There’s a good argument to be made that I should have held this recipe back until next week when we’ll all be flush with leftover turkey, but I am occasionally drawn to cooking something with a tie in to the week’s opponent despite my frequent protestations that I am neither drawn nor ever succumb to such temptation.
Were I in a less charitable mood I would pick at the vaunted history of the Hot Brown. Per Louisville’s The Brown Hotel, back in the 1920s the hotel would play host to a dance attended by upwards of twelve hundred guests each (“Each?” - that’s what the web site says, but c’mon.) night. The assembled would make their way to the restaurant in the late night/early morning to refuel.
From the web site:
“Sensing their desire for something more glamorous than traditional ham and eggs, Chef Fred Schmidt set out to create something new to tempt his guests’ palates. His unique dish? An open-faced turkey sandwich with bacon and a delicate Mornay sauce. The Hot Brown was born!”
That’s the way a well-paid PR agent might put it. If you want my assumption based on a hell of a lot of restaurant work experience, the chef got caught with way too much turkey. Maybe he was offered a great price or a party set a menu and cancelled at the last minute. Hell, maybe it fell off a truck. Whatever machinations brought chef and bird together, the bird had to go and the chef had a gift horse - by way of upwards of twelve hundred (sure) of the Bluegrass State’s Least Likely to Have Donated to The Pro-Prohibition Politician captive and hungry in his establishment - whose mouth he would not even glance in the direction of. That, in my opinion, is the story of what attuned Chef Schmidt’s senses to his guest’s desire for something more glamorous than traditional ham and eggs. That he hit on something is great, but I’m pretty sure that was an unexpected boon to what was conceived of as an inventory purge.
Thus was the Kentucky Hot Brown invented. Kinda.
It’s not really clear what was served as a Hot Brown in those early days. That there was an open faced turkey sandwich no one doubts. But what else was on it? It’s believed that peaches, rather than tomatoes, were served on the original because serving people fruit was the cat’s meow in the roaring gastro-culture of the time. Bacon was rumored to be added eventually because a waiter complained that the sandwich was monochrome.
So what was invented in The Brown Hotel restaurant in the 1920s may have just been the name Kentucky Hot Brown with details to be added on the by and by.
There are other claimants to the recipe (A recipe. I’m not sure.) St. Louis has the Prosperity Sandwich which is what we now know as a Hot Brown with the addition of a slice of ham. Pittsburgh has the Turkey Devonshire which omits the tomato (no peaches either.)
I have no idea which, if any, of the three came up with this sandwich. I don’t care. Is this recipe even close to what was served to the most likely unconstitutionally drunk dancers in Louisville a hundred years ago? I don’t care. I’m floating a noticeable quarter inch off the hardwoods as I glide in blissful anticipation of Alabama football too long denied me. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.
A Kentucky Hot Brown
- sliced turkey
- French bread
- Roma tomatoes
- grated parmesan cheese
- whole milk or heavy cream
- unsalted butter
- all purpose flour
- fresh Italian parsley, chopped
As usual, when I write about sandwiches I’m not giving any specific measurements. I trust you know how to build a sandwich to your satisfaction. Traditionally this is made with thick cuts of turkey. I prefer thin. Texas toast is recommended by many sites and I bet that would be great, but I was just as happy with French bread sliced on the bias to around 1 inch thick. If you want the current version of the real McCoy you can visit the The Brown Hotel’s website here. Theirs looks much gooeyer.
To start, if you have ever made a Mornay Sauce, do that. If you haven’t add equal parts butter and flour to a sauce pan (I used 2 tbsp. each.) over medium heat. Whisk to keep the flour from burning until the butter melts. The resulting mix should look like gritty wet sand the color of a Schwarzkopf press conference fatigue. Add no more than ½ cup of milk and keep whisking. When it thickens, add more milk and keep whisking. Repeat until the sauce still coats but is just thin enough to drip off the back of a metal spoon. Remove from heat and add grated Parmesan, 4 - 6 gratings on a micro-plane of nutmeg, and whisk until smooth.
Set the sauce aside. If it congeals you can hit it with a splash of milk over heat and whisk to revive it.
Next cook bacon. There was some discussion in the comments last week about how best to do this. I’m ecumenical on the subject. Bake or fry per your convictions. Don’t microwave it, though.
Assembly is about as easy as you’d assume as illustrated by this brilliant time lapse photography I spent all night and most of a Law & Order marathon working on.
Warm the bread slightly in an oven pre-heated to 400˚. When it’s firm but not crisp, pull it from the oven. Layer turkey, tomato slices, and bacon and ladle Mornay on top. Back in the oven until the bread is crisp on the edges (if you follow the link to The Brown Hotel recipe you’ll note that they cut off the crust, but we’re adults here so don’t do that,) the tomatoes have softened, and the turkey has warmed through.
For a crowd I’d make them by the baking sheet full and set them out on platters with a bowl of Mornay for those that want extra. You don’t really need utensils if you have lots of napkins and a nonchalant attitude about greasy finger prints and upholstery.
So that’s a Hot Brown if not The Hot Brown.
Enjoy, no injuries, and Roll Tide.