While I was making Butter Chicken last week, I was immediately struck with a memory from my dad while simmering the sauce. With an almost unconscious impulse, I was hearing my dad say, “Just ten more minutes. It’s not thick enough.”
I was hearing that voice because while showing me how to make “Cream Chicken” as we called it growing up, or Chicken Paprikash, he would have the same mantra, ensuring I get the consistency right, “If you think it’s ready, cook it for another ten minutes.” Those “ten minute” intervals went on for 30 minutes sometimes. Today, while making Chicken Paprikash, I was struck by what he meant in concrete culinary terms. Slowly simmer and reduce until all of the excess moisture evaporates in the cream and sour cream without burning the fat. It can be a delicate balance, but the care and attention is worth it to get such a simple, yet luxurious sauce.
The way we had Chicken Paprikash growing up was an event. The chicken was slow poached with a bunch of vegetables. The chicken was for the creamy, paprika-spiked sauce later, but the carrots and parsnips were taken out, the stock was strained and noodles were cooked in the stock along with the reserved carrots and parsnips for a chicken noodle soup starter.
Next, was making nokedli, or a spaetzle-like dumpling made of egg, flour and milk. This was the starchy base to catch all of the wonderful sauce that covered the chicken.
Finally, we usually had a pickled cucumber salad that was the perfect accompaniment to such a rich dish. To see the basic method of how to make a pickled vegetable salad, see my recipe for Pickled Potato Salad.
We had this every second Sunday for dinner growing up. Mainly because it made an obscene amount of dishes (haha) and I think it was a way to keep it somewhat special, while at the same time staying connected to my dad’s Hungarian heritage.
I know the idea of Chicken Paprikash is as varied as the cook who does it. My dad was from northeastern Hungary. Variations could include the chicken simmered directly in a paprika-laden broth and finished with sour cream, or simmered in milk and finished with sour cream. The vegetable component can shift depending on the cook. Hungary is much like Italy. Both can be fiercely attached to not only their town’s culinary identity, but to their own home’s version of a dish. Mama, or in my case, Papa’s was always best.
Chicken Paprikash (Paprikas Csirke)
For the Poached Chicken:
6 chicken thighs (or various parts. Growing up, we just cut up a whole chicken: 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 wings, breast cut into 4, even the back pieces were poached too. My parents had four growing boys to feed haha)
1 large or 2 medium onions, peeled and roughly chopped
4 stalks celery, chopped (about 2 cups total)
4 or 5 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped (about 2 cups total)
4 medium parsnips (peeled and coarsely chopped (about 2 cups total)
3 bay leaves
Water, to cover
In a large pot, add the onion, carrot, celery and parsnips. Place the chicken pieces on top and add water to just cover all of the ingredients (about 6-7 cups). Add the bay leaves and bring to a simmer over medium heat. When the water just starts to simmer with a constant, gentle bubbling, cover, reduce heat to low and poach for 35-40 minutes. Remove the chicken pieces with tongs and the vegetables with a slotted spoon. Strain the broth through a fine sieve and set aside.
For the Creamy Paprika Sauce:
2 cups/500mL sour cream
2 cups/500mL heavy cream (35%) (Be sure that both the cream and sour cream are naturally processed. If either contain chemical thickeners like carrageenan, guar gum or gelatin, the sauce doesn’t thicken properly)
1 tsp flour (I used spelt flour, but regular plain/all purpose flour works equally well)
1 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp salt
While the chicken is poaching, whisk together the cream, sour cream, flour and paprika. Add to a medium, wide-bottomed pan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Once it starts to bubble lightly, reduce the heat to low and, while whisking occasionally, simmer to thicken (about 35-40 minutes depending on your cream/sour cream or the degree of memories you have of your father giving instructions in your ear haha). Don’t try to rush it, the slow, gentle simmering is key to a rich sauce that doesn’t split or scorch. Set aside.
For the Spelt Nokedli:
1 cup spelt flour (or plain/all purpose flour)
1 large egg, beaten
1/2-3/4 cup milk
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour and egg until the egg makes the mixture granular. Gradually whisk in 1/2 cup of milk. If the mixture is still too thick (you want a batter slightly thicker than a pancake batter), add milk one tablespoon at a time.
Bring water to a boil in a medium pan. Place a spaetzle maker or coarse grater, flat side up over the simmering water. Add a ladle of prepared batter and press through the grater with a flat spatula. Simmer the dumplings for two minutes or until they start to float. Remove with a slotted spoon and repeat with the remaining batter.
Cook 100g of csiga (a small handmade, Hungarian soup noodle. You could use broken spaghetti in place of csiga) in the strained stock. Add the reserved carrot and parsnip pieces. Ladle into bowls and serve as a starter for 4-6 people.
Shred the poached meat from the bone and add to the finished Creamy Paprika Sauce. Reheat if necessary and serve with the Spelt Nokedli and a pickled vegetable salad. Serves 4-6.