Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chicken Potpie

Chicken potpie occupies a unique place in the ’Merickan culinary pantheon, in that it is a classic retro-Americana "leftovers dish" yet does not evoke any of the shudders or gag reflexes such dishes are wont to elicit. Compare, for example, tuna casserole—just the name has served as a punch line for decades of family sitcoms, the premise of the joke being that hidden under those canned dried "onions" is everything that was about to go bad in the fridge. Even meatloaf, which has recently acquired new panache in this recessionary era of "upscale comfort food" (more on this at a later date, in my upcoming post about meatloaf) inspires a wide range of visceral reactions in people, many of which are extremely negative.

But chicken potpie grosses out nobody (except perhaps carb-phobic Atkins devotees, but we all know they lead miserable and bitter lives anyway). It is hearty, it is buttery, and it makes efficient and cheap use of leftovers, supplemented by staples you probably already have in your kitchen. Often, I roast a chicken for just myself and The Rob, with an eye toward making potpie out of the leftovers. With the plump roaster I got on sale recently for 99 cents a pound, I was not only able to do that, but make a couple sandwiches' worth of curried chicken salad—oh, and of course, I made stock from the chicken carcass.

Usually, when I make chicken potpie, I put the filling in a gratin pan and lay a crust over just the top of the dish (as opposed to having a bottom crust lining the pan). It's not like this is exactly a "light" dish any way you prepare it, but I find that you don’t really need all that extra crust.

The pie dough I make is based on a recipe from an old Martha Stewart cookbook aptly called Favorite Comfort Food. It is not necessary for me to look up the recipe in the index, since I just open the book and the crusty, broken-spined pages literally pop out at me. This is how you know a recipe is good. I have made tweaks to the dough recipe (primarily, using less butter), so here's my own adaptation:


  • Cut 6 oz. butter (3/4 of a stick) into 1/2-inch-ish squares and stash it in the freezer.

  • Separate an egg. Lightly beat the yolk into a small bowl or cup containing 3 TBSP cold water, and stash the cup/bowl in the freezer.

  • Save the egg white in another bowl, in the fridge.

  • Combine 1 cup flour, 1/2 tsp. salt, and about 1 TBSP dried herbs (try thyme, rosemary, and/or tarragon) in the bowl of your food processor. If you don't have a food processor, get one. Seriously? It's 2011, here.

  • Add the butter to the food processor, and hit "pulse" 5 or 6 times. Pie crust recipes always tell you that the mixture should look like "coarse crumbs," but I find this to be an unhelpful description. Basically you want the butter to disappear into the dry ingredients, with kind of a lumpy texture to the mix.

  • Get your yolk/water mix out of the freezer, press the "on" (not "pulse") button, and pour the liquid down the spout into the processor. Press the "off" button as soon as you see the dough start to come away from the sides of the processor, i.e., start to form a ball.

  • Sprinkle a sheet of wax or parchment paper or plastic wrap with flour and turn out the dough ball onto the paper. Sprinkle a little more flour on top of the dough, and fold in the wax paper so the dough is covered. Flatten it into a rough disc and store it in the freezer 30 minutes, or in the fridge for 1 hour (you can leave it in the fridge overnight if you like).


    While your dough is chilling, make the filling:

  • Dice one large or two small russet potatoes and sauté in a large pot in a couple tablespoons melted butter over medium heat. (You can skip this step and just dice up leftover roast potatoes if you have them, which is what I did this time, having roasted wedges in the pan with the chicken.)

  • Once the potatoes are slightly translucent, add one large diced carrot to the pan, and stir.

  • Add about 6 sliced mushrooms, stir, and cook until they and the carrots have softened. (The veggies will continue cooking in the oven, so they don't need to cook through all the way.)

  • Shred or chunk…mmm, about a pound of cooked chicken? (It's hard to quantify a leftovers dish exactly. If you have more chicken on hand, add more when you have your filling assembled in the dish.) Add to the pot.

  • Add a handful of frozen peas to the pot.

  • Optional: Add diced ham, or crumbled cooked bacon.

  • Stir the filling together and dump it into your gratin dish or roasting dish. Flatten the surface with the back of a spoon or spatula.

  • Return the pot to the heat and melt another couple tablespoons butter. Add a handful of flour and mix it with the whisk to make a roux.

  • When the roux is bubbly and beige, whisk in about 1/2 cup chicken stock, followed by 2 cups milk. Simmer (don't let the milk boil) until it is a thick consistency, somewhere between cream and gravy.

  • Pour the liquid over the filling. Shimmy the pan back and forth so it sinks in. Let this sit at room temperature.


  • Preheat your oven to 375°, and get your dough out of the freezer.

  • You want the dough to be firm enough to roll out without smearing and breaking, but not so rock-hard that you can't roll it out far enough. If it's too hard, whack it with your rolling pin a couple of times and/or let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes.

  • Roll out the dough on a wax-paper-lined baking sheet to maybe 1/4 inch thick, making sure the surface is a little larger than your pan. For ventilation, poke fork holes throughout, or use a cookie cutter or paring knife to make a design.

  • Chill the dough in the fridge for 15 minutes before draping it carefully over the filling. Use kitchen shears, a pizza cutter, or a paring knife, to trim any dough that hangs more than an inch over the pan edge. If desired, trim scraps into shapes for your design, and press them gently onto the dough.

  • Using your fingertips, press that extra inch of overhanging dough into the sides of the pan, folding it back on itself to make a crust edge. Press this with a fork to get the classic pie-crust ridges.

  • Now remember that egg white you saved? Whisk about 1 TBSP milk (or water) into it and use a pastry brush to "paint" the surface of your dough. This will help it get glossy as it bakes and ultimately achieve that shade of golden brown that signifies doneness and deliciousness.


  • Put the pan in the oven; I recommend resting it on a foil-lined baking sheet, to catch any filling that bubbles up and drips out.

  • Bake for 45-ish minutes, or until you see that telltale golden brown color. And let the pan rest on a trivet for maybe 10 minutes—so the filling won't be too hot or too liquidy. This will give you plenty of time to take pictures of your design before you devour it!

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