Throughout my travels in France, I’ve found no definitive translation for what Americans call a casserole—those homey potluck-style baked dishes filled with a mixture of ingredients. In France, un casserole refers specifically to a saucepan, and nothing else.
However, une cassolette—a baked dish that’s akin to what Americans call a casserole—is somewhat popular in French home cooking. Yet these dishes are often served in cassolettes, small baking dishes (what we generally call individual-sized baking dishes).
Except when they’re not. I’ve seen recipes that call for placing the ingredients in “une grande cassolette,” which seems like an oxymoron…
And just to muddy the waters, I should mention that the French sometimes use the term gratin to refer to what we’d call a casserole; however, these are generally baked in gratin dishes—that is, shallow baking dishes—versus the more deep-sided dishes in which Americans often bake casseroles.
A cassoulet, of course, is something else entirely, and usually refers to that long-simmering stew from southwest France of duck, lamb or pork, and white beans.
Confused? Maybe it will help if you roll up your sleeves and bake this cassolette recipe—a luscious gratin of chicken and noodles rife with French flavors.
You’ll never mistake it for a cassoulet. But you might mistake it for a casserole. That is unless you’re French.
Chicken and Noodle Grand Cassolette
If you wish to bake this in individual casseroles, as shown in the photo, see the note, below.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts or 1 3/4 cups cubed rotisserie chicken (skip step 1 if using rotisserie chicken)
Salt to taste
4 ounces thin egg noodles
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 tablespoon snipped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup chopped celery
2 large shallots, sliced into thin rings (about 1/2 cup)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dried tarragon, crushed
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 cups 2 percent or whole milk
1 cup cubed Comté, Gruyère, Emmental, or fontina cheese
1. Place the chicken breasts in a medium-size saucepan. Add water to cover by 1 inch; season with salt. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat to an active simmer and cook until the internal temperature of the chicken registers 170°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 20 minutes. Drain, cool slightly, and cut into bite-sized pieces. Transfer to a large bowl.
2. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
3. Cook the noodles according to the package directions; drain and add to the bowl with the chicken. In a bowl, stir together the bread crumbs, parsley, and olive oil and set aside.
4. Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the celery and shallots and cook, stirring, until tender but not brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in the flour, tarragon, cayenne pepper, and salt and pepper, making sure all of the flour is moistened by the butter in the pan. Cook and stir for 1 minute. Do not allow flour mixture to brown. Gradually add the milk, stirring with a wire whisk until combined. Cook and stir until thick and bubbly, then cook and stir 1 minute more.
5. Scrape the sauce into the bowl with the chicken and noodles, stir in the cheese, and mix well. Pour into a 1 1/2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the top evenly with the bread crumb mixture.
6. Bake until the casserole is bubbly and the topping is golden, 20 to 25 minutes. Allow the casserole to stand for 5 minutes before serving.
NOTE: If you wish to bake and serve this casserole in individual dishes as pictured (which is the way a bonne femme would likely serve it), use six 10-ounce custard cups or ramekins and place them in a shallow baking pan. Bake for about 20 minutes.
*Chicken and Noodle Cassolette photo by Richard Swearinger.
Wini Moranville is the author of The Bonne Femme Cookbook: Simple, Splendid Food That French Women Cook Every Day, and the co-author of The Braiser Cookbook. Follow Wini on Facebook at Chez Bonne Femme.