Like many of these recipes I cover on my blog, I did not grow up with Tetrazzini. I know I would see it pop up in magazines and across the internet after Thanksgiving as a way to use up those turkey leftovers. I might be in the minority but I quite like Thanksgiving leftovers just as they are. If you have ever made tuna noodle casserole from scratch, you may notice that this casserole is quite similar.
What is Tetrazzini?
Tetrazzini is a dish traditionally made with either chopped chicken or turkey in a cream sauce that has been combined with spaghetti. It is then placed in a casserole dish and topped with bread crumbs and baked. Usually, sherry (or white wine), parmesan cheese, mushrooms, garlic, and onions are added to the cream sauce. Whether the dish first contained chicken or turkey is a debated topic.
The mid-century (well actually the 1960s) got a hold of the recipe and many interesting variations can be found for better or worse. Of course, cream of mushroom soup starts to be used as well as canned consomme. I found recipes for seafood tetrazzini that used either shrimp, crab, salmon, or tuna. Even the 1960s version of Joy of Cooking included a seafood Tetrazzini. Many used cheddar instead of parmesan cheese. Though a few recipes did dare to use blue cheese as well as processed American cheese or cheddar cheese spread. Other crazy additions were using a can of roast beef in gravy, hot dogs, and even deli lunch meat.
Any way that it is made there are a few pieces of advice that have been given. Famed cookbook author James Beard says that it is better eaten the day it is made. America’s Test Kitchen offers the tip not to “skimp” on the seasoning as most of the ingredients in the recipe are rather bland on their own.
Who and Where was Tetrazzini made?
There is really not a lot of documentation of the origins of the dish so we will start with what everyone agrees on. First, it is an Italian-American dish, not a dish from Italy. Craig Claiborne in Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Food Encyclopedia said that “although the proper name Tetrazzini is Italian in origin, the dish known as chicken Tetrazzini is about as American as Waldorf salad.” It was created in honor of the Italian coloratura soprano Luisa Tetrazzini. Luisa Tetrazzini was a popular opera singer that toured America in the early 1900s. I say in honor because no one even knows if Luisa Tetrazzini herself ever even tasted the dish. In her autobiography, the dish is not even mentioned.
Three are two cities that are often credited with being the possible birthplace of Tetrazzini. First is San Francisco. One story goes that Luisa Tetrazzini sang in The Palace Hotel’s Palm Court in 1905. A banquet was held and that is supposedly when the dish was created. Though no newspaper that was present that day mentioned the dish.
The other is New York City. This gets backed up by a 1908 article in Good Housekeeping. The magazine talks about Luisa being the namesake but puts the origins to a New York restaurant. Two restaurants have been pointed to, the first being the New York restaurant Lorber’s which was across the street from the Metropolitan Opera House. The other was Chef Pavani of the New York City Knickerbocker Hotel who said it was created to “please the palate of the famous coloratura soprano, Luisa Tetrazzini.”
Honorable mention goes to famed French chef George Auguste Escoffier who sometimes gets credit for crediting the dish. This is unlikely as the dish was not mentioned in any of his own cookbooks. Though he did create peach Melba as well as Melba toast for Nellie Melba, another famous opera singer of the day.
When was Tetrazzini popular?
From the early 1900s through the 1950s, women and home cooks saw the potential of this dish as a great way to use up chicken and turkey leftovers. A 1948 article asked “Do you have turkey leftover problems?” with Turkey Tetrazzini being one of the answers and another article in the same year called it an easy-to-make casserole. It was easy to make yet could be elegant enough to entertain with such as a 1938 article called it a “de luxe dish recommended especially for company occasions”.
The 1960s and 1970s are really when this dish had the height of its popularity. Jean Anderson in her cookbook The American Century Cookbook credits the shortcut versions of the recipe that used creamed soups as popularizing the casserole during this time period though not every recipe went this route. Poppy Cannon in her popular 1968 cookbook The New New Can-Opener Cookbook called Tetrazzini a “delightful combination” that has the “advantage of being very simple and easy to prepare – and economical, too”. Of course, being the can opener cookbook her version used canned soups to make the sauce. Surprisingly, another popular cookbook of the day, Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book, actually included a homemade sauce. In it, Bracken writes, “This isn’t exactly a lead-pipe cinch, because you have to make that cream sauce; but if you ever have to have company the day after Thanksgiving, you’ll thank me for it.” She offers advice at the end of the recipe “And next time, for heaven’s sake, get a little turkey.” This casserole made an appearance (though not by name) in season 1 episode 9 of Mad Men as confirmed by Matthew Weiner, the creator of the drama based in the 1960s.
So why was it so popular in the 1960s beside the now widely used canned soup to make the dish quicker to make? For largely the same reason it was popular before. It was a great use of leftovers that was cheap and easy to make. It not only made a great family meal but was still considered a great dish for entertaining. In 1961, one article said that “Tetrazzini remains a popular company dish, though it appears often on the family menu.” while another reminded this casserole was perfect to make ahead of time. It was called a great casserole for informal buffets that can be kept warm until ready to serve in 1962. The article goes on to say that though it is made with lowly leftovers it is a “menu (item) worthy in its own right”. In the mid-1960s, a newspaper article asked “What more elegant end for the tasty bird than Turkey Tetrazzini, for example?”. The dish was both called a “gourmet way to use leftover chicken or turkey” as well as an “applause-winning encore for left-over roast turkey” in the late 1960s.
In the 1990s and 2000s as the country got more concerned about fat, calories, and cholesterol, you start to find healthier versions being printed in newspapers. It is still considered a perfect way to use up Thanksgiving leftovers as well as economical. You also have a generation of kids that grew up on the casserole making it due to nostalgia.
This is where I thought the tale of Tetrazzini was going to end but it got a short resurgence of popularity due to an unlikely source. In 2010, a woman went on the Maury Show claiming that her boyfriend was lured away by another woman’s Chicken Tetrazzini. Joel McHale featured the clip on his popular show Talk Soup which recapped funny pop culture clips of the week. This fueled a short interest in the old-fashioned casserole.
Why should I make Tetrazzini?
Well like I said in the introduction, this quite similar to tuna noodle casserole. So if you love that dish, for sure give this one a try. It really does hit all those comfort food notes on a cool fall day.
How to make Tetrazzini?
Chicken or Turkey Tetrazzini
A favorite mid-century casserole.
- 1 16 oz box of spaghetti
- 6 tablespoons of butter, divided
- 4 tablespoons bread crumbs
- 1 cup grated parmesan, divided
- 2 cups sliced mushrooms
- 1 small onion (or half of a large one), chopped
- 3 cloves for garlic finely chopped (about 3 teaspoons)
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 2 cups chicken broth
- 1 cup milk or heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of pepper
- 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
- 4 cups chopped chicken or turkey
- Preheat oven to 350 and lightly grease a 13 x 9 baking dish.
- Cook spaghetti according to the directions of the package, drain and set aside.
- Melt 2 tablespoons of butter and mix with the breadcrumbs and 1/4 cup grated parmesan.
- Over medium heat in a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoons of butter and cook the mushrooms until they have started to brown (about 5 to 10 minutes). Remove from pan and set aside.
- In the same pan over medium heat, melt 3 tablespoons of butter. Sautee the onions until they start to soften. Add the garlic and cook, while stirring, for a minute.
- Sprinkle the onion/garlic mixture with the flour and stir for another
- Add the chicken broth, milk, salt, pepper, and Italian seasoning and stir until thickened and it coats the back of a spoon.
- Stir in the rest of the parmesan, chicken, mushrooms, and spaghetti (use a large mixing bowl if your pan is not large enough).
- Pour into the casserole and top with the breadcrumb mixture.
- Bake for 30 minutes.
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