Eric Akis: Cordon Bleu offers a blue ribbon French dinner

Eric Akis

The French words “cordon bleu” — literally, “blue ribbon” — have several meanings.

Cordon bleu can refer to a person highly skilled at cooking. It’s also the name of a prestigious culinary and hospitality school, Le Cordon Bleu, which was founded in Paris in 1895 and now has institutes in 20 countries.

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When it comes to cooking, cordon bleu refers to an escalope, or thin piece of meat, usually chicken or veal, that’s filled with ham and cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and cooked until golden and molten in the middle.

The dish is said to have no direct connection to Le Cordon Bleu. In fact, its history is a little cloudy, but several sources suggest it’s Swiss in origin, and some say it was first prepared in the Swiss town of Brig.

One story goes that in the 1940s, a restaurant in Brig had two large groups show up to eat, and the kitchen did not have enough portions of its regular dishes to serve everyone. So one of the cooks came up with the idea of making a variation on a schnitzel, where the limited amount of meat they had was filled with ham and Swiss cheese, creating enough food to feed both groups.

Lore suggests the restaurant’s owner was thrilled with her creation and deserved a cordon bleu for it. But, apparently, the cook said she did not need a blue ribbon and suggested they name the dish after it, instead.

Cordon bleu was eventually served in restaurants and homes around the world. In Canada, chicken cordon bleu seems to be the most popular version, with supermarkets now even selling it.

Some stores have taken to calling any stuffed chicken breast they sell a cordon bleu, or even worse, simply a “cordon,” even when it’s filled with such things as pesto and roasted peppers.

When I see them for sale, I can hear my cooking school instructor, a stickler for the proper use of culinary terms, screaming in my ear: “Eric, it’s not a cordon bleu unless it’s filled with good ham and a Swiss style of cheese.”

To make your own chicken cordon bleu, try today’s recipe, which includes step-by-step photos to guide you.

Chicken Cordon Bleu for Two

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts pounded, stuffed with smoky ham and tangy cheese, coated in breadcrumbs and cooked until golden on the outside, and molten in the middle.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: about 24 minutes

Makes: two servings

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts (each about 175 to 200 grams)

4 thin slices black forest, old-fashioned or other smoked deli ham (about 60 grams)

8 small (about 1 1/2-inch square) thin slices of Swiss or Gruyere cheese (about 60 grams)

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 Tbsp all-purpose flour

1 large egg beaten with 2 Tbsp milk

1/3 cup dried fine breadcrumbs

2 Tbsp vegetable oil, for frying

• Dijon or other spicy mustard, to taste (optional)

Set one of the chicken breasts, smooth-side down, on a large cutting board. With a sharp knife, cut a deep horizontal slit through thickest portion of the breast, without cutting all the way through. Spread the chicken breast open where you cut it.

Cover the breast with a double layer of plastic wrap. Use a kitchen hammer to pound the chicken until it’s about 1/4-inch thick, and approximately 7x7-inches. (When pounding the chicken, don’t do so too firmly, or it might break apart in places.)

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Fold and set half the ham in the centre of breast. Top the ham with four overlapping slices of the cheese. Tightly fold the sides of the breast over the ham and cheese. Firmly press the chicken together, completely sealing the ham and cheese inside. Cut open, pound, fill and fold the second chicken breast as you did the first one.

Place the flour, beaten egg mixture and breadcrumbs in separate shallow dishes. Coat one of the stuffed chicken breasts in the flour, ensuring its exterior is completely coated. Now dip, turn and coat the chicken in the egg mixture, ensure it’s evenly and thoroughly coated. Set the chicken in the breadcrumbs, turning, pressing and ensuring it’s completed coated with them. Coat the second stuffed chicken breast as you did the first (see Eric’s options).

Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a shallow baking pan with parchment paper. Heat the oil in a skillet set over medium to medium-high heat. When oil is hot, cook the chicken, seam-side-down, until light to medium golden on that side, about 90 seconds to two minutes. Turn chicken over and cook until light to medium golden on that side, about 90 seconds to two minutes. Set the chicken breasts on the baking pan, seam-side-down. Bake 20 minutes, or until cooked through. Plate the chicken and serve with a dollop of the mustard, if using.

Eric’s options: You can stuff and coat the chicken in the breadcrumbs many hours before cooking it. If you do that, set seam-side-down on a plate, cover and refrigerate until ready to fry and bake.

How to make Chicken Cordon Bleu

Step 1: Set chicken breast, smooth-side down, on a cutting board. Cut a deep horizontal slit through thickest portion of the breast. Spread chicken open where you cut it.

Step 2: Cover chicken with a double layer of plastic wrap. Now use a kitchen hammer to pound it until it’s about 1/4-inch thick.

Step 3: Season chicken with salt and pepper. Set some ham and cheese in the centre of the breast.

Step 4: Tightly fold the sides of the breast over the ham and cheese. Firmly press the chicken together, completely sealing the ham and cheese inside.

Step 5: Flour, dip in beaten egg/milk mixture and then coat the stuffed breast in breadcrumbs. Cook as described in the recipe.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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