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Food can be a powerful trigger for our memories. And that’s why so many of us have particular foods that we identify with the places, and people of our past. The smell of bread fresh from the oven immediately transports me to my grandmother’s house. That first scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy reminds of countless Christmas dinners and the people who were gathered around those various tables. Then there are the meals that we remember because they conjure images of important events in our lives. Now, I certainly don’t consider the first real meal I cooked for my family to be of equal importance to your wedding feast or your child’s first birthday, but it was a life-changing event for me. It was my first step toward culinary adventurism, the day that I realized that there was nothing exotic about food, it was just food I hadn’t eaten yet. For me, the dish that carries this immense load of meaning, the food that triggers these deep currents of nostalgia is Chicken Cordon Bleu. Yes, I know there is nothing exotic about Chicken Cordon Bleu. I know it is a food hopelessly locked in the 60’s and 70’s. But it was the first meal I ever cooked on my own, a pivotal moment in the life of any foodie.
Unlike so many of the foods that we write about, there is no rich history and no charming lore attached to Chicken Cordon Bleu. By my best estimation, it first showed up in the America’s in the early to mid 1960’s. The earliest reference I could find to Cordon Bleu of any description was a 1959 recipe for Veal Cordon Bleu in a syndicated column called Anne’s Reader Exchange. The contributor said the veal was “a specialty of a restaurant in The Hague.” I found a 1965 advertisement in the Washington Post for a Christmas gala serving Cordon Bleu. And a story from the January 11, 1968 Washington Post that detailed how Mrs. Franmarco scoured the city for the supermarket specials to prepare Chicken Cordon Bleu for 8 for under $40. A 1967 United Airlines add for the Blue Carpet Service offered passengers the choice of Top Sirloin Steak or Chicken Cordon Bleu. Blue Carpet Service was coach on United.
How times have changed. The last time I flew United a I got a small package of non-peanut containing crackers and a small glass of Diet Coke. And does anyone remember the Canadian carrier, Ward Air? On a flight to Hawaii, we were served Chateau Briand and unlimited champagne, on real china with real cutlery. But I digress – back to Cordon Bleu. Perhaps turning Chicken Cordon Bleu into airline food signaled its eventual decline into the realm of culinary nostalgia, to be relegated forever to the freezer section between the diet dinners and the frozen hors d’oeuvres or occasionally fresh from the butcher. You’re not likely to find it on a restaurant menu, though it makes infrequent appearances at stodgy conference luncheons. To confirm just how unfashionable Chicken Cordon Bleu has become I checked a couple of the largest prepared food purveyors in Canada only to find that while President’s Choice sells a half dozen stuffed chicken breasts, it does not make a Cordon Bleu and though M&M Meat Shops does still sell Cordon Bleu, they call it “Bistro Chicken Swiss,” thus severing any possible association with the passé.
While I remember vividly the first time I made Chicken Cordon Bleu, I don’t actually remember when I made it last. It’s probably been several years. It’s not because I don’t like it. It’s not because it’s not healthy. But with so many new things to try, it’s difficult to justify wasting a meal on something I’ve had dozens of times before. Happily, Chicken Cordon Bleu is very easy to make and you really don’t need a recipe so it was a pleasure to whip some up for the blog. I decided, however, to not stuff the ham and cheese into the chicken breast but to melt it on top instead. It tasted exactly the same, but I won’t do it that way again. I missed cutting into the chicken and watching the cheese ooze out of the centre. In this case the sight was as important as the flavour. Lesson learned. Never mess with a memory.
Chicken Cordon Bleu
• 4 chicken breasts, pounded flat to ¼ inch thickness
• 4 ounces gruyere, emmental or jarlsberg cheese
• 8 slices Westphalia or prosciutto ham
• 1 cup flour
• 1 tsp paprika
• 2 eggs
• 1 tsp Dijon mustard
• 1 cup panko or other bread crumbs
• 1 tbsp mixed herbs, (herb de provence or Mrs. Dash is a good quick addition)
• salt and pepper
Lay a flattened chicken breast on a board. Lay the ham in the center of the chicken. Place an ounce of cheese on the ham. Fold the ham around the cheese and roll the chicken around the ham. Use a metal or wood skewer to secure while breading.
Season flour with salt, pepper and paprika. Beat eggs with 2 tablespoons of water, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Mix herbs with bread crumbs in another bowl. Roll the stuffed chicken in the flour mixture. Dip in the egg mixture and then roll in the bread crumbs. You can prepare up to this point and refrigerate for several hours before cooking.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Place the stuffed chicken on a greased cooling rack set over a pan. Bake for about 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown and chicken juices run clear.
There is something quite wonderful about the combination of the salty ham, the texture of the cheese and the crispy crust on the chicken. It’s deadly simple but it works. I know I probably won’t make Cordon Bleu again anytime soon, but I am inspired use this flavour profile in some other way. I think it would make a really great pizza!