I never like to argue with the bible of American cookery, “Joy of Cooking.” Much of its advice is timeless, like the best way to skin an eel and how to make fritters from day lilies.
But in search of advice on chicken potpie, this confident statement made me pause: “None of us has lost the taste for creamed foods served on toast or in bread or pastry containers.”
“Joy of Cooking” was published in 1931 and now, 85 years afterwards, I must admit that I have mostly lost the taste for creamed foods, contained or not. Apparently others have as well.
Apart from a few holdouts who insist on creamed onions at Thanksgiving, I don’t know a modern home cook who regularly turns out creamed mushrooms, chicken a la king or the dreaded creamed chipped beef on toast.
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But still lingering on American menus is chicken potpie, a dish based on creamed chicken that is so beloved that the taste of it doesn’t seem to matter.
If it did, would we ignore that most versions have very little flavor? Without the crust and the mini pie dish, would we be made happy by a bowl of chicken in gummy sauce stirred with frozen peas and carrots?
What our “creamed” dishes have in common is not cream, but white sauce, a thrifty substitute with many uses in the kitchen. (It is called béchamel in French and besciamella in Italian.) It is made by lightly cooking flour in fat (this is also known as a roux), and then thinning it with milk.
In early American kitchens, white sauce stood in for cream, which was reserved for making butter. Later on, canned “cream of” soups supplanted white sauce in many creamed dishes, like the filling for a “Joy of Cooking” quick chicken potpie: a poached chicken, canned cream of chicken soup and milk. (No, thanks.)
I grew up believing that a frozen potpie was one of life’s great rewards, signaled by the arrival of a baby sitter. This meant relief from my usual monotonous diet: home-cooked dinners made from fresh ingredients by my parents, both excellent cooks. (This is the food version of unconscious privilege.)
At that age, I loved the frozen version’s salty crust, the Day-Glo peas and carrots, and the soft bits of chicken. As an adult cook, I labored to reproduce it by making homemade chicken potpies: blanching tiny cubes of fresh peas and carrots, poaching organic chicken breasts and stirring all manner of herbs and spices into my white sauce in an attempt to wake up the taste.
They were OK, but all of them had the telltale blandness of milk, which tends to muffle flavors instead of brightening them.
Finally I realized the underlying problem. As an emulsion of flour and fat, white sauce itself is a kind of liquid pie crust.
White sauce has its place, on biscuits, heavily peppered and cooked with sausage meat or between the layers of a lasagna. But in a pie, it doubles the starch and blandness.
I first received inklings of an alternate potpie universe at the sleek and modern NoMad Bar in New York. The NoMad Bar’s chicken potpie, introduced in 2014, is decorated with a skewer of foie gras and spiked with truffles.
But the big-ticket ingredients are not the real draw. When I cracked through that crust for the first time, I discovered brown gravy instead of viscous white fluid, and it was scented with chicken juices and wine, like the best kind of stew. This has possibilities, I thought.
I tried making a pie filling with stock instead of milk: an instant improvement. And then I began to question all the rules for the traditional recipe.
Here are the updated rules for a modern potpie:
▪ There is no need for a double crust. A single crust is enough, and pie crust, biscuit dough or puff pastry can all do an excellent job. But the flakiness of pie crust makes the ideal topping.
▪ Instead of milk, use stock, wine, vinegar or a tasty combination as the liquid in your binding sauce. Season the sauce aggressively.
▪ Boneless thigh meat has more taste and better texture than boneless breast.
▪ Vegetables should be served separately, not force-marched into the filling.
After some messy experiments, I realized that the right filling for my modern pie was at hand: a basic chicken sauté. Brown the chicken, deglaze the pan and there it is: meat and sauce, fully cooked, in one pan. Flouring the chicken parts before sautéing not only thickened the sauce, but produced more of the stuck-on brown bits at the bottom of the pan that make the best pan gravy.
On a mission to make a lively filling, I found that the components of a French poulet au vinaigre – sherry vinegar, parsley and mushrooms – called to me. But it would be just as effective to swap in white wine, tarragon and shallots or another combination of aromatics and liquids.
To make individual potpies: Divide the mixture among 6 large ramekins, mini pie pans or ovenproof bowls. Roll the pastry out into a rectangle and cut into 6 squares, each one large enough to cover the filling and drape over the rim of the dish. Lightly place a pastry square over each dish and evenly fold down the four corners on the outside edge. Press gently to seal. Snip or cut a few slits in the top. Place on a cookie sheet for baking.
To use leftover cooked chicken (or turkey): Add the flour mixture by itself in step 3. Cut leftover chicken into bite-sized pieces and stir into the pan at the end of step 3 to heat through.
Modern chicken potpie
Total time: 1 hour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and smashed
6 ounces bacon or pancetta, preferably thick-cut, sliced into strips
1 medium onion, chopped
8 ounces mushrooms, such as button or cremini, thickly sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon paprika
Salt and ground black pepper
1 pound boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons butter
2 1/2 cups rich chicken stock
1/4 cup Marsala, Madeira or sherry
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, more for garnish
One 9-inch pie crust, chilled, or 1 sheet puff pastry
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water
Heat oil and garlic together over low heat. When it sizzles, add bacon and onions and cook, stirring often, until fat is rendered and bacon is golden brown. Adjust the heat so the bacon slowly gives up its fat. Remove garlic clove and add mushrooms. Cook, stirring, until mushrooms are browned and slightly softened.
In a sealable plastic bag, combine flour, thyme, paprika, 2 large pinches salt and 1 large pinch pepper. Add chicken and shake well to coat.
In the skillet with the bacon and mushrooms, add butter and melt over medium heat. Add chicken pieces and any flour that remains in the bag. Cook, stirring, until chicken pieces are golden and the flour on the bottom of the pan is browned. Pour in stock, Marsala and vinegar. Scrape bottom of pan, and let simmer about 5 minutes, until thickened. Taste for salt, pepper and vinegar and adjust the seasonings. Turn off heat and stir in parsley.
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
Transfer chicken and sauce to 9-inch round pie dish or 8-inch square baking dish. Roll out pie crust to desired shape and size. Drape crust over filling, making a few slits or decorative holes on top. Tuck edges down around filling and brush crust with egg wash. If the dish is piled high with filling, place on a baking sheet to catch any overflow before transferring to oven.
Bake until crust is browned and filling is bubbling, 20 to 30 minutes.
Let cool slightly, at least 10 minutes, before serving with a big spoon. If desired, garnish each serving with parsley.