It was on a street in Edinburgh in 2007 that I realised I was finally an adult, a proper grown up. My Mum had just managed to release me from a tearful embrace that in hindsight represented a monumental shift in our relationship. She had dropped me off at my university halls that morning and helped me carry boxes that contained everything I had cherished from home, unpacking and making my bed while I excitedly introduced myself to all my new roommates. Suddenly I wasn’t her baby anymore and I could see my whole childhood flash before her as she began to mourn the chapter of her life as my Mum. I can still remember how tightly she held me and now that I’m older, I realise how difficult it must have been for her to let go and trust that she did a good enough job raising me. I stood on the kerb and waved goodbye for as long as I had to until I skipped off, oblivious to how massive that moment was for both of us.
We were lucky growing up with the mother we have. She was always there to cook us dinner each evening, to help us with our homework and to tuck us in at night. Our meals were never anything hugely fancy, just the typical Irish dinners with about four different recipes in rotation (I haven’t been able to eat a fish finger in about 15 years).
Before leaving for university I had written down a recipe in my notebook in the hope that I wouldn’t completely starve. It was for minced meat, gravy, potatoes and carrots, a dinner most Irish kids would have been reared on and it was just about the only think I cooked in my first semester in between the mass of take away food and snacks (I had a tin underneath my bed filled with treats and after a night out I would wake up with one hand still in the tin!).
Sadly, there’s only so much mince a girl can eat and thankfully that Christmas my sister Amy bought me my very first cookbook. The book was ‘Home Cooking’ by Rachel Allen and it instantly became my bible because it was filled with recipes that reminded me of home. Anytime I felt a little homesick, all I had to do was open those flour-stained pages and cook something that resembled my Mum’s dinner. The recipes were not always executed well (I couldn’t tell you how many pans I ruined) but there was one that I managed to get comfortable with and remains my go-to comfort dish to do this day. It’s a recipe for a chicken casserole with cheesy herb dumplings and it is so yummy and so cosy that it’s impossible to ever have leftovers. It’s the ultimate winter crowd-pleaser because it just takes everyone back to their childhood, to those meals their Mums and Dads used to make for them while their legs were still swinging underneath the kitchen table.
This was the first recipe I was able to own and I remember cooking it for my Mum and sisters when I came back home for the holidays. It was (still is) a running joke in the family that I was a bit of a scatter brain and it was a miracle to them that I was suddenly able to cook and fend for myself. Eventually I learned other recipes too and even started using exotic ingredients that we definitely didn’t eat when growing up (asparagus, who dis?). I could see the relief my Mum had when she knew that I might actually be OK, that I wouldn’t develop scurvy on a Pot Noodle diet and that I would be nourishing myself with at least a few vegetables.
Now that I’m approaching 30 my Mum might even say that I’m a better cook than her (it’s a close one). I might be a little more adventurous or experimental but to me, no one can make mince and spuds like my own Mum.
Rachel Allen’s Chicken Casserole with Cheesy Herb Dumplings
I’ve tweaked the recipe slightly over the years but by and large it remains the same.
- 4 chicken breasts
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 350 g unsliced rindless streaky bacon, cut into 12cm
- 1/2 large onion, roughly chopped
- 2 large carrots, cut into 2cm slices on the diagonal
- 700 ml chicken or vegetable stock
- a few sprigs fresh thyme
For the cheesy herb dumplings
- 350 g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- 1 tsp salt
- 300 ml buttermilk or soured milk
- 2 tbsp finely chopped dried mixed herbs, such as parsley thyme, rosemary or chives
- 25 g cheddar cheese, finely grated
1. Preheat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Cut the chicken breasts in half and season them well with salt and pepper.
2. Pour the olive oil into a large casserole dish on a high heat, add the bacon and fry quickly for 12 minutes or until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Add the chicken in batches and sear on each side until golden, and remove. Add the onion and carrots and fry for 2 or 3 minutes or until golden.
3. Return the bacon and chicken to the dish, pour on the stock, add the thyme and season with salt and pepper. Bring slowly to the boil, cover with a tight-fitting lid and bake in the oven for 20 minutes.
4. For the dumplings, sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt into a large bowl add the herbs, mix, then make a well in the centre. Pour in most of the buttermilk or soured milk (leaving about 50ml in the measuring jug). Using one hand with your fingers outstretched like a claw, bring the flour and liquid together, adding a little more buttermilk if necessary. Don’t knead the mixture or it will become too heavy. The dough should be soft but not too wet and sticky.
5. Tip the dough onto a floured work surface and bring together. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to about 2cm thick. With a scone cutter or cup stamp out 10 to 12 dumplings, or divide the dough into 10 to 12 small balls.
6. Remove the casserole dish from the oven and turn the heat up to 230C/gas 8. Arrange the dumplings on top, leaving a slight gap between them to allow for spreading. Scatter with the cheese. Return to the oven, uncovered, for 10 minutes, reduce the heat to 200C/Gas 6 and cook for a further 20 minutes until the dumplings are crisp and golden and the chicken is cooked through.