Friday, November 26, 2021
Nov. 26, 2021

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Up in flames: How NOT to make Brandied Apricot Chicken

By , Columbian staff writer
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The original recipe calls for brandy, but I substituted bourbon for brandy. Not such a great idea.
The original recipe calls for brandy, but I substituted bourbon for brandy. Not such a great idea. (Photos by Monika Spykerman/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

This year I’ve been testing the limits of my culinary know-how (hint: it’s fair to middling) with memorable recipes from my childhood, aided by my mother’s old recipe box. There are several dishes that I’d still like to attempt, but before easing into familiar territory, I wanted to set some food on fire.

Mom’s recipe for Brandied Apricot Chicken Sautee neatly fit my pyrotechnic requirements. It’s a bit complicated, but my mother wouldn’t have been intimidated by that. She believed in the power of following directions, that there was a right way and a wrong way to do things. She was inspired by the idea that there was always a Best: the best way to load a dishwasher, the best way to dust furniture, the best value at the grocery store, the best brand of vacuum cleaner. (In fact, she subscribed to Consumer Reports to get the definitive word on the matter.) If we bought a coat, we went to every store in town to try on all the coats so Mom could decide which one was “best.”

This markedly conflicted with my approach. I didn’t care how things were arranged in the dishwasher; I just wanted to get it done so I could read or draw or think about boys. I didn’t need the best coat, just one I liked well enough, and I dreaded wasting a day debating the options. My mother’s quest for the best baffled and exhausted me, but one area where she could pursue excellence with my full endorsement was in the kitchen. I don’t specifically remember her serving this dish, but I know she would have prepared it to exquisite perfection.

But this is my kitchen we’re talking about, so I’m doing things my way: with questionable methods and experimentation. To start with, I didn’t have any brandy, but I had bourbon, and bourbon is delicious, so why not use that? The recipe mentions how burning brandy deepens its flavor and I didn’t see why the same wouldn’t be true of bourbon. For all I knew, bourbon-braised chicken might be a stroke of genius!

The first step was to heat ¾ cup white wine until warm but not boiling and pour it over 12 apricot halves, or six dried apricots cut in half. I considered that to be an egregious lack of apricots, so I upped it to about 30 apricot halves. Next, I forgot to warm the wine, so I just poured cold wine over the fruit and set it aside while I prepared the chicken.


6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (or 2 split, boned and skinned chicken breasts)

15 dried apricots, halved (or 6, halved)

¾ cup dry white wine

¼ cup butter

1/2 cup minced shallots (or 1/4 cup minced scallions)

1/3 cup bourbon (or brandy)

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon thyme

1 teaspoon orange zest

Chopped hazelnuts for garnish

The recipe says to split, bone and skin two chicken breasts, but why would I do that when I can just buy a packet of six boneless, skinless thighs? I rubbed the thighs with a combination of 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme and — my fragrant addition — 1 teaspoon of orange zest.

I put the spice-rubbed chicken aside and chopped up two large shallots, about ½ cup, even though the recipe specifies ¼ cup of minced scallions. I’d just pulled the last of the scallions from my garden because they were getting slimy and I didn’t want to make an extra trip to the store, so shallots it was. They have a nice mellow flavor and I thought they’d pair well with the apricots, thyme and orange. I melted half a stick of butter in my iron skillet and browned the thighs before adding the shallots and the partially inebriated apricots, reserving the wine.

I warmed the bourbon in a small pan. The recipe says “light it,” but doesn’t say how. I used a long matchstick and lowered it into the pan, but before it even touched liquid, the contents erupted with a dangerous whoof, causing me to yell out a few choice words. I poured the flaming bourbon very carefully over the chicken, where it started to burn even higher. I thought I might have to call in one or two or a dozen firefighters, but I remained calm and followed directions for once, “gently tilting the skillet back and forth until flames die.” I checked to make sure I still had eyebrows and added ¼ cup of the reserved white wine. I covered the chicken and simmered it for 15 minutes, five minutes longer than instructed, though the fire would surely have clobbered any bacteria.

As the chicken was cooking, I bashed up some whole hazelnuts to garnish the chicken and decided to disregard the last part of the recipe, which was to make a saucy reduction from the au jus with the rest of the wine and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice. I couldn’t wait to sample my boozy chicken, so I plated it with roasted winter vegetables and couscous.

The chicken was chewy and flat-tasting with a vaguely alcoholic aroma yet somehow devoid of bourbon’s distinct flavor. The apricots had been leached of their sweet-tart zing and the shallots were a shade too mellow. The thyme and orange were undetectable. My improvisations — and I can hear Mom’s “tsk, tsk” — were not the best. I am left to concede that sometimes, just sometimes, she was right.