Area Cooks Share Recipes: Chicken with Cheese, Spices, and Brandy

Recipe found in Roemertopf, the Clay-pot Cookbook

By Ken Wells
Chicken with cheese, spices, and brandy.

An ancient recipe, rediscovered

About the time that the Egyptians were building the Great Pyramids, the Etruscans, living along the Italian coast just north of the future site of Rome, devised what I think may be the very best way to cook a bird. They used an unglazed terra cotta pot with a lid, presoaked in water and filled with some combination of chicken, cheese, wine, and veggies to steam-bake a one-pot meal to perfection.

Clay pot chicken recipe by Ken Wells.

While shut in during the pandemic, I did a bit of bookshelf archeology and re-discovered Georgia and Grover Sales’ 1974 cookbook Roemertopf, the Clay-pot Cookbook. I imagine Georgia and Grover testing out their recipes at the same time the Mamas and the Papas were singing their “Monday, Monday” harmonies with a harpsichord, and Herbie the Lovebug was drag-racing hippies in granny glasses, fusing culinary ideas gathered in Boston and California.

To make this recipe, you need an unglazed clay cooker, sometimes sold under the brand name Roemertopf, German for “roman pot”. We rediscovered our pot in a box of once-used wedding presents and were so pleased with the recipe below that we found a bigger one (made in Mexico) on eBay and bought it for a few dollars. We tweaked Georgia and Grover’s original recipe to suit our tastes. If you make this more than once, I’m sure you will tweak our recipe to suit yours.

Here are a few important things to know about clay pot cooking: First, you must soak the pot and its lid in cold water for 15 minutes before loading it with ingredients. The water it soaks up will supply steam to the cooking food, rather than baking it like a conventional dry casserole. Second, don’t preheat the oven but place the loaded pot in a cold oven and then turn on the heat. A clay pot might break if subjected to rapid temperature changes, so change the temperature gradually and place the hot pot on an insulated surface like a potholder when it comes out of the oven. To wash up, never use soap or detergent (it will get into the unglazed pot and give an off flavor to the next meal) but use the hottest water you can with a stiff bristle brush to clean the pot after soaking it during mealtime. Don’t store leftovers in the clay pot.

Chicken with Cheese, Spices, and Brandy (serves 4)

3 pounds chicken (4 small breasts or 2 large ones, sliced in half lengthwise)
½ tsp salt
Coarsely ground black pepper, generously to taste
1½ tsp dried marjoram
1½ tsp dried basil
6 small white onions (the kind you buy in a jar)
½ cup brandy (doesn’t need to be the fancy stuff)
1 cup grated cheese of your choice (the kind you like best in a sandwich)
Six large mushrooms, sliced ⅛-¼ inch thick
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
Arrowroot to thicken sauce after cooking, if desired

Presoak the pot and lid for 15 minutes.
Spread the whole onions in the bottom of the pot, then cover with the chicken.
Drench with brandy.
Sprinkle with salt, pepper, marjoram, and basil.
Cover uniformly with grated cheese.
Place mushroom slices and chopped parsley.
Place in a cold oven, set to 480 degrees.
Cook for about 75 minutes.
Remove the pot from the oven. If a thickened sauce is desired, pour off liquid into a saucepan and thicken with arrowroot, stirring over moderate heat.

Serve over brown rice, wide noodles, or smashed potato.