Reinventing Chicken Tetrazzini - No. 3
And a Chocolate Chip Cookie question
My friend Lisa says her MIL once shared the answer to foolproof entertaining - “cook first, and then drink.”
For that generation, “cook first” meant casserole.
Flip through the index of any spiral-bound community cookbook and you’ll see pages of casseroles. They’re made of ground beef, crab, but mostly chicken. There is Tetrazzini (thin spaghetti, mushrooms, green olives), Curried Artichoke, King Ranch with flour tortillas and chilies, and a super-popular chicken with wild rice and green beans. They allowed you to invite friends to dinner, reconnect over cocktails, and dine on a meal that had been prepped ahead.
But the dirty little secret in most of those casserole recipes - certainly in my mother’s favorites - is the can of cream of mushroom soup, sometimes cream of chicken, which made assembly a snap. If spiked with a shot of sherry, then no one suspected the soup.
Home Economics and Suffrage and what that has to do with casseroles...
Technically, anything layered and organized in a baking dish can be called a “casserole.” Here’s a bit of history I unearthed while flipping through the fabulous Neige Todhunter collection of old cookbooks at Vanderbilt University. (And yes, in my spare time, I seek out old cookbooks!)
In the early 20th Century when women were busy with civic and social responsibilities outside the home - things like working on their right to vote, advocating for advances in health care, looking to clean up their streets and cities from disease and drunkenness, no small tasks - they understandably lobbied for more order in the home kitchen.
This was hardly the time when a woman walked into her kitchen and didn’t know what was for supper. Dinner was planned ahead. (Actually making the dinner ahead and refrigerating it would come a decade or two later - the 1930s - after home refrigeration took off and working women meal-prepped first thing in the morning.)
Cooking teachers, authors, and the new “home economists” - Fannie Farmer - created recipes where ingredients were arranged just so in a baking dish. The order was important, as was a variety of nutrients. You could switch up ingredients depending on your food budget, too, so when you think about it, the early casserole was egalitarian. And, I might add, with a sprig of parsley placed on top, it was attractive!
Feeding the Faithful
But let’s face it, people were drawn to the casserole because it didn’t offend. It was bland and never spicy. It was substantial and ecumenical. And there’s a good reason why chicken casseroles have been a mainstay at church suppers - they were inexpensive but also crowd pleasers, regardless of Baptist, Presbyterian or Methodist. The creamier and more filling the better. Green salad, rolls, cake, done!
Invariably, these casseroles worked their way into family recipe boxes and cookbooks like The Joy of Cooking. It wasn’t until after World War II, that canned soup crept in and like an invasive plant hijacked these perfectly delicious casserole recipes. Just like mixes and microwaves, canned soup changed everything. What had been a simple homemade white sauce holding together vegetables, protein, and starch - the components of a casserole - was now Campbell’s, and women loved the convenience.
Mom’s Tetrazzini Gets a Makeover
Flash forward to today when I flip through my mother’s old cookbooks and recipes. I, too, love the idea of cooking ahead. I totally buy into the allure of casseroles. I’d like to be organized on the day when post-Covid I throw open my doors and invite all my friends over to dinner and catch-up first over cocktails, and so I need something nice to place on the table.
But I can’t bring myself to serving canned soup to company. It’s not that I’m a food snob - I wrote The Cake Mix Doctor, for goodness sakes! - it’s just that canned soup is boring, of suspicious jiggly texture, and no matter what you add to it, it brings the recipe down a notch. I don’t want my nice ingredients - freshly picked thyme and good grated Parmesan and hand-pulled chicken to fall to the level of canned soup. Do you?
I want a recipe that says I might have made this ahead of time but I surely didn’t add canned soup because you are too important of a friend for me to do that! So I took on the project of unshackling Chicken Tetrazzini from canned soup. To put it back the way it was intended. This is a century-old recipe so loved that it was named after the opera singer Luisa Tetrazzini. It needed to return to its former glory!
My friend, the Béchamel.
In place of canned soup, I added the components of a homemade béchamel, or what used to be known as white sauce. (White sauce with just butter, flour, and milk was the first sauce I learned to make, following the directions in the Betty Crocker plaid children’s cookbook.)
And white sauce is what the French call “béchamel,” one of the first recipes I whisked at La Varenne in Paris, where I studied cooking in the 80s. The French have a lovely way of making the sauce better by steeping a slice of onion, a small bay leaf, and 6 peppercorns in the hot milk, or by adding a pinch of nutmeg at the end. (You can absolutely heat the cream, turn off the heat, and add those aromatics if you’re feeling very French, or not — just remember to strain the cream if you do!)
While I was improving the Tetrazzini sauce-wise, I couldn’t stop there. I replaced the canned mushrooms with sliced fresh Baby Bellas. I made sure to use good Parmesan. (Costco sells a grated Parmigiano Reggiano aged 24 months!) This Tetrazzini was so good it lives up to its famous reputation. And I think Luisa would approve as would my mother.
So, go set the table and make this very good casserole. Make it for Mother’s Day, for yourself, your mom, or in honor of all the other mothers through history who have tried to make the world a better place and if casseroles were the vehicle that allowed them to do so - so be it! Or, just open your doors and invite your friends over to dinner.
A Chocolate Chip Cookie Question:
How do you bake chocolate chip cookies? Right off the bag? Or did you spend this past year creating the perfect cookie, with the right flour, right ratio of chocolate chips to dough, crispy edges to soft and gooey center? I’d love to hear from you as I find testing, eating, and writing about CCC one of the most enjoyable things on the planet.
Need a Gift Idea for Mother’s Day? What about a year’s subscription to Between the Layers? You don’t have to wrap or ship it to Mom - or your daughter or DIL - and it will pop up in her inbox each Tuesday. She’ll also get the Subscriber Friday notes. They just might start some conversations about your very own family recipes…
And now, the recipe of the week…
The Recipe: My Chicken Tetrazzini (for Today’s Kitchen)
This recipe is a classic, and I know you will find ways to make it yours. Begin with chicken (or turkey) and either cook the chicken yourself or buy a supermarket rotisserie chicken and shred the meat. (My mother stewed a hen for Tetrazzini, which she said had more flavor, fyi.) Or go meatless and double the mushrooms. You can use store-bought or homemade chicken broth. Use vermicelli or spaghetti pasta, whatever you’ve got, and cook it by the package directions.
Flavor to suit your palate. Go bold and add a bit of cayenne. (Some of the old recipes called for a tablespoon of chili powder!) Add a pinch of nutmeg if you like. Use the sherry to pick up the sauce, but if you don't have sherry, add some white wine instead. Use the best mushrooms you can find - either white or cremini or Baby Bellas. Add the green olives or omit. But do take the time to toast some chopped pecans to scatter on top just when ready to serve. (I have found if you add the pecans ahead of time, before baking, some of the pecans will burn and the others get soggy sitting in the casserole and its juices.)
And as is the case with so many recipes, the better the Parmesan, the better the outcome. Shower the finished dish with chopped parsley or thyme, or leave it plain and simple in its comforting brownish, golden glory. It’s going to be good!
Makes 8 to 10 servings
Prep: 30 minutes
Bake: 25 to 30 minutes
8 ounces thin spaghetti or vermicelli
3 cups (12 ounces) chopped or shredded cooked chicken
4 tablespoons butter
2 cups (8 ounces) sliced fresh mushrooms
1/2 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped celery
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
2 tablespoons sherry
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup (4 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, divided use
1/4 cup sliced green olives
1/4 cup (or more as desired) chopped toasted pecans, for garnish
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Break the spaghetti noodles in half. Stir in the spaghetti and 1 teaspoon salt. Reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook the spaghetti, uncovered, according to package directions until just done, 6 to 7 minutes. Drain the spaghetti well in a colander, shaking it to remove excess water. Place it in a mixing bowl, add the chicken, and toss to combine. Set aside.
2. Place a rack in the center of the oven, and preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
3. Place the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When melted, add the mushrooms, onion, and celery and cook, stirring, until soft, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and add the flour. Cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and cook, stirring, until it begins to thicken, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cream, and stir until combined. Add the sherry, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook stirring until the sauce comes just to a boil, about 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 1/2 cup of the Parmesan and olives. Pour the sauce into the bowl with the chicken and noodles and stir to combine well.
4. Transfer the chicken mixture to a 13- by 9-inch or large round ceramic or glass casserole dish. Sprinkle with the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan. Bake the casserole until it is bubbling, about 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, let it rest 10 minutes, then scatter with the toasted pecans and serve.
P.S. If you make it, I’d love to hear how it turned out!
One last note: I’m Grateful!
I love reading your comments, emails, and texts about this newsletter. At this stage, I’m building the foundation and gathering ideas on what you want to read. I’m grateful that many of you have invested as a subscriber. Subscribers receive the Friday notepad of ideas with an extra recipe, and their name goes in the hat for a cookbook drawing on the last day of the month. April’s winner - Debra Taylor - got a soon-to-be-published copy of American Cake in paperback, signed by moi. This past year and the pandemic have taken a toll on all of us, and stressful times call for good food and conversations. Thank you!