Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hail the gods of collegiate dining

I have a confession to make: I never ate cafeteria food in college. Occasionally, I might make myself a bologna sandwich at the cafeteria sandwich bar (only one of my dorms even had one), but I never once stood in line with my tray, watching as the lady with the shower cap sadly doled out slop on to my plastic plate.

It wasn't as if I was a food snob. I just owned a really good hot pot, and I happened to like spaghetti with Ragu enough to eat it every night for four years.

But now I'm feeling wistful. I think I may have missed out, and here's why:

The chicken broccoli bake at the University of Michigan.

I can't remember exactly how I stumbled upon this nearly legendary staple of the Residential Dining System, but once I started researching, I discovered it has legions of adoring fans. There are internet forums about which dorm offers a more delicious version and which one handles its rice accompaniment better (separate rice or rice underneath as it bakes). There have been a handful of attempts at recreating the recipe, and scathing rebuttals at those attempts for not doing the dish justice.

Apparently, the chicken broccoli bake is to dorm food what Knute Rockne is to college football. I decided I had to try it.

After much digging (ok, a relatively quick Google search), I found the real deal: the sanctioned recipe with the official Residential Dining Service seal. It even feels presidential.

In case the name doesn't paint a detailed enough picture, chicken broccoli bake is a casserole. It involves chicken, a chickeny cream sauce, and broccoli, plus a crispy bread crumb topping. It is industrial-strength Betty Crocker comfort food served on a pile of rice. In the fall, as the wind gets nippier and the sun just never seems to provide enough warmth, this will hit the spot. Ditto, after a few bong hits.

University of Michigan Chicken Broccoli Bake - Serves 6

1 pound broccoli, chopped fresh or frozen
12 oz. diced chicken breast (leftover cooked chicken would be great in this)
2 Tbs. butter or oil
2 Tbs. diced onions
2 Tbs. flour
1 1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp chicken bouillion granules or 1 bouillion cube
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 cup whipping or heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbs. grated parmesan cheese
3 Tbs. bread crumbs (I use panko style for extra crunchiness)

Rice for serving

Steam the broccoli for a few minutes - do not overcook. In a saute pan, cook the diced chicken until no longer pink. You may need a little oil to keep the chicken from sticking. Remove the chicken and set aside. Using the same saute pan, heat the butter or oil and saute the onions until translucent. Stir in the flour and cook constantly for 1 - 2 minutes. Adjust the heat if the mixture is browning too quickly.

Combine the water and bouillion and stir until dissolved. Add that to the pan and stir over heat for a few minutes until it is thickened.

In a separate bowl or large mixing cup, combine the sour cream and heavy cream. Add a little of the hot liquid and stir, to temper the cream mixture. Add cream mixture back to the hot liquid and blend thoroughly.

Salt and pepper to taste. Gently simmer for five minutes. Do not bring to a boil or the mixture will separate. Gently fold in cooked chicken and broccoli.

Place mixture in a buttered casserole dish. Combine bread crumbs with parmesan cheese and sprinkle evenly on top of the chicken mixture. Bake in a preheated 325 degree oven until top is lightly brown and bubbling, about 30 minutes. Do not overbake or it will separate.

Serve over rice. Alternately, and this is how I made it, cook the rice first, and then turn it into the buttered casserole dish. Spoon the chicken broccoli mixture over the rice, then the breadcrumb mixture, then bake as directed.


  1. My wife Pam was an RA at Bates, and she always marveled at the raw materials when they came into the kitchen there compared with what came out on the plates, and what possible process might have brought about the ruinous transformation. Apparently that was then and this is now!

  2. A follow-up from my wife:

    This was pretty funny and thanks for the comment.
    You may get some corrections from Michigan alum. I was an RA at Bates, but Bates had no cafeteria. My perspective on the university kitchens came from being a freshman dishwasher in Bursley hall on North Campus, where all the students from Bates and other graduate student housing could dine, if they bought the food plan. Being a dishwasher, got me behind the scenes access to the kitchen, where I could witness, firsthand, the ruinous alchemy you refer to.