The funnest thing about doing a food blog is putting all the new spins on the old dishes. Wait, did I just write “funnest?” Well, a word like that fits the situation, given that I am feeling playful about twisting up a classic. If I’m taking all kinds of liberties with the flavors so beloved for Kentucky Derby, I may as well do it with my words, too.
My celebration of the Kentucky Derby—which is Saturday, by the way, in case time has gotten away from you—is purely vicarious. I’ve never been to the Derby and honestly don’t know how I feel about the way they pressure the horses to perform for profit, but I know that I like the pomp and circumstance, the food traditions, the fancy hats and especially the bourbon! The Kentucky Hot Brown is the most classic dish associated with the Kentucky Derby, and I have twisted it up in several ways already, including a Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, a Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza and a super simple Kentucky Hot Brown Dip. When Derby time rolled around this year, I wanted to make a fun, crowd-ready food that’s easy to pick up and enjoy in just a few bites because, honestly, who wants to sit down in the middle of a party with a knife and fork and eat a messy, traditional Kentucky Hot Brown open-faced sandwich, with all its oozing Mornay sauce? Yeah, these are much easier!
If you’re entertaining friends for the afternoon leading up to the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” may I suggest these adorable little puff pastry swirls? They have all the flavors of the beloved Kentucky Hot Brown, including roast turkey, bacon, tomatoes and gruyere, plus a touch of sauteed shallot and (in a nod to the catering kitchen where I worked so long ago) “A Pinch of Thyme.”
I expected a few obstacles along the way to these tasty rollups, mostly because puff pastry can be fussy to work with. It bakes up best if it goes into the oven cold, so the first thing I planned was to work quickly. Get all your filling ingredients ready first, and refrigerate the ones that are cooked, such as the bacon and shallots. Cook the bacon long enough to render as much fat as possible, so the lingering fat doesn’t make the pastry soggy, but not so much that hard edges will tear the pastry. Shred the cheese and keep that in the fridge until assembly time, too. Fresh roast turkey is probably better than deli turkey (mainly for keeping the sodium in check), and I confess that I used leftover turkey that we had stashed in the freezer after Thanksgiving. As for the tomato, I knew that my sweet and savory tomato jam would not spread neatly onto the puff pastry without tearing it, and I didn’t want to heat it (see the first point about baking puff pastry cold), so here’s how I overcame that challenge—I added a few tablespoons of tomato jam to the bowl with chopped turkey and stirred it together. Problem solved!
You can put these two-bite treats together in the morning or afternoon, even the night before, all the way up to slicing them into swirls, and then refrigerate them until about a half hour before your guests arrive. A quick egg wash and some extra sprinkles of gruyere just before they hit the oven, and, well—riders up!
This recipe makes 12 swirls, just about right as appetizers for 6 people.
3 slices smoked bacon, cut into pieces no larger than a postage stamp
1 smallish shallot, peeled, halved and cut into half-moons
1 cup chopped, cooked leftover roast turkey breast
3 Tbsp. tomato jam (store-bought or homemade, if you have it!)
1 heaping cup shredded gruyere cheese (or Swiss), divided
A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped
1 sheet store-bought puff pastry, thawed according to package instructions
1 egg, whisked with a teaspoon of water, for egg wash just before baking
“Riders up!” will be the exclamation this Saturday evening, when the jockeys rev up their adrenaline to compete in the Kentucky Derby, which has long been called “the greatest two minutes in sports.” I cannot claim to know much about the horses or the race, but I do enjoy the culinary traditions that accompany this annual event. The signature drink, of course, is the mint julep, which I have globalized this year by swapping in a mint relative to create a Thai Basil Julep. The signature dish of the Derby is an open-faced beauty of a sandwich known as the Kentucky Hot Brown, created in the 1920s by chefs in the Brown Hotel in Louisville, which is also home to the Derby. The Hot Brown is an all-American spin on a Welsh rarebit, served warm with slices of turkey breast and fresh tomato, draped in Mornay sauce and topped with criss-crossed slices of bacon—all of that lusciousness is piled high on a thick slice of buttery, toasted brioche points. It’s a tradition so beloved in Kentucky, the Brown Hotel’s website has a special page dedicated to the Hot Brown.
That’s the tradition, anyway. But in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not prone to follow tradition to the letter. I am all about twisting up the classics, and I’m doing it again, moving all the Kentucky Hot Brown ingredients off the thick brioche and onto a thin crust pizza. All the proper flavors are in attendance, but in a slightly different order and a more casual presentation. You’re welcome.
I have taken one major shortcut, using low-sodium, deli turkey breast slices. The turkey, in my opinion, is not the star of a Kentucky hot brown, so I don’t need to roast my own. The smoky bacon is par-cooked, but still soft, because I know that it will take on more crispiness under the intense heat of my oven. The tomatoes are simple—just thin slices of fresh Roma, a low-moisture variety that won’t make my pizza soggy, and it will provide some freshness to cut through the richness. That leaves only one component—the Mornay—and that is where I put most of my energy for this pizza interpretation of a Kentucky hot brown. Mornay is the special sauce that elevates all the other flavors, transforming a turkey and bacon sandwich into something rich and special. And it’s easy to make, beginning with a simple bechamel.
If the idea of bechamel seems intimidating, I suppose you can blame it on the French name. Thankfully, when my Gram taught me to make it so many years ago, she just called it “white sauce,” and she made it so often that it never occurred to me to be nervous about it. Take away the fancy name and bechamel is nothing more than small amounts of butter and flour, cooked until bubbly and whisked up with milk, then accented with freshly grated nutmeg. There’s nothing fancy about it, and it is terrifically versatile. A quick stir-in of gruyere cheese and a little white pepper makes it a Mornay and transforms this turkey and bacon pizza into a Kentucky hot brown pie.
Do yourself a favor and prep all the ingredients ahead of time. Once this pizza party begins, things move quickly. Kind of like the Kentucky Derby.
1 1/2 Tbsp. salted butter
2 Tbsp. finely diced onion
2 tsp. all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
About 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 oz. white American cheese*
2 oz. cubed smoked Gruyere cheese*
2 Tbsp. shredded white cheddar*
A pinch of ground white pepper
4 slices thin-cut smoked bacon, stretched and cut into two-inch pieces
American cheese is usually some form of cheddar, processed with a special enzyme and salts that make it ultra-melty. This is a go-to ingredient for any creamy cheese sauce I make. If you are skittish about using “processed” cheese, you can use regular block cheese, but the sauce will not be as creamy and is likely to separate and become oily during baking of the pizza.
The Boar’s Head brand of smoked Gruyere that I used here is also a processed cheese, but a regular Gruyere will work fine in combination with the white American cheese. In the original Brown Hotel recipe, a good Parmesan would be in order. I selected this cheese for the smoke flavor, to play up the smoky bacon.
I recommend using a low-sodium version of turkey breast, or fresh, home-roasted if you wish. Typical deli turkey is very salty, and it may be too much, given that the bacon and cheese sauce already have a fair amount of sodium.
For this pie, I did something a little different with my N.Y. pizza dough. I subbed in a small portion of corn flour, as a subtle nod to the bourbon in our accompanying Derby drinks. It was terrific! Never stop experimenting, friends. If you choose to use my pizza dough recipe, please note that it should be made a couple of days ahead, so plan accordingly.
I bake my N.Y.-style pizzas on a pizza steel at 550° F. If you use a stone, follow manufacturer’s instructions. If you use a pan, do yourself a big favor and buy a stone or a steel. 😉 We use a steel made by Dough-Joe, and it has been an absolute game changer for our pizzas at home.
Prepare the bechamel by melting butter in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the diced onion. When butter begins to brown, add flour and whisk until smooth. Continue cooking, whisking occasionally, until flour begins to brown and is very bubbly.
Add milk and whisk until blended and thickened. Continue to cook a few minutes to soften the flavor. Stir in the freshly grated nutmeg and the skinniest pinch of kosher salt.
Add the cubes of American cheese and whisk until melted. Repeat with smoked Gruyere and then with cheddar. Stir in the white pepper. Remove from heat and cover the pan so that the sauce does not form a skin. If you work ahead and refrigerate this, warm it to smooth, spreadable consistency before making the pizza.
In a cast-iron skillet, cook the bacon pieces over medium-low heat, long enough to render the fat and brown the meat, but not long enough to crisp it. Transfer bacon pieces to a paper towel to drain excess fat.
Cut the deli turkey slices into thin strips, then chop cross-wise into bits.
Spread the tomato slices onto a paper towel and season with kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Rinse the thyme sprigs, then pat dry and strip the leaves from the tough stems.
Shape the pizza dough into a 14-inch round and place it on a floured, cornmeal-dusted peel for easy transfer to the oven.
Spoon small dollops of the cooled Mornay sauce onto the dough, and gently even it across the dough with the back of your spoon.
Arrange the turkey all over the sauce, then the bacon and tomato slices.
Add more small dollops of Mornay, between and around the other ingredients. It’s OK to overlap the other toppings, but try not to “bury” them, and keep the dollops away from the edges of the pie.
Sprinkle all over with the fresh thyme leaves, and slide the pizza onto the hot steel. Bake for about 7 minutes, until crust is golden and crispy and Mornay is browned and bubbly.
Before I present my recent addition to the Meatless Monday lineup of recipes, some unfortunate news—it looks like my garden isn’t going to make it this year. After only four weeks in the soil, so many of my tender plants have succumbed either to the deluge of rain we had over Memorial Day or the woodland critters who have decided to munch on the leaves. The yellow squash is withering, its stems split wide open from too much water. The zucchini vine is missing several of its broad protective leaves, having fallen victim to the hungry deer. And at least three of my red bell pepper plants are nothing but stubs. Though the deer don’t particularly care for the fruit of the pepper plants, they’ve made it clear they don’t mind snacking on the tender leaves and blossoms. What’s left of the garden is looking sad and puny, and I fear the nutrients in the soil have washed away with last month’s rainwater. Poor plants hardly stood a chance.
The happy news is that I’ve been able to find some fresh and good-looking vegetables at the market, a little ahead of season, and I’m not going to waste any more time wishing for my beloved ratatouille. On the contrary—I intend to enjoy it in as many different ways as possible. The dish is a favorite of mine, though I didn’t really become acquainted with it until I was well into adulthood. In case you have trouble remembering what’s in ratatouille, let me share with you a simple word trick that makes it easy. Several years ago, during the season five competition of the “Next Food Network Star,” finalist Melissa D’Arabian (who went on to win the title that year) shared an acronym that perfectly describes ratatouille.
“Just remember E-Z-pot,” she told the judges. Eggplant, zucchini, peppers-onions-tomato, easy to put together and made in a pot. That’s a perfect description, and also an easy way to jot down the ingredients on my grocery list.
Ratatouille, in its most rustic, southern-French form, is a hearty, chunky summer vegetable stew, seasoned with garlic and fresh herbs—a satisfying meatless meal made complete with a piece of crusty baguette and a glass of Provençal wine. In a fancier version, you might see ratatouille assembled in a striking pattern of layered thinly sliced vegetables, elegantly stacked with a garlicky tomato sauce and fresh sprigs of thyme.
If you’re a fan (as I am) of the Disney-Pixar film Ratatouille, you probably can’t help but recall the scene near the end, in which harsh, unemotional food critic Anton Ego takes a single bite of such an elegantly presented ratatouille, prepared by Remy—a rat (yes, a rat) who defied convention to follow his dream of being a chef. In a fraction of a moment, the stodgy Ego is transported back in time to his mother’s kitchen, where, as a young boy, he created his early memory of the rustic dish considered by many to be “peasant food.” One taste brought back all the feelings for him, and the incident changed his mind and his heart. For real, that one scene sums up Comfort du Jour. I’m even crying a little bit right now.
Today, I’m taking the rustic, casual approach to ratatouille and adding yet another twist. We are going to put those fresh garden flavors onto a pizza. I’ll send hubby out to the grill with the eggplant, zucchini and red bell pepper to reduce their moisture and bring out the best of their flavors. The onions will be pan-caramelized with fragrant herbs de Provence, and just for the heck of it, I’m tossing in some sautéed mushrooms. With the application of ratatouille’s classic flavors on a pizza crust, I’m sort of visualizing the south of France knocking on neighboring Italy’s door to borrow a couple of ingredients. A simple Italian tomato sauce will lay on an airy, rye-infused crust (sourdough, naturally), with a combination of gruyere, parmesan and romano to punctuate the grilled vegetables. Wow, it’s making me sooo hungry.
You don’t have to make your own dough to enjoy this pizza—before I made my own bread, I favored the Boboli pre-made crusts. There’s no judgment here if you want to use a pre-made pizza dough or other favorite crust and just focus on the flavors of the vegetables. Or trade in the crust altogether for a fresh bowl of hot pasta, tossed with the grilled vegetables and herb-infused sauce. Or really merge Italian into it by serving it on risotto or polenta. Re-imagine it exactly however you like. Isn’t that the beauty of comfort food?
1 ball rye pizza dough*
1 medium eggplant, sliced into 1/2″ rounds, salted and sweated*
1 medium zucchini, cleaned and sliced 1/4″ thin, lengthwise
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into wedges
Extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 large sweet onion
4 oz. cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced thick
1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes
1 bulb roasted garlic
1 tsp. herbs de Provence seasoning*
2 oz. dry white or rose wine
2 oz. finely shredded gruyere cheese
2 oz. coarsely shredded parmesan and romano blend cheeses
3 Tbsp. prepared pizza sauce (we love Dei Fratelli brand for its authentic, simple flavors)
If you wish to make the rye pizza dough, follow my instructions for My Real NY Pizza Dough but swap out the sourdough starter with equal amount of starter fed with 100% rye flour. Allow the starter to ferment 14 hours at room temperature before building the final pizza dough.
An hour or so ahead of preparing the rest of the dish, spread a double layer of paper towels on a baking sheet, salt liberally and arrange the eggplant slices. Salt the tops of the slices, cover with additional paper towels and place a weighted baking sheet on top. This will draw out the moisture and remove any bitter flavor from the eggplant before you grill it. After the “salt and sweat” period, use a damp towel to wipe off all excess salt.
Herbs de Provence is a classic French blend of herbs and seasonings, including thyme, savory, basil, lemon and a hint of lavender. You can make your own, but it’s easier to pick up a bottle of McCormick or any other brand at the market. Take note of the salt content so you know how to adjust your recipe.
Spray or brush eggplant slices, zucchini and bell peppers with extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and grill at 350° F for approximately 10 minutes, or until they reach your preferred level of caramelization. We let them go until they were lightly charred, but still tender.
Place the grilled peppers in a bowl, cover with foil and wait 15 minutes until the skin is loosened enough to peel away. Cool all vegetables and chop into large, rough pieces.
Place a medium non-stick skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and sauté onions until they are softened with charred edges. Sprinkle onions with salt, pepper and 1/2 tsp. herbs de Provence. Remove onions to a bowl, and repeat the same process with the sliced mushrooms, seasoning with remaining herbs de Provence.
In the same non-stick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over low heat. Add the cherry tomatoes and heat slowly until tomatoes are soft enough to burst when pressed. Continue to cook until tomatoes are broken down and saucy and squeeze the roasted garlic into the pan.
Season with salt and pepper, add dry wine and simmer until liquid dissipates. It should have the texture of a soft jam. Set all ingredients aside (or refrigerate them) until you’re ready to make pizza.
Time to bake!
Shape pizza dough into a 14” circle. Brush or spray with olive oil, season with salt and pepper. Swirl on tomato sauce, parmesan and romano, sauteed and grilled vegetables, then finely shredded gruyere. Finish the pie with the roasted garlic-tomato mixture and slide into a very hot oven on a preheated pizza steel or stone.
We bake our pizzas on a steel at 550° F for approximately 7 minutes. Please use the temperature and time best suited to your method.
Not everyone has the time (or the patience) to make a fussy Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, or the traditional open-faced brioche sandwich that served as inspiration for it. Here’s a super simple way to enjoy all the same flavors, but in a make-ahead dip version. You’ll notice that my recipe does not mention adding salt—this is not accidental. I’ve used deli sliced turkey to keep it simple. Between that and the bacon, the recipe doesn’t need more salt.
4 slices thin uncured bacon, cut into 1/2” pieces
About 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup sweet onion
3 oz. thinly sliced deli turkey, chopped into smaller pieces—about 1/2 cup packed
1 pkg. (8 oz.) Neufchatel cream cheese
1/4 cup light mayo
1/4 cup light sour cream
Small handful fresh Italian parsley, cleaned and chopped
1 small (10 oz.) can Rotel tomatoes (mild version), drained completely
3/4 cup Swiss-Gruyere cheese blend from Trader Joe’s
2 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese (and extra to sprinkle on top)
Freshly ground black pepper
Cast-iron skillet Stand mixer or electric hand mixer Rubber spatula Cutting board and knife Small non-stick skillet Oven-safe baking dish (volume about 4 cups)*
Place cast iron skillet over medium heat and cook bacon pieces until crispy. Set aside on paper towels to drain; when cool, chop the crispy pieces into smaller, basically uniform bits.
Place small skillet over medium heat and add olive oil. When it begins to shimmer, add chopped onions and sauté until caramelized. Add chopped turkey to the pan and continue to sauté until turkey pieces have browned edges. Set aside to cool.
In mixer bowl, whip cream cheese until smooth. Add mayonnaise and sour cream and whip again until blended, stopping once to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add Swiss-Gruyere blend, parmesan, parsley and tomatoes and mix gently until blended (don’t whip too much or tomatoes will lose their shape and turn the cream cheese pink). Season with freshly ground black pepper.
Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a silicone spatula to gently fold the turkey and onions, plus half of the crispy bacon, into the cream cheese mixture. Transfer the dip mixture to an oven-safe baking dish*, and top with remaining crispy bacon and another sprinkle of parmesan.
* We are still doing physical distancing (which is really bumming me out, but still necessary), so I divided the dip mixture into separate ramekins to share with friends and neighbors for their own private Virtual Kentucky Derby gatherings (of two). These adorable dishes were handed down from my grandma, and I just love them! Each holds about 1 1/4 cups of dip mixture.
Proceed with baking, or cover and store in the fridge up to 3 days, until ready to bake and serve.
Baking and Serving
Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake, loosely covered with foil, for about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes longer, or until hot and bubbly.
Serve piping hot, spread on crackers, baguette slices or these dainty little brioche toasts I found at Trader Joe’s.