The following is a recipe I found in a casserole cookbook from the library titled "The Ultimate Casserole Cookbook, Bake Until Bubbly" by Clifford A. Wright. I've really enjoyed trying out some of the recipes in the book and was particularly pleased with this one.
While it is simply titled "Chicken Casserole", for me this was reminiscent of Thanksgiving. It was like a stuffing and turkey casserole, yet the flavors seemed simpler than the complex flavors of a stuffing.
On any account, the entire dish was eaten in one setting. As I went to clear the pan from the table, there was just a little bit left and one of our guests asked if I was planning to throw it out, because he would be happy to finish it off - at least he liked it. This is definitely one I will make again and again.
As always, I made a few changes based on what I had on hand and my personal preferences. Here's the final result.
BE AWARE: This recipe needs to sit for the whole day or overnight before it can be cooked.
1 1/2 loaves sourdough artisan bread (I bought this at Costco...the author recommends French country bread) crusts removed and cut into squares, white part diced separately
1/2 t. ground sage (this is imperative for this recipe)
2 c. (about 1 lb) diced cooked chicken breast (I used thighs)
1/2 c. chopped celery
1/2 c. mayonnaise
1/2 c. chopped onion
1/2 t. salt (more as needed)
1/2 t. freshly ground black pepper (more as needed)
2 large eggs
1 1/2 c. milk (the author called for whole, I used 2%)
2 c. shredded cheddar cheese (I used half cheddar, and half Queso ranchero cheeses)
1 recipe of Bechamel (White) sauce - make this just prior to cooking casserole
3 T. unsalted butter (I used salted)
3 T. all-purpose flour (I used wheat)
1 c. chicken broth
3/4 c. whole milk (or 2%)
1/2 c. heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste (omit or alter to taste if using salted butter)
At least 8 hours before you plan to serve this dish, if using sourdough bread, turn the loaf upside down or on it's side. With a sharp knife, remove the entire bottom crust. Slice bottom crust into strips and then 1 inch squares. Gently extract the middle of the loaf and set aside. Cut the rest of the crust into strips and cubes. Keeping them separated from the crusts gently cube the inside parts of the loaf as well. I found that I needed the crust of 1 loaf, and the inside of two loaves.
Spread the crust squares on the bottom of a lightly buttered (I use vegetable oil spray) 9 x 13 x 2 baking dish and sprinkle with the sage.
In a bowl, combine the chicken, celery, mayonnaise, onion, 1/2 t. salt, and 1/8 t. black pepper. Spread this mixture over the bread crusts. Arranged the diced white part of the bread over the chicken mixture. In another bowl, beat the eggs with the milk, then pour over the bread. Cover and refrigerate all day or overnight (mine actually went for about 40 hours and still turned out great).
Preheat oven to 350* F.
To prepare Bechamel Sauce
In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and stir to form a roux. Continue to cook, stirring for about 1 minute. Slowly whisk the chicken broth, milk, and cream into this mixture. Season with salt and pepper. Simmer and stir occasionally over low heat until dense, about 12 minutes.
Pour the sauce over the chicken casserole and bake until bubbly and golden, about 45 minutes. Remove the casserole from the oven, sprinkle the cheese on top, then return to the oven and bake until the cheese melts, 8 - 10 minutes. Serve hot.