in or just visited New London during the heyday of the Lighthouse Inn have the fondest of memories of the old place, its genial, festive atmosphere and its delicious food.
Lighthouse Inn Delmonico Potatoes, in fact, have lived on long after the inn itself, which has been shuttered and vacant since late in 2008. The original recipe, loosely based on classic Delmonico potatoes — shredded potatoes cooked briefly in a mixture of milk and cream with a bit of added Parmesan cheese, then baked with more cheese on top — was last printed in The Day in July 1985, as part of a story about the Women's Club of East Lyme's new cookbook, "Great Recipes."
In that article, the recipe was said to have come directly from the chef at the inn. It calls for cooking the potatoes and refrigerating them overnight before preparing the final dish.
Fast-forward 31 years, and it turns out that's still how most people make Lighthouse Inn Potatoes.
"Still, to this day," says Ashley Moore, 36, a New London native who now works as an associate editor at Cook's Country magazine, part of the America's Test Kitchen empire, "someone gets assigned to make them and bring them to birthday parties, Christmas, Easter, any family gathering."
That lingering devotion within her own clan is what inspired Moore to bring the local favorite to her editors for consideration for a makeover. And they agreed. The new, modern version adapted for the home cook appears in the most recent December/January issue of Cook's Country.
"It's really heartwarming for me to be able to bring this recipe to America's Test Kitchen," Moore says in a recent telephone interview. "I grew up eating these, and now (Cook's Country does) American regional recipes," so it seemed like a good fit. "I'm really happy with the result. I'm intrigued to see what my family will think about them. I'm hoping that, because the new recipe can be made all in the same day, it will have that appeal."
In her Cook's Country article, Moore explains that her goal was to transform the recipe from a two-day extravaganza to a less time-consuming version more suitable for the modern home cook, without losing any of the qualities of the original: tender potatoes in a silky, rich sauce below a salty, crunchy topping.
"For a dish like this," she recalls, "I approached it like, this is going to be a piece of cake. But I've been here six years, and this was one of the most challenging recipes to develop in order to get the result I've grown up eating."
"I grew up not too far from the inn," she recalls. "Fridays was our big night out, and we always went to the Recovery Room or the Lighthouse Inn. It was like seeing family."
The inn, though, holds a special place in Moore's heart.
"We'd always sit in the lounge," she says. "Pat (Mitchell) would be at the piano. I'd pretend to smoke cigarettes with the straw from my Shirley Temple."
"I remember the smell. I remember walking in and seeing that grand lobby area. It's such a great memory. My aunt and uncle got married at Lighthouse Inn. It was right around Thanksgiving. It was so beautiful."
Moore estimates that she and her team produced 50 or 60 versions of the potatoes before they landed on the final one.
"You change one thing and make the whole recipe," she says of the process. "You can't have too many variables because you must know in the tasting what you're responding to. Were russets crucial? Could the potatoes be Yukon golds? It snowballs and takes on its own process. It's so funny that I thought it was a piece a cake and, a month later, I'm still in the kitchen."
When developing a recipe such as this, she says, "you have to be authentic to what the dish is. No tricks." So she worried about an ingredient that sets the new version apart. The new recipe includes 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda to help "neutralize the very small amount of acidic tannin that came off the potatoes," she wrote in her article, which can lead to a curdled look. The finished sauce is creamy and silky, but "people like my mom and my aunts, what are they going to think?"
But at Cook's Country, she says, it all comes down to a consistent result. "That's what we care about."
Becoming a TV chef
Moore's road to America's Test Kitchen was a winding one. She first wanted to pursue a career in acting, so she studied the trade at the California Institute for the Arts. After graduating, though, she realized she was torn because she also wanted to cook. So off she went to Johnson & Wales University to complete their accelerated degree program.
"I was aiming for the Food Network," she says. "My dream was to be on a cooking show."
After Johnson & Wales, she snagged an internship at the Food Network on two of Emeril Lagasse's shows. "Then I got cold feet," she says, and took a job as sales rep for specialty foods in New York City and Brooklyn. But that just didn't cut it.
Eventually, she moved to Boston to run a kitchen for a food truck company, which led to America's Test Kitchen.
"I saw an opening there, applied, and started as part of the books team," she says.
A little more than 3 years ago, she moved to Cook's Country magazine, where she started by "doing videos for YouTube."
She kept working and getting on camera more and more until now, when she just filmed six recipes for the upcoming season of the PBS "Cook's Country" television show. (Its 17th season premieres Jan. 7 on a public television station near you.)
"I am really, really lucky," she says. "It's such an awesome work environment."
"When I went up for my sixth recipe, I got in a funk," she says. "I couldn't believe this was about to end."
Advice for the home cook
For those of us who can't wait to try her recipe for Lighthouse Inn Potatoes, Moore has this piece of advice: "Follow the recipe," she says.
"Make sure you're using an oven thermometer," so you can know you're actually baking at the temperature the recipe specifies, she says, and "use the light cream. Don't substitute half-and-half. It will break."
In general, she says, it's important to "cook what you're in the mood to eat. It will excite you and get you into the kitchen in the first place.
"Most of the people I know think about food all day long," she says. "Keep it simple. Use salt. Use pepper. Just cook what you like. Cook what's fresh and seasonal. And use a good knife. That makes a real big difference."
Jill Blanchette is the multiplatform production editor at The Day. Share comments and recipes with her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get more recipes and follow her culinary exploits at www.theday.com/spillingthebeans.
ASHLEY MOORE: 30-SECOND BIO
Name: Ashley Moore
Lives: East Boston, Mass.
Works: Associate editor, America's Test Kitchen's "Cook's Country" magazine
Hometown: New London (Glenwood Avenue). Her Nana, Grace Potter, and an aunt and uncle, Amy and Art Nixon, still live in town. Her mom, Susan Wood Alpeter, lives in Essex, and her dad, Stephen Wood, lives in Waterford and Manhattan. Moore is a frequent visitor to the area and says she still enjoys a meal at The Recovery Room and at Fred's Shanty.
Schools: Nathan Hale, Pine Point, the Williams School, then boarding school north of Boston; California Institute of the Arts (Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting); Johnson & Wales University accelerated degree program. Intern at Food Network, where "every day was a dream come true."
Favorite food to eat: "Oh boy," Moore says. "Pizza and popcorn. Not together. Nothing beats pizza. Pizza is just the best."
Favorite food to cook: "Well, I do make pizza a lot, as long as it's Sunday," Moore says. "I'm willing to cook whatever. I cook all day, Monday through Friday, so I take Saturday off. Sundays I just cook whatever I'm craving."
Best day at work: "When I'm with my team and we're all tasting something together," Moore says, "a day when I can do all the things that I love within eight hours."
Lighthouse Inn Potatoes
Once you taste these seductive spuds, you'll have a new favorite for family gatherings, holiday potlucks and yes, even weeknight meals.
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (about 1 cup)
1 cup panko bread crumbs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, plus 6 tablespoons cut into 6 pieces
Salt and pepper
2½ pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
3 cups light cream, divided (may substitute heavy cream but not half-and-half, which tends to break)
1/8 teaspoon baking soda (for stability and silkiness)
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees. In a small bowl, combine Parmesan, panko, 4 tablespoons melted butter and ¼ teaspoon salt. Set aside.
In a large saucepan, combine the potato chunks, 2½ cups light cream, 1/8 teaspoon baking soda, 2 teaspoons salt and 1 teaspoon pepper.
(You'll think that this is too much salt. You'll be tempted to use less. Don't do it. Follow the recipe. The sauce will be salty, but in the end the potatoes will be perfection.)
Bring this mixture to a boil over medium-high heat. The potatoes will want to stick, so stir them frequently. Reduce the heat to low and cook at a bare simmer, still stirring often, until a paring knife slides easily into several potato chunks without the potatoes crumbling apart, 20 to 25 minutes.
You don't want the potatoes mushy. As soon as the biggest chunks yield easily to the knife, get them off the heat and stir in the remaining ½ cup of cream and the remaining 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter. Keep stirring until the butter has melted, about 1 minute.
Pour the creamy potato mixture into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. (You'll want to butter the dish, but you don't have to.)
If you're making the potatoes ahead, proceed below. If you are cooking them immediately, sprinkle the Parmesan-panko mixture evenly over the top. Bake, uncovered, until the potatoes are bubbling and the crumb topping is nicely browned, around 15-20 minutes. Let the potatoes cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
To make ahead and bake later: After the potato mixture has been transferred to the baking dish, let it cool completely, then cover the dish with aluminum foil and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. When you're ready, before applying the Parmesan-panko topping, bake the potatoes at 375 degrees, covered, until they're heated through, about 35 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven and apply the topping evenly. Bake again, now uncovered, for another 15-20 minutes until the top is nicely browned.
Original recipe from Ashley Moore and Cook's Country magazine, December/January 2017.