With a name like ‘chicken Kiev’, you’d think the history of the retro butter-spurting dish wouldn’t be too hard to track down. But in fact, the origins of chicken Kiev are hazy: Kyiv’s traditional origin story is that it comes from the Continental hotel in the early 20th century, where the chicken Kyiv was the signature dish.
Earlier claims have been made on behalf of the famous French chef Marie-Antoine Carême who spent time cooking in Russia, but the dish is not found amongst the recipes in his major work The Art of French Cuisine of the 19th Century – although panéed (or breadcrumbed) chicken is present. Stuffing chicken cutlets with butter was popular in Russian cuisine from at least the first half of the nineteenth century, but that tended to use minced chicken, rather than flattened breasts. In the 1930s, a former Russian Colonel, Vladimir Yashenko began serving fried, breaded chicken stuffed with garlic butter in his Chicago restaurant calling it “stuffed breast of chicken, Kiev style”.
Even if its origins are complicated, its premise is simple: a breast of chicken, flattened, wrapped around garlic butter, crumbed and baked until golden. But it punches above its weight. It is a quiet little party piece of a dish, – I think it might be physically impossible to cut into a Kiev and not let out an inadvertent ‘ooh’ as the butter spills out – and a serious people pleaser. Everyone loves a Kiev.
After a heyday in the 70’s, chicken Kiev fell off restaurant menus and dinner party plans in the 80’s. However it never quite fell out of favour in the ready meal aisle of the supermarket – but then, it has strong credentials there: chicken Kiev was the UK’s first marketed supermarket ready meal in 1979.
Certainly in our household growing up, where it was something of a staple – served with tinned sweetcorn and crinkly oven chips – our Kievs were always from a packet (sorry Mum). But the Kiev’s ready-made nature did nothing to diminish its appeal for me. If anything, it only increased my respect for the dish. It was, I was sure, like a Vienetta, impossible to recreate in a domestic setting. It surely couldn’t be homemade, and I absolutely couldn’t imagine ever making them myself; it seemed like a magic trick – how did they get the butter in there without it all falling out? The best kind of culinary sleight of hand, like a buttery rabbit appearing from a chickeny hat.
Like even the most impressive magic tricks, it turns out that the reality is a little more prosaic: I use cocktail sticks to secure the chicken around the butter until it is sufficiently sealed through cooking to remove them. A bit like in surgery, you need to count the cocktail sticks in and out to ensure you don’t turn your dining guests into garlicky voodoo dolls. If you’re nervous about spearing a loved one, or wish to take a belt and braces approach, Simon Hopkinson and Linday Bareham in their bible of kitsch food, In The Prawn Cocktail Years, use a glue of egg and flour, mixed into a paste to seal the butter into the cutlet before breading it. A spell in the fridge before cooking will also help the meat to firm up around the butter.
When I was first taught to make this classic dish, we made it in the traditional way, with the wing bone attached, perching perkily on top of the cutlet. While this makes the finished product look rather elegant (or as elegant as a chicken Kiev can ever look), these bone-in breasts can be a little tricky to get hold of now, unless you have an accommodating butcher, and now you’re more likely to find chicken Kievs served entirely boneless. The recipe I give is therefore for the boneless variety, but if you can get hold of the real deal, feel free to embrace the retro, and keep the bone on.
I might not relive my youth by serving it with tinned sweetcorn – like most fried, butter-laden dishes, a crisp green salad with a mustardy dressing is the perfect accompaniment – but it’s hard to resist the lure of a garlicky butter-swept oven chip.
Makes: enough for 2
Takes: 15 minutes plus chilling
Bakes: 25-30 minutes
2 boneless chicken breasts
50g salted butter
1 tablespoon fresh parsley, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
50g plain flour
1 egg, beaten
50g panko breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil, for frying
- First, in a pestle and mortar or food processor, combine the butter with the parsley and minced garlic. Divide the garlic butter into two and spoon each portion onto clingfilm or waxed paper, and twist tightly into a sausage shape, then place the two sausages in the fridge to firm up for half an hour.
- Butterfly the chicken breasts: do this by placing your hand on top of the breast, and carefully cutting the breast horizontally, but stopping short of cutting all the way through. You should be able to open the breast up like a book. Put the opened out chicken breast between two pieces of clingfilm and gently bash the chicken through the clingfilm to flatten it to an even thickness.
- Remove the chicken from the clingfilm, and remove the butter from its clingfilm. Place one of the chilled butter sausages inside it. Roll the flattened chicken breast tightly around the butter, tucking in the ends; use cocktail sticks to secure the joins. Repeat with the second breast and portion of butter.
- Place the flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs in three separate dishes in front of you. Season the flour and the breadcrumbs with a little fine salt. Dip each chicken breast in the flour, followed by the beaten egg, followed by the breadcrumbs. Make sure that at each stage, the cutlet is fully coated. Place on a tray and cover lightly with clingfilm; chill for at least an hour.
- Preheat your oven to 180°C/160°C fan. Heat enough oil to generously cover the base of a large frying pan over a medium-high heat until shimmering. Fry the cutlets for 2-3 minutes on each side until golden, and then transfer to a baking tray. Bake for 25-30 minutes; remove all cocktail sticks before serving.