Thursday, December 25, 2014

Icelandic Turkey: A Culinary Experiment

My family is fond of a recipe that I first encountered in a recipe collection included in a medieval Icelandic medical miscellany, hence refer to as "Icelandic Chicken." A scholar who studied it and a group of related manuscripts concluded that they were all daughters of a lost original, probably from southern Europe. So the recipe is Icelandic in the sense of having been in a written text in Iceland but  did not originate in Iceland and may never have been made there. 

To make it, you cut a chicken in half, roll out a flour and water dough, cover it with sage leaves, cover those with bacon, and wrap each half chicken. Each ends up enclosed in successive layers of bacon, sage, and dough. You then bake it. The dough, especially the dough under the chicken that gets the drippings and the bacon fat, is yummy, the meat  juicier than with an ordinary baked chicken.

This Christmas we decided to experiment with Icelandic turkey. The bird was about fourteen and a half pounds, that being the smallest we could get for five of us—my immediate family and my wife's mother. Out of respect to Christmas and Thanksgiving tradition I used the whole turkey instead of cutting it in half. 

I made the dough with about ten cups of flour and three or four of water, enough to be kneaded into a soft but not wet dough. The turkey was stuffed, the dough covered with sage less densely than the chicken usually is, due to not enough sage leaves. The half of the dough that went under the turkey was covered with bacon strips, the rest of a pound of bacon went on top of the turkey and the other half of the dough on top of that. The two halves of the dough were sealed together. 

The pan we usually use for roasting turkey in being unavailable, I put the wrapped turkey in a large oval Le Creuset pan, into which it barely fit. Then the whole thing was baked in a 325° oven, that being the temperature we use for Icelandic chicken. From time to time I basted the top with drippings. It ended up breast down, not by my intent but because once it was wrapped it was unclear which side was which.

It came out pretty well—the meat a little better than with our usual version of roast turkey. The bread on top of the bird was distinctly crunchy, the bread underneath soft and tasty. Next time I will do it in a larger pan and probably use more sage and bacon. 

Anyone curious about the Icelandic chicken recipe can find it in How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes, webbed as a pdf on my site, available as a hardcopy from Amazon.


At 9:54 AM, December 26, 2014, Blogger Steve Kubien said...

This is the inspiration I needed for the free range chicken that's in my freezer. Thank you Your Grace!

At 12:29 PM, December 26, 2014, Blogger Jadranko Brkic said...

I want to try this one myself. A similarly described dish is done in my native Western Balkans, but with lamb.

Some pictures of how you did the stuffing would have helped also, but I will use my imagination and creativity where following of the instructions fails.

At 12:42 PM, December 26, 2014, Blogger Jadranko Brkic said...

I see the recipe doesn't call for yeast, which seems is a bit odd. Do you think it might make sense to make the raising dough with yeast? It would probably help make the top crust more soft...

At 1:57 PM, December 26, 2014, Blogger David Friedman said...

I can imagine doing it as a raised bread, but I've always done Icelandic chicken as a plain flour/water dough and been happy with the result. It ends up more like pizza crust than bread, if that helps.

We did a standard turkey stuffing--torn up bread, bread crumbs, herbs, etc. But the Icelandic chicken isn't stuffed, and is two half birds not one whole one.

At 6:51 AM, December 27, 2014, Anonymous Jessa Mittleman said...

I've had a similar Chinese dish from Hangzhou, called Beggar's Chicken by the chef visiting from China when I had it. I don't know how it was seasoned, but the basic idea was the same: Season the bird, wrap it in dough, and roast it.

At 12:52 PM, January 05, 2015, Blogger Mark said...

For the chicken, how do you serve it? You have half a chicken in each of the packets - bones and all. You can't eat it like a sandwich. I'm just curious how you divide out the pieces.

Do you take the bread, sage & bacon off the chicken and then just divide out the pieces like normal?

At 11:38 AM, January 06, 2015, Blogger David Friedman said...

For the chicken, I normally cut up one of the packages, serve out chunks of the bread and chunks of the chicken, then when that's all consumed cut up the other.

For something closer to your "eat it like a sandwich," try barmakiya, which is two layers of pastry with a layer of cooked meat, onions, etc. between them. The recipe is in our Miscellany.

At 12:13 PM, January 13, 2015, Blogger Jim Oliver said...

But how does the skin come out? I like my chicken and turkey skin crisp.

At 1:20 PM, April 29, 2017, Blogger David Friedman said...


Not crisp.


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