Not quite chicken pot, chicken pot, chicken pot pie!
One of the things I've always wanted to do was work my way through the American Girl cook books, and whenever I'm home by myself, I find myself turning to them to try and find something quick to feed myself for dinner, while also getting something new and exciting to feature on the blog.
Of course, I don't always follow through on this. I'm one of those people who loves flipping through cookbooks, but often winds up never actually cooking any of the things I say I want to. Even though I love cooking for the blog, I'm lazy when it comes to feeding myself when I'm home alone. This past weekend, I decided to buckle down and throw together something that seemed like it would be easy, filling, and still a fun look back at how one of my favorite fictional characters ate back in 1864.
I had a tricky time finding out the exact history of this dish. I wish AG's historical cook books had included more information about where they found these recipes, or how they interpreted them for modern appliances and palates. There have often been recipes in the books that I'd like to know more about, and the little blurbs AG has added for information and color usually have very little to do with what the actual recipe is. Are they family recipes? Interpretations of historical ones? Hastily thrown together "historical" dishes that might have appealed to a late 80's/early 90's consumer? I want to know!
From what I could find, chicken shortcake is a dish primarily enjoyed in the American South. This doesn't shock me, as a lot of the dishes Addy and her family would have considered comfort food and traditional home cooking would have come from their life on the North Carolina plantation where the family lived until they escaped to Philadelphia. Many of the recipes featured in Addy's Cook Book have southern roots or are staples of southern cooking today, but there is no question that the Walkers ate better when they'd found freedom in Philadelphia than when they were on the plantation. Most slaves were given meager rations compared to white plantation owners, and had to improvise and flesh out their diets with the help of their own vegetable plots.
This is labeled as a "favorite food" of Addy and her family which would've been eaten for dinner, or maybe heated up or even eaten cold for lunch. It definitely makes enough for left overs if you're just one person!
You start by making the shortcake. Unlike the shortcake you're probably familiar with from dessert shortcakes, this one is a little more savory - in that it doesn't have much sugar at all - and made with cornmeal.
Like all other cakes, you mix your dry ingredients (one cup of cornmeal, one cup of flour, one tablespoon of baking powder, one teaspoon of sugar and a 1/4 teaspoon of salt) in a bowl, and then add 1/4 of a cup of melted shortening or lard, one egg and a cup of milk or buttermilk to them. This all gets mixed until all the ingredients are combined, and the recipe reminds you not to over mix this!
The cornmeal batter was a lot fluffier than most corn breads I'd ever made, and I was hoping it would be light and delicious because of it. I poured it gently into a buttered 8 x 8 baking dish and popped it in the oven at 425 degrees for twenty minutes.
It comes out looking like pretty much a standard cornbread.
For the creamed chicken topping, you need three cups of cooked chicken, which has been cubed into bite sized morsels. I went the lazy way and bought precooked chicken breast, which I then cut up myself. You could in theory cook your own chicken and cut it up yourself, but the recipe does want the chicken to be cold, so you might need to refrigerate it for a bit anyway before you finish the dish. This was just faster!
The sauce is basically - and when I say basically, I mean it literally is just - a bechamel sauce. These can be finnicky, but of the few I've made, I have to say, I've done a pretty good job at making them so far. From what I can tell, you just need to be patient with it. I almost added more flour to it a few times when it didn't thicken quickly, but decided to wait it out, and lo and behold, I had a perfect, thick, creamy bechamel sauce to work with.
You melt three tablespoons of butter over medium-low heat, and then add in three tablespoons of flour, mixing constantly as they cook together on the stove for a few minutes. Unlike a roux, this never gets darker or really gives a clear indication that it's ready to be messed around with. I think I cooked mine for maybe five minutes before adding in 1 1/2 cups of milk into the pan. You stir this constantly while adding it too, and keep doing so until it's thick and creamy. Again, this can take a while, but be patient! If you followed the recipe, it should come out okay.
Once it's thick, you add in some salt and pepper to taste.
And then you add in the chicken! This needs to cook over low heat for five more minutes before it's ready to serve. The recipe recommends adding a little more milk if your sauce gets too thick, but mine stayed pretty consistent throughout the cooking process.
You slice up the shortcake, and dump the creamed chicken over the top. Voila! Chicken shortcake.
While I just want to say right off the bat that this definitely wasn't bad, it was... kind of bland, honestly. If you under season this particular recipe, I definitely think you'll find it disappointing, as the pepper and salt was really the only thing that had any flavor to it. The shortcake in particular disappointed me. It had basically no flavor by itself, and considering I'm a big fan of sweet, delicious cornbread, I was really bummed. Part of me wonders if it's the cornmeal I used, but I think the ingredients just mean it's not quite the flavorful goodness I was hoping for when it came out of the oven. I think if I were to make it again, I might make it over a genuine cornbread instead of this shortcake recipe. If I'm going to be eating a lot of a baked good, I definitely want it to taste good instead of just being kind of blah.
The chicken with the bechamel was pretty tasty, though. I found myself enjoying the texture of the shortcake when getting a bite of both the cake and the chicken, especially because of the coarseness of the cornmeal I used. It would probably taste good with finely ground cornmeal too, but I liked the contrast and thought it really did add more to the dish that way.
The whole process didn't take too long to make - maybe half an hour or so at most? - and admittedly, it might take a little longer if you don't use precooked chicken, but not by that much. It's also a dish that's easy to spice up a little. Changing the actual spices helps, of course, but you can also add some extras to the sauce to mix things up a little. I brought my grandparents the leftovers, and my grandma added some peas and other vegetables to it, making it essentially an open faced chicken pot pie, which sounds good to me! I definitely think I'd like to try it that way.
So, while the shortcake was a little disappointing, and I don't think this would make the favorite foods section of Gwen's Cook Book, I enjoyed it as a quick, easy way of feeding myself, and getting a taste of what Addy might have eaten a hundred and fifty years ago, and I'm definitely interested in potential customization attempts. Give it a try yourself!
What other things do you think could be added to the chicken to give it some pop?