Saturday Snacks: Let’s Make Walt Disney World’s Classic Au Gratin Potatoes!


Did anyone else come to the sudden and jarring realization earlier this week that Thanksgiving is next Thursday? Please tell me that I’m not the only person who awoke to this fact and found it utterly alarming. How did something that happens at the end of November arrive so suddenly? Sigh.

Just in case you’ve woken up to the fact that Thanksgiving is next Thursday and you’re in need of an extra side dish for the table, may I humbly submit today’s Saturday Snacks recipe for your consideration? It hails from the Empress Lilly Riverboat, which was Paddlefish before it was Paddlefish. Lillian Disney herself christened the riverboat-shaped restaurant, and we have the chance this weekend to re-create one of its classic recipes. And, in my opinion, if you’re looking for a starch to accompany those marshmallow-covered sweet potatoes, the Empress Lilly’s Au Gratin Potatoes from Delicious Disney Walt Disney World: Recipes & Stories from the Most Magical Place on Earth would be a perfect choice. And an easy choice. When we’re already UP TO OUR LITERAL ELBOWS in food prep, that’s a win-win. We need all the yummy and easy we can get.

The first place to start is in the produce aisle. There I stood in front of the russet potatoes wondering yet again exactly which size is which. The recipe asks that we use two large baking potatoes, so I picked out two of the largest ones that Publix had. As I sit here now on the other side of making the recipe, I need to ask you to step away from those gigantic potatoes. Buy them when you’re looking to make a massive loaded baked potato; for today’s Au Gratin Potatoes, you just need two standard potatoes. One potato, two potato, and stop there. Not too huge, and not too small. Learn from my mistake and leave the big ones for another occasion.

The recipe calls for you and I to bake the potatoes ahead of time and allow them to cool in the fridge afterward. I preheated the oven to 375 degrees and scrubbed up my way too big potatoes. You want to make sure to poke each potato several times with a fork before placing them in the oven. Got some early holiday frustration already built up? Stab those potatoes (bless their hearts) and feel the tension leave your system. It’s cheap therapy, friends.

Once the oven reached the proper temp, I popped the potatoes in and set the timer for 60 minutes. When the timer sounded, I placed the potatoes in the fridge to cool completely.

Here’s part of the beauty of this recipe: those potatoes can hang out in the fridge for as long as you need them to, within reason, of course. I baked them during the afternoon and then proceeded with the recipe that evening. It was lovely having those potatoes in the fridge so that I was ready to roll into the next steps when it was time to throw dinner together. If you’re assembling the dish for Thanksgiving, you can bake the potatoes ahead of time and continue when it’s closer to meal time.

My first step was to peel and grate the potatoes. I wasn’t exactly sure how the peeling process was going to go with potatoes that were baked, but it was actually simple and the peel came off without fuss. Once the potatoes were peeled, I grabbed my grater and started grating them. They shredded easily, with only a few larger chunks breaking off here and there.

I quickly came to the realization that my potatoes were way too large when I surveyed the vast amount of grated potato that was accumulating on the plate that I was using. I quickly grabbed a bowl and transferred the shredded potatoes into it. Man, that’s a lot of potato. But still, I persisted.

Once I had both potatoes grated, I turned my attention to grating the required 3 tablespoons of cheddar cheese. I washed my grater and quickly had the cheese ready to go.

The recipe now asks us to put 1 cup of half-and-half into a small saucepan.

Upon surveying what was going to eventually be placed in the pan, I immediately knew that the saucepan should be anything but small. We’re going to put 1 cup of half-and-half into that pan along with the 2 shredded potatoes. There was no way that all of that potato was fitting in anything but a large pan.

Also, it’s worth noting that the recipe says that we can add a tablespoon of finely grated onion into the pan along with the cup of half-and-half if we so desire. Since it was optional, I decided to skip the onion. Next time that I make the dish, I’ll likely use a bit of onion powder instead.

Now’s the perfect time to start preheating your oven to 350 degrees so that once everything’s mixed and ready to go, you can pop that dish straight into the oven.

I also took a minute to butter an 8 x 8-inch Pyrex dish. Here’s another adjustment that I’ll make next time: the pan.

I’m usually very keen on checking and double checking the size of the pan that’s required for each recipe, but when I looked at the accompanying picture and saw that a 1-quart dish was asked for, I assumed that an 8 x 8 was what was needed. Umm, nope. I meant to double check, but completely forgot. I realized all too late that an 8 x 8 pan is actually a 2-quart variety, which sent me to my knees to root through my cabinet in a vain attempt to find a 1-quart sized pan. Mind you, I had already filled the 8 x 8 dish and it was currently baking away in my oven. But I just had to know what exactly a 1-quart dish looked like. My 9-inch loaf pan? 1 1/2 quarts. Perhaps 1-quart dishes were readily used in the 70s when this recipe was created, but they are nowhere to be found right about now. My 8 x 8 would just have to do.

We’re to bring the mixture in the pan to just before boiling, but, while standing at the stove waiting for the liquid to come up to temp, I started checking my work email. And you guessed it: the next thing I knew, that half-and-half was boiling like crazy. It went from zero to sixty in no time flat, and I pulled it off of the burner as fast as I could. And I hoped that I hadn’t totally ruined the whole enchilada.

I added 1/2 teaspoon of coarse salt, 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper, and 1/2 teaspoon of celery salt to the half-and-half. And I added my massive heap of grated baked potato.

I mixed everything until combined, and my hunch was confirmed: that one cup of half-and-half didn’t go very far when up against all that potato. Still, I had hope.

I scooped the potato mixture into the buttered dish and topped everything with the 3 tablespoons of grated cheddar cheese. Friends, if I had my druthers, I’d pile on a cup of grated cheese, but I stuck with the recipe. Maybe it would be enough…

I placed the dish in the oven, set the timer for 20 minutes, and proceeded to make the rest of dinner.

The recipe tells us that we should allow the dish to bake for 15-20 minutes, or until browned and bubbly. My potatoes weren’t reaching “bubbly” (due, I’m sure, to my prolific use of potato), and I moved the dish to the top rack to see if it would brown. I didn’t turn on the broiler, though I know that that would’ve browned the whole thing in two seconds flat. I just didn’t want to dry out the dish any more than I feared it already was.

After a few additional minutes, the dish looked great and I decided to pull it out of the oven. Friends, this smelled so good. I had great expectations.

The Au Gratin Potatoes were delicious. The cheese on top melted and covered the top just enough. The potatoes themselves? Creamy and, thanks to the celery salt, just a tad earthy.

The next time I make this recipe, I’ll obviously use smaller potatoes, and thus allow the potatoes to be even creamier than they were this time. I’ll also be on the lookout for a 1-quart dish so that things are dispersed as the recipe recommends.

All in all, this dish is absolutely Thanksgiving table-worthy. It’s so good. There’s just something magically Fall about potatoes, cheddar cheese, and half-and-half. It just makes sense. And it makes for a delightful side dish.

As we’ve discovered over the past year and a half, sometimes Disney side dishes make for the nicest weekend snacks. Leftover Au Gratin Potatoes, anyone? Count me in.

On a side note, last Saturday’s Wine Country Wild Berry Cobbler is on the short list for my Thanksgiving table. I was so enamored with it when I made it last week, and cobbler for Thanksgiving dessert just seems right. With a large scoop of vanilla ice cream, of course. The video of me making the cobbler has been released. Click here to check it out. Don’t miss the chance to watch Fiasco and me gobble up BIG scoops of cobbler on the patio of a DVC villa. Ha ha. Ahem.

Friends, the word “thankful” doesn’t cut it when I think of you. I am so grateful that you’ve stopped by to read this, and I hope that your Thanksgiving is filled with all of the very best. You deserve it.

ps. Want to catch up on Saturday Snacks? Click here to check out the fun we’ve had along the way!

Ready to try your hand at Empress Lilly Riverboat Au Gratin Potatoes? The recipe is below:

Au Gratin Potatoes

The EMPRESS LILLY RIVERBOAT, moored on the shores of what is now Disney Springs, was named for Walt’s wife, Lillian, who was affectionately known as Lilly. On May 1, 1977, Lilly attended the dedication of the three-restaurant attraction with five of her and Walt’s grandchildren. At the time, the vessel’s Empress Room was the most elegant dining experience at Walt Disney World. It closed on April 22, 1995, and now is the home to Paddlefish.

  • 2 large baking potatoes
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • ½ teaspoon coarse salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • ½ teaspoon celery salt
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated onion, optional
  • 3 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake potatoes 50 to 60 minutes or until soft enough to pierce with a fork. Refrigerate to cool, then peel and coarsely grate.
  2. Bring half-and-half almost to a boil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add salt, pepper, celery salt, and onion. Mix in grated potatoes.
  3. Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees. Spoon potatoes into buttered 1-quart baking dish. Sprinkle with cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until browned and bubbly.