After the last lesson’s lighter fare, I thought I would balance it out with some comfort food. The idea for this class came from some readers, Helen Djukic and Macy Crane, they asked me for an elegant casserole. Normally when you think about a casserole you think tuna noodle, mac n’ cheese and the like, you know, deliciously comforting casual food. But believe it or not, a casserole can be elegant enough to serve at a fine dinner party. My Divine Chicken Casserole fits the bill and it’s what’s on the menu for this week’s class.
Before I get into the class, I want to note a few things. One thing, this recipe is a two day affair, so please plan accordingly. Another thing, you will note that I took advantage of some pre-cooked store bought items. This is perfectly acceptable, so please, if you ever need to use these items, do so guiltlessly.
Now, let’s get cooking!
This recipe will serve four to six people. For it you will need: a 4” high by 3” wide ring mold, 9 x 12 casserole dish, three pie pans, two large saucepans, wooden spoon, colander, two baking sheets, 2 large bowls, spoons, knife, whisk, foil, forks, potato masher, spray oil, three large Yukon Gold potatoes, four sprigs of thyme, 3 peeled garlic cloves, eight ounces unsalted butter, one cup whole milk, ½ teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary, two ½ cups flour, two cups shredded smoked mozzarella, ½ cup heavy cream, sixteen ounces white button mushrooms, ½ cup frozen peas, one box no boil lasagna noodles, ½ pound thinly sliced black forest ham from the deli, one rotisserie chicken, five beaten eggs, 1/3 cup water, two cups Panko, juice of ½ a lemon, one teaspoon granulated garlic, salt, pepper, ½ teaspoon smoked paprika and two tablespoons mayonnaise.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and spray a baking sheet with oil. Place the mushrooms cap side down on the sheet and then spray them generously with oil. Roast for about 30 minutes, until they are nicely browned and cooked through. Remove from oven and salt and pepper. You season the mushrooms after you roast them so they do not become soggy and mushy. Once they are cooled, thinly slice and set aside.
While the mushrooms are roasting, put the Yukon Gold potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with cold water. You use a Yukon Gold potato because they are creamier than Russet potatoes. The cold water is so the potatoes cook evenly from the inside out. Now add into the water the three peeled garlic cloves and the four sprigs of thyme. This will season the potatoes as they cook and remember seasoning at every level creates delicious. Put them over high heat until they boil, then reduce heat to medium, cover and let them simmer. They are done when a fork slides easily out of center of potato. Drain them in a colander and discard the garlic and thyme.
As they cool, use the same saucepan to heat four ounces of unsalted butter, ½ cup heavy cream and the chopped rosemary. Heat over medium-high until the cream comes to a simmer then stir in ½ cup shredded smoked mozzarella.
Set this aside and cut the potatoes into quarters and place in a large bowl. Slowly pour the cream mixture, a little at a time, over the potatoes, using a masher to work it in. Continue this process until potatoes are desired consistency, you want them thick, not runny, think thick vanilla pudding. You may not use all your cream mixture. Once they are completely mashed. Salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
Remove the breasts from the rotisserie chicken and then remove the skin. Using two forks finely shred it in to a large bowl. Add in the mayo, the lemon juice, granulated garlic and smoked paprika. Stir until well combined. Salt and pepper to taste and set aside.
Now it is time to make a Béchamel sauce. This is simply a thickened cream or milk sauce. For this recipe you will be adding in some cheese. Don’t get intimidated by this sauce, it is easier to make than you think. In a large saucepan over medium heat add in four ounces unsalted butter and let it melt. Once melted, add in ½ cup of flour. Using a whisk, combine the flour and butter and continue cooking and whisking until it is a blond color and smells slightly nutty. You do this to cook out that raw flour taste. Next add in the whole milk and continue cooking and whisking until it thickens, about two to three minutes. You keep whisking so the mixture stays smooth and doesn’t develop any lumps. Once thickened, whisk in one ½ cups shredded smoked mozzarella a little at a time; so, add in some cheese, whisk and then add in more cheese, whisk, etc. Continue until all cheese is incorporated. Salt and pepper to taste, then turn off the heat and let it sit while you assemble your mise en place.
It is time to assemble! Preheat oven to 350 degrees. You want a three-layer casserole so use about 1/3 of every ingredient in each layer. Please note, to make sure you still have Béchamel sauce for the final top layer you will want to use ¼ of it, not 1/3 for each layer.
First spray your casserole dish. Next get your mise en place in place: mashed potatoes, shredded chicken, sliced deli ham, frozen peas (these will cook in the casserole), sliced mushrooms, Béchamel sauce and no cook lasagna noodles. Having everything organized and close at hand will make assembly very simple. Spoon ¼ of the Béchamel sauce into the casserole dish and spread it with a spoon. Place a layer of lasagna noodles over the sauce, completely covering it. Go ahead and break them if need be to make a solid noodle layer.
Next spread 1/3 of the potatoes over the noodles and then sprinkle 1/3 of the chicken on top of them. Okay now you put 1/3 of the peas and 1/3 of the sliced mushrooms, sprinkled evenly over the chicken. Now lay out 1/3 of the sliced deli ham. Repeat the next two layers exactly the same.
Once you are at top layer, use the last bit of Béchamel sauce to cover the ham and then top that with a final layer of noodles.
Cover with foil and place on a baking sheet. Cook at 350 for 45-60 minutes until the casserole is bubbling. Remove from oven and let cool then place in fridge overnight.
Note you are going to want at least one hour between the time you bread this casserole and the time it goes into the oven. Doing this will make sure that the casserole cooks evenly.
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Set up your breading station using the three pie pans. In the first pan place the two cups of flour, in the second the beaten eggs and water and in the third the two cups of Panko.
Now remove the casserole from the fridge and spray your ring mold with oil. Starting at a corner, press the ring mold into the casserole and give it a few spins to make sure the casserole is completely cut. You may need to use a fork to help guide out the casserole and the ring mold.
Place the casserole, still in the ring mold, onto a baking sheet and gently remove the mold. Continue this process until you have as many rings out of casserole as possible. This is why you refrigerated the casserole overnight. The cold casserole is much easier to cut than a warm one and will keep its form. Don’t throw out the leftover casserole pieces, these are a delicious snack!
Now take a casserole ring and completely cover it in flour, tapping off any excess, next roll it in the egg mixture and finally completely cover it in Panko. Once breaded, place back on the baking sheet and continue process until all rings are breaded.
Let them sit one hour, then bake them for about 20 minutes in a 350 degree oven until they are golden brown. Serve hot with some marinara sauce.
There you have it an elegant casserole! If you don’t want to bread the casserole, it is perfectly acceptable to serve it the first day you cook it. You can also omit the ring mold and simply cut into squares and then bread it. Remember, as with any technique or recipe, the most important component is the cook’s heart. The heart is what helps you create delicious meals you’ll never forget.
Chef Flowers has over 25 years of fine cuisine experience. The former Executive Chef at Top of The Market, San Diego, also owned Fournos restaurant in Sedona, Arizona, named a top 25 restaurant in Arizona. He was also Executive Chef at L’Auberge de Sedona, the AAA Four-Diamond, Four Star award winning restaurant. Flowers has created extraordinary cuisine for some of the finest restaurants in Arizona, including T. Cooks at Scottsdale's Royal Palms Resort and the Phoenician's Mary Elaine's and Different Pointe of View.