Searching for the Secret Ingredient in Grandma’s Cheesy Potatoes

Written by Samantha Halpern

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Samantha is a food lover, body advocate, and disruptor of cultural conditioning. Samantha is based in Los Angeles and works as an Anti-Diet Health Coach to help women realise their best lives are also their most delicious. 

You can follow Samantha on Instagram & on her website.

Think of all the creamy, crispy, starchy, gooey, cheesy foods of the world put into one dish and you still won’t understand the magic of my grandmother’s cheesy potatoes.

I dream of this dish. My body has a visceral reaction to just thinking about this dish. I’m honestly wiping up drool from my chin right now as I write this.

My grandmother grew up on a dairy farm in northern Minnesota in the 1940s so if anyone knows creamy, gooey, cheesy wonders - it’s her. The family farm grew their own crops so for the most part, they were completely self sustaining. My grandmother is also the best cook in my whole family and being brought up so close to food I believe does that to you. You understand the ingredients you’re transforming on a level most of us these days just will never get because of the distance we have between ourselves and our food origins.

The most fond food memories I have with my grandmother is at my grandparent's cabin in a tiny little town in northern Minnesota. A quaint log cabin right on the lake where we would manage to find room for myself, my two brothers, three cousins, my parents and aunt and uncle as well as my grandparents. This cabin is a place of love and my grandmother made sure you knew it through her food.

Hungry? She’ll fix you a snack. Just finished your first plate? She’ll be at your side offering you more the moment you take that last lick of your first serving (I’m convinced it’s a special radar system). Want dessert? She’ll lay out at least three options for you to pick from. Want every dish on the table at dinner time hot? I’m still not sure how she does this (I’m convinced it’s grandmother magic).

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The cabin was a place we would frequent during summer breaks when I was a child. Now as an adult, I’m lucky if I can get there once a year. But every time I do, grandmother fires up her casserole dish for my most requested food of hers: cheesy potatoes.

When I visited last summer, I had one goal in mind: get. that. cheesy. potato. recipe. I scoured my grandmothers recipe boxes and cook books that she had and I couldn’t find it.

Finally I approached my grandmother, “Grandma, how on earth do you make these cheesy potatoes?!?”

She smiles and with divine frankness responds, “Oh it’s the recipe on the side of the hash brown bag.”

Wait. Hold on. What?!

So this magical dish that I’ve been eating all my life that I’ve attributed to my grandmother's upbringing, her closeness to the ingredients, the way she shows her love through food is all just a corporate recipe they stuck on the side of her favourite hash brown brand?!

I suppose in a romantic sense it would appear that anyone would be let down in this moment. To be honest in that moment I was too but let me tell you, I took that recipe from the side of one of her empty hash brown bags that trip and have made it myself back home in Los Angeles and it still doesn’t taste like hers.

It doesn’t matter where the recipe came from. It doesn’t matter what ingredients I’ve tried to add or change out to try and replicate what my grandmother creates. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have her exact casserole dish to make it in.

What matters is that dish, the way that my grandmother makes it, with all her personal history of being close to the natural creation of our food, with her special casserole dish, in that log cabin, with the seemingly endless amounts of love that she pulls from the depths of her being into what she creates to nourish her family, everything that makes her who she is is what makes this dish what it is: gooey, crispy, creamy, cheesy love.

These dishes that speak to us, that sear themselves in our memories, they aren’t because of the recipes that instruct their creation or the ingredients that create the final product. The special ingredient is never a singular food item, it’s the cumulation of your own memories of it, the story you create around it, and the love that the creator wanted you to feel when eating it.

I admire many things about my grandmother but her ability to put her love somewhere you can taste it is one of my most favourite traits of all. It’s a gift that just keeps giving, especially when it’s in cheesy potato form.

Grandma’s Cheesy Potato Recipe

1 600g package shredded hash browns
1 295g cream of chicken soup
250g shredded cheddar cheese
185g sour cream
40g chopped onion
57g butter, melted
Heaping amount of LOVE

40g cornflakes, coarsely crunched
28g butter, melted


Preheat oven to 175° C

Spray baking dish (28 cm x 18 cm rectangle or 20 cm square) with non stick cooking spray

In large bowl, combine hash browns, soup, cheese, sour cream, onion and butter

Spread mixture into prepared baking dish

In small bowl, combine cornflakes and butter

Spread topping evenly over hash brown mix

Bake 45 mins or until hash browns are tender