Poppy Seed Chicken is an old Southern standby, just pure comfort in casserole form. I can't think of a more satisfying childhood memory than enjoying a big helping it on a chilly winter night. I must admit that it's been years since I last tasted my mom's version but something about this latest cold front spurred me to bring it out for a spin.
Recipes for poppy seed chicken have been passed among home cooks via recipe cards, community cookbooks, and now, the internet for plenty of years. But what interested me when doing my homework was how few variations I could actually find. I've unearthed countless versions of other classic American casseroles in the past, so I admit I was kind of taken by surprise. My first inclination was to recognize the lack of deviations as a positive sign, as the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." That doesn't mean, however, that the retro recipe couldn't use a couple of upgrades.
If you've been following my posts for a while then you know I love to tinker with childhood favorites, but thankfully poppy seed chicken didn't need too much tweaking. To give it a modern makeover, first I ditched the usual "cream of chicken" condensed soup in favor of a different kind of canned good: evaporated milk, which holds up well during long cooking times. This became the base, along with stock and a roux, for my own quick and rather delicious version of "cream of chicken" soup.
The second "upgrade" was the addition of creme fraiche, which I promise I didn't add just to be fancy. Because of its higher fat content, creme fraiche can be cooked at higher temps without the fear of curdling. And while most recipes call for serving the casserole alongside rice or pasta, I went ahead and eliminated that step and tossed some egg noodles right in.
I'm going to be the first to admit that I loved (devoured!) this new-and-improved poppy seed chicken. There's also the fact that my husband, a proud believer that the only purpose of a casserole (any casserole) is as a vehicle for hot sauce, did not once request his usual bottle of Frank's. In fact he even asked if I would make the casserole, as is, again. And that is what I would call a true success!
Poppy Seed Chicken Casserole
For the casserole:
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup chicken stock
1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk, divided
2-3 large garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
8 ounces (1 cup) room temperature creme fraiche (See Recipe Notes)
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
Pinch freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
8 ounces wide egg noodles
3 cups cooked, chopped chicken (from 1 rotisserie chicken)
Splash of hot sauce, such as Tabasco
Addition kosher salt and pepper, to taste
For the topping:
1 cup crushed butter crackers, such as Ritz (from 1 sleeve)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
For the casserole, preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease an 11 x 7 (medium-sized, 2-quart) baking dish.
Melt 6 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until thick and golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the chicken stock and 3/4 cup of the evaporated milk followed by the garlic cloves. Continue whisking until the mixture is very thick and creamy, 3 to 4 minutes. Discard the garlic cloves. Fold in creme fraiche and season with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Stir in egg noodles and cook until al dente, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain but do not rinse; return the noodles to the pot.
Stir the chicken and milk sauce into the noodles. Season with hot sauce and additional salt and pepper to taste. Transfer the noodle mixture to the prepared baking dish; pour the remaining evaporated milk evenly over the top.
For the topping, transfer the crushed crackers to a small mixing bowl. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Add the butter, olive oil, and poppy seeds to the crumbs and use a fork to combine. Scatter the topping evenly over the casserole.
Bake until golden and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Allow to cool for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
Full fat sour cream can be substituted for the creme fraiche, but lower the oven temperature to 325°F to ensure the base doesn't curdle.