One of the most enticing and evocative kitchen smells is that of the baked potato. Its association with childhood and most particularly with Bonfire Night keeps it forever as something of a treat. It remains too a comfort food but one that can be transformed daily with a different stuffing.
The jacket potato is The Great Standby and The Complete Meal. Treated simply with a pinch of salt and a generous dollop of butter its a pauper's supper fit for a king. With a liberal grating of mature Cheddar cheese is even better. After Christmas it really comes into its own. When served with pickles, a couple of crunchy baked potatoes make the prospect of unlimited cold turkey almost seem attractive.
In France they call the jacket potato pommes de terre au four - au four for short - or most often robe de chambre, a corruption of the original robe des champs (of the fields), meaning in their skins as they were grown. Many French chefs use the flesh of potatoes for making pommes purée because the steam-cooking makes for dry potato flesh. It also breaks down the flesh of their waxy potato varieties.
Perhaps because the French don't go in for the mealy variety of potato which is best suited to baking, their potatoes tend to be elaborately stuffed. These potatoes are usually called pommes de terre farcies. They are prepared by partial baking then the flesh is scooped out, mixed with the stuffing and returned for a final baking. The potato becomes a vehicle for very fanciful combinations and is a very different animal from the potato baked in the embers of the dying bonfire.
The secret of perfect baked potatoes is to put the potatoes into a very hot oven; from 400-425F/200-220C/gas mark 7) and to cook them for a minimum of 1 hour. The exact length of time depends on the size of the potato and the number of potatoes being cooked - they will take longer the more there are. Any variety of potato will taste good baked but mealy varieties are best. The starch expands under the intense heat and the potato becomes fluffy on the inside and with a nice crisp skin: the combination that makes the potato such a delight. Some people rub salt or oil into the washed skin to make it crispy but I rather like the nutty flavour that is most prevalent if the skin is merely washed. Also good is the burnt flesh edge of halved potatoes. If you favour a soft skin, wrap the potato in foil.
To allow the steam to escape cut the potato with a cross or prick it a few times with a fork. Potatoes can be partially cooked in advance and finished to order, this is especially useful to remember when providing baked potatoes for a party. In fact in his delightful Cooking In Ten Minutes Edouard de Pomiane recommends keeping a stock of baked potatoes for making instant meals.