“Are you doing anything for dinner tonight? I’m going to try to make chicken pot pie.” I hit send. A minute later A.R. texted back, “Sign me up! What time?”
Although I’ve occasionally brought him leftover desserts that I’ve made for other purposes, this would be the first time I’d cooked for A.R. in our two years of knowing each other. Not that I was really cooking for him, so much as cooking and wanting to share what I’d cooked with him. (The difference? Semantics, baby. Semantics.)
Chicken Pot Pie has long been on my list of American comfort foods to master, but my never-ending war with pie crust (my baking arch-nemesis!) has kept me from ever trying it. Sure, I’ve seen recipes that employ phyllo dough or puff pastry, but pot pie just isn’t pot pie without a flaky pie crust. Or so I thought until I made the Roasted Vegetable Cobblers, with their light, buttery biscuit toppings. My major barrier to pot pie deliciousness was finally lifted.
Admittedly, the steps I took in this recipe are extensive and took a number of hours to execute. That said, you can take some major shortcuts. You can use precooked chicken and skip the chicken-poaching step completely. You can use Bisquick or refrigerator biscuits for the topping. You can use frozen veggies. And, if it appeals to you, you can use a can of cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup to create the sauce, but that’s kind of where I draw the line. It’s really worth it to make your own béchamel, which may sound fancy and difficult, but really isn’t and real béchamel tastes so much better than a can of soup.
The great thing about having known A.R. for years before cooking for him is that I wasn’t at all worried about the need to impress him and could take the opportunity to experiment with something new. Since reading the description of the lemon soufflé Ruth Reichl had in France in Tender at the Bone, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with the idea of making one. Reichl protests when her mother asks the waiter for the recipe, only to have her mother insist that she could make it too. Which made me wonder, could I?
Happily, I could. It took some effort, yes, and I could have timed it better (I didn’t get a photo of the puffed up soufflés before they started to cool and fall, as I was busy whisking up the sabayon to go on top), and the tops did get a little overly browned, but for a first time soufflé, I was mightily impressed with myself. They were light and airy and full of bright lemon flavor. I could have licked the bowl in which I whisked the sabayon, so creamy and rich. I must make it again to eat on pound cake or strawberries or, you know, a spoon.
“That meal was awesome,” A.R. said, after I had packed up a portion of the pot pie for him to take home. “On a scale of one to ten, it was a damn.”
I had to agree.
Chicken Pot Pie with Thyme Biscuits
Typically I write these recipes in the usual ingredient-list-and-instructions format, but here, due to the numerous steps, I’m going to write this in action format, a la Joy of Cooking, where all of these recipes ultimately came from.
First, poach yourself some chicken. Put a half a chicken (1 chicken breast and 1 leg quarter, on the bone) in a pot with 2 carrots and 2 stalks of celery, both cut into two-inch pieces, 1 medium onion quartered, 2 cups of chicken broth, and enough water to cover everything. I added a bunch of parsley and some sprigs of fresh thyme, because I had them on hand, and several whole peppercorns. Bring everything to a boil, then reduce the heat until the liquid is just barely simmering. Partly cover and cook 25-30 minutes. Remove the meat and let cool so you can shred or cut it into bite-sized chunks. Let the broth cool completely, skim off the fat, and reserve. [For a shortcut, you can use half of a rotisserie chicken that you buy at the grocery store and skip this entirely.]
Now, we will make creamed chicken. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat in a large saucepan and whisk in ½ cup all-purpose flour until smooth. Whisk constantly and cook for 1 minute. The butter and flour will look all clumped up, but I promise it’ll loosen up as it cooks. It’s really kind of a cool transformation. Remove the pan from the heat and gradually add 2 cups of the poaching liquid, or 2 cups of canned chicken broth, and whisk until smooth. Whisk in 1 ½ cups of milk (I used skim), increase the heat and whisk the mixture constantly while it comes to a simmer. Cook it for 1 minute – it’ll really begin to thicken. Stir in your chopped or shredded chicken and cook for 1 minute more. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper, a squeeze of fresh lemon juice, and a sprinkling of ground nutmeg. (Shortcut: Use 1 can of cream of chicken or cream of mushroom soup and 1 ½ cups of milk. But like I said before, I wouldn’t actually recommend this, though, because the freshly made béchamel tastes so much better, it’s truly worth the effort [and it’s not really that much effort!].)
Biscuit time! Quick drop biscuits are so easy, but for a shortcut use a can of Pillsbury biscuits or do it up with some Bisquick. To make your own, sift together in a large bowl 1 ¾ cups all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and ½ teaspoon salt. Cut in 6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter using a pastry blender or two knives, or use my new favorite trick and grate it on the large holes of a box grater and then work the butter into the flour using the tips of your fingers (not your palms – your fingertips are cooler and won’t melt the butter). Make a well in the center and add 1 cup skim milk. I also added 1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme, because I thought it would go well here. Stir until everything just comes together.
On to assembling the pot pie. Grease a 13×9-inch baking dish and preheat the oven to 400º. Melt 2 tablespoons of butter over medium-high heat in a large skillet. Add and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often: 1 medium onion chopped, 2 medium carrots sliced, and 2 small celery ribs sliced. Once cooked, stir the veggies into the creamed chicken and add ¾ cup thawed frozen peas and 3 tablespoons minced parsley. (Shortcut: Use all frozen veggies and just thaw them in the microwave or in warm water.) Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and arrange the biscuit dough on top. I used a tablespoon-sized cookie scoop and made 4 rows of 7 little biscuits and had just enough dough to do it. Brush the top with 2 tablespoons of beaten egg or some milk to aid in browning. Bake 30-40 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling up all nicely around the biscuits and their tops are golden.
I made these in four individual 7-ounce soufflé molds because I don’t have a large soufflé mold. I originally made the entire recipe, but I had tons left over, so I’ve halved it here. Butter the molds generously and sprinkle the insides with sugar, rolling it around so it coats every square inch of the surface. Don’t skip this step – this is what the soufflé uses to hold onto as it climbs up the walls of the mold.
Joy of Cooking says to serve the soufflés with hot lemon sabayon. It’s not necessary, but I took the extra step to create this surprisingly easy sauce.
1 ½ tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup half-and-half
¼ cup sugar
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 ½ large egg yolks (whisk one yolk and do your best to pour only half in the bowl)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons strained fresh lemon juice
2 large egg whites, at room temperature
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
pinch of salt
Position a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat oven to 375º.
Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until smooth. Cook the flour and butter, stirring, for one minute, then remove from the heat and add the half-and-half, sugar, and lemon zest. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking constantly, and the remove from the heat.
In a large bowl, whisk the egg yolks until slightly thickened. Gradually whisk in the cream mixture, going slowly so that the temperature of the egg yolks doesn’t rise too quickly. Stir in the lemon juice.
In another large bowl, beat the egg whites at medium speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and salt and increase the speed to high, beating the egg whites until stiff peaks form. Using a rubber spatula, stir one quarter of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture, then fold in the remaining whites. Do this gently so that you don’t deflate either mixture. Lightly spoon the mixture into the prepared molds and bake them for 25-30 minutes, until they’ve puffed up and risen and the tops are golden brown.
Serve immediately, either plain or with lemon sabayon.
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/6 cup plus ½ tablespoon sugar (=2 ½ tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons)
2 tablespoons water
1 ½ tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice
grated zest of ½ lemon
In the top of a double boiler, whisk the egg, egg yolk, and sugar vigorously until slightly thickened. Don’t stop whisking or the egg will start to scramble. While still whisking, add the water, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Continue whisking while the mixture cooks. You can take the mixture’s temperature and stop at 160º, or if you don’t have a thermometer handy, cook it until it gets quite thick and is at the point where it can be spooned up. It’ll take about 5-10 minutes, during which time I really enjoy watching and feeling as it goes from a thin mess of eggs to a viscous, creamy sauce. Top the soufflés with the finished sauce and eat immediately.