As I wrote long ago in another forum, Joy of Cooking has never much appealed to me. A prudish child, I was, I think, put off by the way its title echoed The Joy of Sex (a subject I would have preferred never to hear mentioned or even hinted at), and as an young adult learning how to cook I was faithful to How to Cook Everything (which had something to do with my naively limitless reverence for the New York Times). Eventually, however, the man I would marry came into my life, and I was ready for it—“it” being, of course, Joy of Cooking, which had been his family’s standard text and now was his. Many skillets of refried beans, pots of stew, and countless muffins later, I’ve learned to give Joy its due as a classic of the American kitchen.
Yet I would never turn to this book for basic information about roasting a chicken or making mayonnaise, the way I would turn to Julia Child or Mark Bittman. Some lingering prejudice makes me seek out the chicken and rice casseroles and Swedish meatballs on offer, despite the fact that these pages are not actually bursting with kitschy comfort food. The truth, if you must know, is that I love that kind of food and am probably seeking excuses to make it, which is how I came to make chicken divan twice in two weeks.
Chicken divan is chopped or shredded chicken breast cooked with broccoli florets, béchamel sauce, and a little cheese. This dish has a faint element of nostalgia for me, so faint I can’t quite pinpoint where and when I ate it. I think my family would sometimes eat frozen croissants that were stuffed with chicken divan (or something very similar), a hunch strengthened by the fact that when I pulled the dish from the oven and eagerly scooped myself a serving, my first reaction to the first bite was, “Where’s the puff pastry?” The sauce was soothingly bland, but the chicken (a poached boneless, skinless breast) was unsatisfyingly so and a little tough to boot. Perhaps part of the problem was that we ate the casserole over plain white rice, when toast (or yes, puff pastry) would have given it some crunch and flavor. But please don’t misunderstand—my expectations for creamy, cheesy chicken and broccoli were almost unreachably high, and Andrew, who usually grumbles at bland and creamy things, pronounced it a success.
Our version of Joy is the 1997 edition, so I figured I should stop by the bookstore to see if the 75th anniversary edition published in 2006 even included chicken divan. Indeed, it included a different and more appealing recipe—the bottom of the baking dish was lined with buttered toast, which seemed like a possible consolation for the absence of puff pastry, and instead of plain béchamel it called for Mornay sauce (cheesy béchamel), which promised to boost overall flavor. What’s more, it had been moved from the poultry chapter to a chapter called “Brunch, Lunch, & Supper Dishes,” which was full of the kind of retro 9x13 inch food (King Ranch! Croque-Monsieur casserole!) I am always trying to unearth in this book. Maybe it’s time for us to buy the new edition.
Readers, I tried them both, and the updated version is far superior. I hope I forget how easy it is to make Mornay sauce before I start trying to eat it on all of my green vegetables like a child. The buttered toast at the bottom of the dish was more like bread pudding than puff pastry but still provided the hoped-for complement of flavor and texture. And the chicken—the chicken was still relatively bland and tough (I’ll try thigh meat next time), but have I mentioned that it was coated with hot, bubbly Mornay sauce? This indulgent supper will definitely be making repeat appearances in my kitchen.
Chicken Divan (Updated Recipe)
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing the dish and buttering toast
- 4 slices white bread
- 2 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 12 ounces), poached and thinly sliced
- 10 ounces frozen chopped broccoli, thawed
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1/4 onion, peeled
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup grated cheese (I used 1/2 cheddar and 1/2 parmesan)
- 1/3 cup parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground pepper
- Cayenne pepper or freshly grated nutmeg to taste (I used 1/4 teaspoon cayenne)
- 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast
- 1 3/4-2 cups chicken stock
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing the dish
- 1/2 cup flour
- 1 1/2 cups whole milk, half-and-half, or light cream
- 2-3 tablespoons sherry (optional)
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- 3 cups steamed broccoli florets
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese or 1 cup grated cheddar cheese (I used cheddar)
Preheat oven to 400°F. Butter an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish. Toast and butter the white bread and use it to line the bottom of the baking dish, trimming to fit as necessary. (Hint: toast scraps taste good with Mornay sauce.)
Spread the cooked, sliced chicken over the toast. Top the chicken with broccoli and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt.
Make the Mornay sauce. Put the milk in a small saucepan with 1/4 onion stuck with 2 whole cloves and heat over a low flame for 15 minutes; the milk should not boil but should get warm enough to take on the flavor of the onion, cloves, and bay leaf. Take the milk from the heat and remove the onion, cloves, and bay leaf. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter in a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. When the foam subsides, add the flour all at once, turn the heat to low, and stir for 2-3 minutes, until it no longer smells raw and has taken on some color but is not nutty brown. Remove the saucepan from the heat, allow it to cool for a minute, then whisk in the warm milk until no lumps remain. Put the saucepan back over a low flame and cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring frequently, until the sauce is the consistency of a thick cream soup. Then stir in the cup of grated cheese until it is completely melted but no longer.
Remove the saucepan from the heat and season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in cayenne or nutmeg. Pour this sauce over the dish of chicken and broccoli. Sprinkle 1/3 cup grated parmesan over the top and bake for 25-35 minutes, until the top is browned and the sauce is bubbly.
Chicken Divan (Original Recipe)
adapted from The All-New, All-Purpose Joy of Cooking (1997)
Put the chicken in a Dutch oven with the stock. If the stock does not cover the chicken, add enough water to cover completely. Bring to a simmer over high heat, then reduce the heat so the liquid barely bubbles. Cover partially and cook until done, 8-12 minutes. Remove the meat from the stock (do not discard stock) and let it stand until cook enough to handle. Cut or shred into bite-sized pieces. Skim the fat from the stock with a spoon.
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, for 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in 2 cups of the chicken stock until smooth. Then whisk in the milk, half-and-half, or cream and return the pan to the burner.
Turn the flame to medium and bring the mixture just to a simmer, whisking constantly. If lumps form, remove the pan from the heat, scrape its sides with a spatula, and whisk the lumps away. Simmer 1 minute. Stir in the cooked chicken and optional sherry. Cook 1 minute more. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
Butter a 9x13 inch baking dish. Spread the steamed broccoli in the dish and top with the creamed chicken. Sprinkle with cheese and bake until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is golden brown, 25-35 minutes.