Kentucky Hot Browns

Ask natives of Mississippi, South Carolina, or Maryland what a hot brown is and you’ll be met with a blank stare. Ask a Kentuckian, and you’ll be told it’s a sandwich or a baked meat dish or a casserole. Even in Kentucky nobody knows exactly how to classify a hot brown (just as nobody can say for sure what an authentic Kentucky burgoo is composed of). I’ve concluded it’s an open-face sandwich to be served as the first course of a meal to be followed by no more than a light seafood salad. Created in the 1930s at the Brown Hotel in Louisville by a chef named Fred Schmidt, hot browns can be made with sliced or diced chicken, turkey, ham, bacon, or any combination of these ingredients. The bread can be white, rye, or pumpernickel; the cheese, cheddar or Parmesan; the sauce, thick or thin. Whatever ingredients are used, the hot brown is unquestionably one of the most distinctive and delicious regional dishes in the Southern repertory.

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Ingredients

  • 8 slices bacon
  • 6 slices rye or pumpernickel bread
  • 4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 4 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
  • 2 cups diced cooked chicken or turkey
  • Cayenne pepper to taste
  • ¾ cup grated genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  • 6 ripe tomato slices

Method

Preheat the oven broiler.

In a large skillet, fry the bacon over moderate heat till crisp, drain on paper towels, crumble, and reserve.

Place the bread on a baking sheet, place under broiler, toast lightly about 6 inches from the heat, and reserve. Heat the oven to 475°F.

In a large, heavy saucepan, melt the butter over moderate heat, add the flour, and whisk for 1 minute. Gradually add the half-and-half, whisking constantly till the mixture is thickened. Add the cheddar cheese and whisk till well incorporated. Add the chicken and cayenne pepper and stir till well blended.

Spread equal amounts of the chicken mixture over the toasted bread slices, sprinkle equal amounts of Parmigiano-Reggiano and half the reserved bacon over the tops, and bake till the cheese melts, about 2 minutes. Top each with a tomato slice, sprinkle the remaining bacon over the tomatoes, and bake about 2 minutes longer. Serve hot.