Casserole Comeback

In chicken and green bean casserole, a scratch-made chicken and mushroom gravy elevates rotisserie chicken, frozen green beans and packaged stuffing mix.

Maligned for years as kitschy cuisine, casseroles are having a moment.

Maybe we’re cooking more and have time to pull out mom’s recipes. Or perhaps we could all use the mood boost that comes with a bubbly casserole, pulled fresh from the oven. Whether it’s dinner or breakfast, savory or sweet, healthy or decadent, the one-dish meal is like a big hug for your mouth.

“I have such a fondness for the 9-by-13 pan; there’s just no replacement for that dish. I think it’s because it evokes comfort,” said Erica Hoskins, culinary arts teacher at Apex High School.

“There’s just something really special about that Pyrex dish.”

While the contents of that 9-by-13-inch pan can vary widely, casseroles have a few common ingredients. Usually, a protein, starch and vegetables are mixed with a sauce that holds it all together. The best casseroles are a mix of textures and colors, crowned with a toasted, crunchy topping.

“No one says it’s their favorite food, but in fact, it probably is — like mac and cheese or lasagna or something like that. It’s just that word, casserole, can be sometimes scary,” Hoskins said.

To make casseroles a little less frightening, she suggests ditching the processed ingredients, starting with the “cream of whatever” canned soup. While a staple of many family recipes dating from the 1950s, the heavily salted soups can overpower other ingredients.

Apple pie bread pudding, studded with apples and nuts, makes an easy breakfast for a crowd.

Instead, she suggests making a white sauce, cheese sauce or gravy — anything thickened with a roux. To make a roux, cook equal parts fat and flour until smooth. To finish the sauce, whisk in milk or broth and seasonings, and simmer until thickened.

“Starting with that creamy base gives you that same comforting feeling, and then from there, it’s just picking out better ingredients,” Hoskins said.

Topping her list of better ingredients are fresh veggies. To ensure they cook evenly, vegetables should be chopped into small, uniform pieces or precooked. Hoskins suggests preparing the veggies the day before making the casserole, or if time is short, using frozen produce instead.

Rather than strictly following a recipe, using a formula allows cooks to swap out similar ingredients, depending on what is on hand or in season, says Reno Palombit, a family consumer sciences professional from Raleigh.

This versatility is another reason for the casserole’s enduring appeal. A big pan of something from the oven feeds a lot of people for not much money, especially if you start with last night’s leftovers.

“As people’s purse strings are tightening due to the economy, that’s another probable reason why people are turning to casseroles, extending that budget,” said Palombit, who works in the Johnston County School District.

Raised by working-class parents, he and his three sisters grew up eating lasagna and stuffed peppers.

“Casseroles were an easy way for my mom to feed all of the mouths in the house,” Palombit said.

When he needs to feed a bunch of people, he’ll follow his mom’s example and whip up a casserole. The nostalgic dish is always a crowd-pleaser.

“I think they’re great for entertaining, because it’s nice to be able to focus on cleaning up or doing a really cool dessert, or all those other things that you’re going to put on the table,” said Palombit. “To have a casserole as your main dish, and you’re serving a salad with it, it just takes so much pressure off of entertaining.”

Hoskins’ mother would agree.

“Any time company would come over, it was two casseroles she would make. One was lasagna, and the other was her famous chicken casserole,” Hoskins said. “She would make this chicken and stuffing type of creamy casserole, and that’s what everyone knew her for.”

Create Your Own Casserole

Using the chart, choose one ingredient from each category. Mix ingredients, except the topping, in a greased casserole dish or 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Sprinkle on the topping, and cover with a lid or aluminum foil. Bake, covered, at 375 degrees F for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes, until topping is browned and casserole is bubbly. (Total cooking time can vary. Some ingredients, like potatoes*, take longer to cook.)

Chicken and Green Bean Casserole

Serves 8-10

A rotisserie chicken cuts the time and effort for this fall favorite. For a thriftier dish, make a stock from the bones and skin of the rotisserie bird.

4½ cups cooked chicken, shredded
2 cups frozen, french-cut green beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
8 ounces sliced cremini mushrooms
½ cup (one stick) butter, divided
¼ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 cup milk
2 cups chicken stock, homemade or store bought
3 cups herb-seasoned stuffing mix, such as Pepperidge Farm

  1. Place cooked chicken in a 13-by-9-inch baking dish that has been greased or coated with cooking spray. Scatter frozen green beans over cooked chicken.
  2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
  3. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms and saute until just beginning to brown, about 5-6 minutes. Distribute cooked mushrooms over chicken mixture.
  4. Add ¼ cup butter to skillet. When butter has melted, stir in flour, salt and pepper. When flour is incorporated, add milk slowly, whisking until smooth. Add chicken stock, and, stirring constantly, cook over medium heat 10-12 minutes or until sauce has thickened. Pour over chicken mixture.
  5. Gently stir chicken, green beans and mushrooms to distribute ingredients and gravy evenly.
  6. In a microwave on low power, melt ¼ cup butter. Pour melted butter over the stuffing mix and stir to combine. Sprinkle buttered stuffing over the chicken.
  7. Cover casserole with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for an additional 20 minutes, until casserole is brown and bubbly.

Apple Pie Bread Pudding

Serves 8-10

The apple pie bread pudding recipe can easily be halved and made in a square baking dish.

¼ cup butter
2 medium tart apples, peeled and sliced
¼ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon, divided
6 cups lightly packed cubes of stale French or Italian bread
½ cup chopped pecans
4 eggs
3 cups milk
½ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
¼ tsp nutmeg


2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Maple syrup, for serving

  1. Melt ¼ cup butter in medium skillet, add sliced apples, granulated sugar and ¼ teaspoon cinnamon. Cook, stirring frequently, until apples are soft, but still holding together. Remove from heat, and set aside to cool.
  2. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish.
  3. Put bread cubes in the baking dish, and evenly distribute the cooked apple mixture and pecans over the bread.
  4. Whisk together the eggs, milk, brown sugar, vanilla, ¾ teaspoon cinnamon and nutmeg. Pour over the ingredients in the pan, and lightly pat the bread down into the liquid.
  5. Refrigerate for one hour or up to overnight.
  6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  7. As oven heats, dot the top of the bread pudding with the 2 tablespoons butter. In a small bowl, mix 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon cinnamon; sprinkle cinnamon sugar over the bread pudding.
  8. Bake for 50-55 minutes until the pudding is slightly puffed and golden brown. Cool slightly before serving, drizzled with maple syrup.

Huevos Rancheros Casserole

Serves 6-8

Perfect for brunch, huevos rancheros casserole is gluten-free and vegetarian.

For the ranchero sauce:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 medium onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1-2 canned chipotle chiles, diced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

For the casserole:

Cooking spray
12 (6-inch) corn tortillas
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack cheese
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, drained and rinsed
6-8 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Chopped scallions
Chopped fresh cilantro
Diced avocado

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, and cook until garlic is softened and fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the chipotle chiles, cumin, smoked paprika, oregano, salt and pepper; cook for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven.
  2. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven, and heat to 400 degrees F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray; set aside.
  3. Arrange 6 of the tortillas in a single layer in the bottom of the baking dish. Spread about 1/2 of the sauce over the tortillas. Sprinkle about 1/3 of the cheese in an even layer over the sauce. Add the beans, and spread in an even layer. Sprinkle about half of the remaining cheese over the beans. Top with the remaining tortillas in a single layer. Spread the remaining sauce over top, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
  4. Use the back of a spoon to press down into the top of the casserole to make 6-8 shallow divots for the eggs. One at a time, crack an egg into a small bowl or ramekin without breaking the yolk, and pour into each of the divots. Sprinkle the eggs with salt.
  5. Bake until the egg whites are fully set — 15 to 18 minutes. Cool for 5 minutes.
  6. Serve warm, topped with scallions, cilantro and avocado.

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