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Poulet au fromage is a French dish that translates into English as, simply, “chicken with cheese.” As is characteristic of French food, however, there is little that is simple about poulet au fromage. It is a labor-intensive dish with many ingredients, but it also yields rich flavors when prepared properly.
Chicken with cheese is a rather common combination in cooking. Not every such dish can properly be characterized as poulet au fromage, however. In French cuisine, there is only one true poulet au fromage. Cooks may add their own variations or twists, but the dish must start out with the same base.
The heart of poulet au fromage is chicken pieces, typically bone-in, that are coated in flour and a mixture of spices, then pan sautéed in butter. A chopped yellow onion is often prepared with the chicken. As soon as the chicken begins to brown and the onion grows translucent, the cook removes the chicken pieces to a shallow baking dish. Ceramic dishes are the most traditional, but glass, aluminum, and even cast iron pans will work.
Meanwhile, the cook adds white wine to the still-hot skillet and brings it to a boil. This lifts all of the flavors and onion essences out of the bottom of the skillet and creates a rich white wine butter sauce that is then poured over the chicken in the baking dish. A prepared cheese sauce is then added to the dish to cover the chicken.
The cheese sauce contains egg yolks, crème fraîche, and usually at least two types of cheese. Gruyère and Emmenthal are the most common, in part because of their smooth, slightly tangy flavor, as well as their largely uniform consistency. A wide variety of cheeses may be used, but is important that the cheeses melt at the same temperature and are of similar consistencies.
Ideally, the chicken pieces should be completely submerged in the sauce before baking. In the oven, the chicken continues to cook, and as it does so, it absorbs a lot of the moisture from the wine and cheese sauces. While the baking dish may come out of the oven looking like a casserole, the chicken pieces emerge plump and flavorful. They are typically served with a bit of the residual sauce drizzled over them, often with potatoes and crusty bread. In French Canadian iterations of this dish, a light tomato sauce may also be added to the finished chicken.
One of the most popular poulet au fromage variations finishes by wrapping each piece of chicken in a thin slice of ham before baking. This is known as “poulet au fromage en robe de jambon” which translates as “chicken with cheese in a ham cloak.” Innovative cooks may also vary the herb and spice content of the cheese sauce or may select different combinations of cheeses. Many modern chefs also elect to use boneless chicken pieces. For the most part, however, variations are few, and are largely minor.
I can see where wine would be a great pairing for this dish. You'd need something like wine to cut through all the richness, which is why, I suppose, the French love wine with their meals.
Since it's chicken, I suppose you'd drink a white wine, but I'm guessing it would have to be a really aggressive one with a lot of personality. Otherwise, the taste would be lost in all that cheese sauce. I'm not a wine connoisseur, so I'd ask one of the wine snobs I know to make suggestions about varieties.
Also, as is the case with most French dishes, there is nothing "light" about this entree.
I wouldn't call this difficult to make. It just has several steps. None of them are really hard, but it is a dish that needs advance planning in order to properly prepare and present.
The cheese sauce is probably the most difficult of the steps to prepare. Cheese sauce can be a little fussy and you have to be careful lest you "break" the sauce. Also, care must be taken not to scramble the egg yolks. Tempering the yolks, constant stirring and cooking the sauce on medium-low heat are your best defenses against a cheese sauce gone bad.
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