A Creamy, Melty Potato Casserole That’s Outrageously Easy to Make

I might be the worst gift giver in the world. One year, I handed my family their presents still in shopping bags, price tags attached. Another year, I mailed everyone cheap trinkets in July, no cards. I never appreciate the art of gifting or crack the code on how to get better at it, until a few days after the holiday, when it suddenly clicks for me. Last year, I missed Christmas entirely and rolled into my mother’s driveway on Dec. 26, but a couple of days later, I cooked my family a consolation feast: chestnut soup. Roasted brussels sprouts. The butteriest poundcake. A big glazed ham. A pan of creamy potatoes.

As far as I’m concerned, creamy potatoes are the official side dish of Christmas. Many permutations of that soft panel of cream, butter and black pepper have made their way into my holiday cooking repertoire over the years. Scalloped potatoes and potatoes au gratin come to mind, but my latest favorite is Jansson’s temptation.

Recipe: Jansson’s Temptation (Creamy Potato Casserole)

One of Sweden’s most delicious exports, Jansson’s temptation, otherwise known as Janssons frestelse, is a creamy potato casserole flavored with melty onions and umami-packed tinned sprats. As to the origin of the Swedish classic, which is often served with schnapps as part of the Julbord (“Christmas table”), there are a few theories. One suggests that it was named after a 1928 Edvin Adolphson film, while an older one says that it was named after the Swedish opera singer Per Adolf Janzon — “not so likely,” according to the Swedish food writer Jens Linder. What we do know, Linder says, is that Jansson’s temptation did not appear on the Christmas table until World War II, establishing itself as a holiday food only in the 1970s.

What’s perhaps most tempting about a Jansson’s temptation are the potatoes. They’re cut into long, narrow matchsticks, like French fries, which lets the cream fully envelop their starchy irresistible nooks and crannies. While Linder prefers his taters cut skinny, as they are in restaurant iterations of the dish, his co-author, the television chef Johanna Westman, says she prefers them thick, as in her Grandma Alva’s recipe. The recipe in their holiday cookbook, “The Swedish Christmas Table,” calls for quarter-inch batons. For a dish with so few ingredients — potatoes, onions, tinned fish, breadcrumbs and cream — the possibilities for personalization are infinite.

Sprats aren’t for everyone, for instance, and I don’t subscribe to the whole “don’t tell people they’re in there” school of ingredient-hiding in cooking. It’s one way to lose trust in your diners. But here, I couldn’t recommend them more, not least because Swedish tinned sprats, or ansjovis, are nothing like the salty, auburn-copper anchovies we eat in the United States. They’re milder baby herrings that don’t make the casserole taste fishy by any means; they just add a lingering savoriness and salinity without the need for extra salt. The fish’s brine perfumes the cream with warm spices, such as nutmeg and cinnamon, and the sprats themselves melt into oblivion after a long bake. Ordinary anchovies work in a pinch, or you can just leave the fish out altogether, Westman says. Her family’s Christmas lunch includes two versions of Jansson’s temptation (one with sprats, one without) and, of course, schnapps and singing.

It stirs something in people.

Recently, while making Jansson’s temptation with my mother, Jean, for the first time, I watched her take a single anchovy out of the tin with chopsticks and place it, gingerly, on a spoonful of cold white rice from the rice cooker. After she relished it, she told me about how much her father loved eating tinned fish at the dinner table and how that must be where she inherited her love for them. It’s funny how these stories come out only at the dinner table — in person — which is, I think, why she then said, “I wish you lived in Atlanta.”

When I think of the best gifts I’ve received in my life, I can’t think of any physical objects. I think of last year, when I spent the holiday stuck on the road, driving from New York to Atlanta in a rental car with my dog, Quentin, in the back seat, and how I didn’t make it home in time for Christmas. And how much I regretted that. I think of how I came home empty-handed, and how my mother told me it didn’t matter. No one expects anything! We’re not that kind of family! Anyway, she said, there are other kinds of gifts.

Recipe: Jansson’s Temptation (Creamy Potato Casserole)

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