Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mom

There are really two versions of this dish. The first time I made it, wanting to impress my guest, I started a few days in advance, roasted a chicken, then used the carcass to make my own stock, then made my own crème fraîche. The result, while basically an amped up mac & cheese with chicken, was really pretty terrific. And it received such high scores that I immediately put it into a mental catalog of good dishes to serve to company.

The second time I made this, I used a rotisserie chicken from the store, but basically that was my only shortcut. I also changed the cheese to a more economical Gouda. It was still outstanding.

I guess what I’m trying to get to in a very roundabout way is that you shouldn’t let the steps involved deter you from making this dish. Buy an already cooked chicken. Use store-bought chicken stock. And if you can’t find crème fraîche, or don’t want to pay the astronomical amount of money that they usually charge for it (and making your own is SO simple and SO MUCH MORE economical, that I highly recommend going that route), you can always substitute sour cream.

I suppose if you’re doing a mental calculation of the number of calories per serving in this, then you could also substitute various low-fat products.

But then you’d have a different dish, wouldn’t you? J

Pasta and Chicken Gratin
Adapted from Epicurious.com

1 fully cooked chicken, meat removed and diced
4 cups good quality chicken stock (or make your own)
1 stick (1/2 cup) + 2 Tbs unsalted butter (use wrappers to grease baking dish)
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 cup crème fraîche (8 oz) *recipe below
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/4 tsp cayenne
1/2 lb Gruyère, coarsely grated (3 cups), or substitute Gouda or another semi-soft cheese
1 cup Parmigiana-Reggiano, finely grated
1 lb penne rigate or other short tubular pasta (I prefer the ‘mini’ version)
3 cups bread crumbs torn from a sourdough baguette

Preheat oven to 400°. Grease an oblong baking dish (9 x 13” works well).

Heat butter (1 stick) in a 4-quart heavy pot over moderate heat until foam subsides, then add garlic and cook, whisking, 1 minute. Add flour and cook, whisking, 1 minute. Add milk and stock (4 cups) in a slow stream, whisking, then bring to a boil, whisking. Reduce heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in crème fraîche, salt, pepper, cayenne, 2 cups Gruyère, and 1/2 cup Parmigiana-Reggiano.

While sauce simmers, cook pasta in a 6- to 8-quart pot of boiling salted water, according to package directions, then drain in a colander. Return pasta to pot, then add chicken and sauce, tossing to coat.

Pour pasta mixture into baking dish.

Melt 2 Tbs butter and toss with bread crumbs and remaining cheeses, then sprinkle evenly over pasta mixture. Bake gratin until crumbs are golden brown and sauce is bubbling, 20 to 30 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.

Crème Fraîche

1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
½ cup buttermilk

Pour whipping cream into a non-reactive bowl, add buttermilk and stir. Loosely cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature 12 to 24 hours, or until mixture thickens. Stir well and refrigerate until ready to use.

My mom loves coconut cream pie, so I thought it would be fun to make a slightly more upscale version for her big day. In this rendition, I used a coconut pastry cream and sandwiched it between two light and crispy coconut meringues, then topped it with whipped cream and toasted coconut. Really very simple, but it definitely elevates the original version a notch.

Coconut Pastry Cream

2 cups milk
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
2 egg yolks
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 Tbs flour
¼ cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

Place both kinds of coconut in a food processor and pulse until the mixture becomes about the size of a course meal.

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, vanilla and flour until well combined.

Combine milk and coconut in a medium saucepan. Place over medium-high heat and stir occasionally, until mixture just starts to simmer.

Temper egg mixture by pouring about a cup of the milk mixture into it, whisking at the same time. Add the warmed egg mixture to the saucepan of milk and coconut. Whisk until pastry cream thickens and begins to bubble, about 5 minutes. It should be very thick at this point.

Remove from heat and whisk in butter until it’s melted. Stir every few minutes until it cools enough to place a piece of plastic wrap or wax paper over the surface (to keep it from forming a skin). Cool to room temperature and then move to fridge and store until needed.

Coconut Meringues

2 egg whites
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
3/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup finely shredded coconut
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 250°.

Add egg whites and cream of tartar to bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on high speed until soft peaks form. Turn speed down slightly and add sugar a tablespoon at a time until mixture forms stiff, glossy peaks.

Turn off mixer and stir in coconut and vanilla.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. For each round, drop 2 heaping tablespoons onto the baking sheet and form into a circle, making sure they are of uniform height and width and spaced about one inch apart.

Bake about 1 hour, rotating sheet halfway through the baking, until they are dry in the middle. Remove to rack to cool.

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