Grandma Grace’s Cheesy Potatoes Are Perfect for Any Get-Together

published Apr 15, 2022
Kitchn Love Letters
Grandma Grace’s Cheesy Potatoes Recipe

This cheesy potato casserole is further proof that grandmas really are the best cooks.

Serves12

Prep25 minutes

Cook1 hour 30 minutes

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Credit: Perry Santanachote

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When my now-husband, Matt, and I were dating I remember being a bit nervous walking into the family home where his grandmother Grace lived, but that didn’t last long. The small kitchen was hot from the oven being on all morning and every available surface was covered with a dish of some kind: platters of salami and cheese, bowls of chips and dip, aluminum foil pans piled high with meatballs and green beans and glazed ham. It immediately felt like home.

This same scene played out every holiday: The steamy kitchen, the piles of food, and the endless stream of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and oh so many cousins. I was instantly charmed by the loving chaos of it all.

And then there was Grandma Grace, presiding over all of it from her chair in the corner of the living room. She was a no-nonsense New England gal of a certain era. She’d raised seven children, so she’d seen it all — and then some. I loved visiting with her and listening to all of her stories. She’d tell tales on all of the kids and grandkids and share what it was like growing up in that part of Massachusetts. I’d lost my grandmothers many years before and missed them dearly, so having another grandmother come into my life in my late 30s felt like a small miracle.

By the time I met Grace she had started handing off most of the cooking to her daughter Sherry, but her recipes were renowned in the family. Of all of Grace’s recipes, my personal favorite was the Cheesy Potato casserole. Growing up in the Midwest, I’d had plenty of creamy, cheesy potato casseroles, but this one was different. The cheese sauce was a bit more refined. The potatoes were cut into large pieces so they kept some of their texture. And there was the familiar and always delicious Ritz-cracker topping.

Everyone knew to get a scoop of the potatoes on their first time through the buffet line because they wouldn’t last long. The potatoes showed up at pretty much every holiday, but I always associated them with Easter, maybe because they’re so good paired with ham.

After Grace died, the gatherings slowed as family members started traditions of their own. We all went a while without any Cheesy Potatoes. Then one Thanksgiving I was standing at the counter in Matt’s parents house and knew that it was time to try to make the potatoes myself. Luckily, Sherry had stood alongside Grace as she cooked, taken some notes, and compiled the recipes into a Grace’s Famous Recipes cookbook. It was one of those family cookbooks with the plastic comb binding and the clear plastic cover. You know, the best kind of cookbook.

Credit: Nina Elder

I flipped to the potato recipe and took a look. Not surprisingly, the directions were a little vague. “Add half & half or light cream. I would say use about 75 percent of a half gallon. Cut potatoes into even sized cubes.” How many potatoes? What size cubes? How much is 75 percent of a half gallon? There was only one way to answer these questions: I had to make it myself.

That first experiment was pretty good, but I’ve got to say that the more I’ve made the dish the better it’s become. It’s not exactly like Grace’s, but I think it’s pretty close. The sauce starts with a simple roux, which I cook until it’s light tan and smells toasty. Next up is the dairy, which I’ve changed to a mix of whole milk and heavy cream. The cheese goes in next — sharp cheddar, or extra sharp, if I can find it. At this point I should tell you that the cheese sauce is great on any number of things: roasted veggies, mac and cheese, steaks, burgers. But if you’re making Cheesy Potatoes the next step is to layer the sauce in a 9 x 13-inch dish (no smaller or you’ll definitely have overflow) with some par-cooked potatoes and shredded cheese. Finish that off with crushed Ritz crackers mixed with Parm and bake until browned and bubbly. At this point it will be very tempting to dig in, but wait 10 minutes or so for the casserole to cool off.

This Easter, I’m making the potatoes for my parents for the first time. Because of COVID we haven’t seen them since August 2019. Easter has always been a favorite holiday for my family, so I’m thrilled to welcome them to our new home in Rhode Island. It’ll be a small group: my parents, Matt’s parents, our 7-year old son, Gus. But since there will be cheesy potatoes on the table I know that Grace will be there, too.

Credit: Perry Santanachote

If You Make Grandma Grace’s Cheesy Potatoes, A Few Tips

  • Yes the potato pieces are supposed to be that big. I’ve found that potato pieces that are around 1 1/2 inches long can hold up to the short boil followed by the long bake and still retain their texture. The goal here is tender, not mushy.
  • Don’t boil the potatoes too long. Building off of the point above, when you par-cook the potatoes you want to just be able to pierce them with a knife. There should be quite a lot of resistance. This step is just to give the potatoes a head start.
  • Choose your own cheese. I usually use white sharp (or extra sharp) cheddar here, but use what you like. I’ve tried this recipe with pre-shredded cheese and with cheese that I grated myself and both work well.
  • Play around with the topping. I’ve tried topping the casserole with crushed Ritz and also with panko. Both are delicious. I have a sneaking suspicion that a Cheez-It topping might also be pretty tasty. You do you.

Grandma Grace’s Cheesy Potatoes Recipe

This cheesy potato casserole is further proof that grandmas really are the best cooks.

Prep time 25 minutes

Cook time 1 hour 30 minutes

Serves 12

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 5 pounds

    russet potatoes (about 6 large)

  • 1 tablespoon

    plus 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed

  • 8 tablespoons

    (1 stick) unsalted butter, plus more for the baking dish

  • 1/2 cup

    all-purpose flour

  • 4 cups

    (1 quart) whole milk

  • 1 cup

    heavy cream

  • 1 pound

    pre-shredded sharp cheddar cheese (about 4 cups), divided

  • 26

    Ritz crackers (3 ounces)

  • 1/2 ounce

    Parmesan cheese (1/3 cup firmly packed freshly grated or 2 tablespoons store-bought grated)

Instructions

  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Coat a 9x13-inch or other 2-quart baking dish (or larger) with butter. Place on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet.

  2. Peel 5 pounds russet potatoes and cut into rough 1 1/2-inch chunks. Place in a large pot and add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Add 1 tablespoon of the kosher salt, cover partially, and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to maintain a steady simmer and cook until potatoes are just barely tender, about 5 minutes. Drain in a colander. Meanwhile, make the cheese sauce while the potatoes are cooking.

  3. Melt 1 stick unsalted butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup all-purpose flour and whisk until the flour has completely absorbed all of the butter, about 1 minute. Continue cooking, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens, is light tan, and smells slightly nutty, 3 to 4 minutes.

  4. While whisking constantly, slowly pour in 4 cups whole milk and 1 cup heavy cream. Add the remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt and cook, whisking often, until the mixture thickens and a small amount of steam rises from the surface (don’t let it come to a boil), 5 to 10 minutes.

  5. While whisking constantly, add 10 ounces of the shredded sharp cheddar cheese (about 2 1/2 cups) a handful at a time. Continue to whisk until the cheese is completely melted, about 1 minute. Remove the saucepan from the heat. Taste and season with more kosher salt as needed.

  6. Transfer 1/2 cup of the cheese sauce to the baking dish and spread evenly onto the bottom. Arrange half of the potatoes on top of the sauce. Evenly cover the potatoes with half of the remaining cheese sauce (about 2 1/2 cups). Sprinkle with 3 ounces of the cheese (about 3/4 cup). Repeat layering the remaining potatoes, cheese sauce, and cheese (about 3/4 cup).

  7. Place 26 Ritz crackers in a medium bowl and crush with your hands into coarse crumbs. Add 1/2 ounce grated Parmesan cheese (1/3 cup freshly grated or 2 tablespoons store-bought grated) and stir to combine. Sprinkle evenly over the casserole.

  8. Cover the baking dish loosely with aluminum foil. Bake, still on the baking sheet, until the sauce bubbles thickly around the edges, about 45 minutes. Uncover and bake until the top is browned in spots, about 20 minutes more. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Recipe Notes

Make ahead: The casserole can be assembled without the cracker topping and refrigerated for up to 1 day. Top with the cracker mixture and bake according to directions, adding 15 minutes to the covered bake time.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat in the oven, stovetop, or microwave. The sauce may separate, but stirring should help it come back together.