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Classic Cookbooks: 'Joy of Cooking' Chicken Divan

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)

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