Making Friends with Mom's Chicken Surprise

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Every person I’ve ever made this dish for has asked for the recipe. Every. Single. One. My usual answer is “I can’t give it to you because then you’ll have no reason to hang out with me” — they usually agree and stop asking.

It’s called Chicken Breast Surprise and is comfort food at its finest. And, most importantly, I’ve never heard of a kid that refused to eat it — which is pretty much the highest praise any parent can give.

I discovered its powers as a young, newly-married military spouse when I started a job at a small marketing firm after moving across the country. Most of the employees had been working together a few years and were pretty tight knit. They weren’t much interested in being friends with the new girl, and my frequent attempts to break the ice were often met with a reasonably polite, but quick, dismissal.

The corporate world was feeling more like my high school. Was one of them planning to douse me with pig’s blood? I hated when that happened.

One day, as I sat alone eating my leftovers, one of my coworkers, a young marketing coordinator named Dan and a popular personality in the office, popped his head into the break room.

“Girl…that smells good! Whatcha got there?”

“It’s my favorite dish my Mom used to make,” I told him. “She calls it Chicken Breast Surprise.”

“Surprise?!” He cocked his head to the side, put his hand on his hip, and replied matter-of-factly, “Honey, I’m from the South, too. 'Surprise' means there’s cream of sumthin’ in it, and it’s awesome! Can I try?”

He pulled out a chair and I scraped half of my lunch onto a paper plate for him. In between forkfuls, we found we had more in common than a love for casserole culture — a bond had been formed. Soon, because Dan had accepted me, some of the other young-adults around the office began to talk to me more, too. One day, Dan asked if I’d make Chicken Breast Surprise for a small group. I feared he meant, would I make it for them ... then drop it off and walk away, but he wanted me to join them! That was the day our “lunch bunch” was born. I was in.

"Chicken Breast Surprise is magic."

I guess that’s really what the surprise is (okay, fine, it’s also curry). It has evolved into my go-to meal for many occasions. We currently live on a Navy base, so we see others come and go a lot. Whenever someone moves onto our block, we bring them dinner. Moving stinks and when you’re exhausted from plowing through boxes and a new neighbor shows up at your door with this steaming dish of creamy, non-diet deliciousness, a friendship is instantly sown.

And when you know you only have a few years to spend in one place, you want to enjoy every minute you can, which includes making friends — for our kids and for us. If we aren’t greeted by neighbors when we move to a new place, we’re not shy about knocking on doors and trying to make acquaintances on our own. We invite the neighbors and their kids over for dinner, and the Chicken Breast Surprise we serve them is the cheesy glue that begins to bind us together. I also make it for friends having babies or who are sick or sometimes just because I know they’re having a rough day and could use a night off from cooking. And this is most often the dish my kids request on their birthdays.

Is this healthy? Heck, no. Comfort food isn’t healthy. But we don’t eat like this all the time — it’s a special dish. Now, you may be thinking that you’ll resist and try to create a “clean” version of this recipe. Seriously — don’t waste your time. All you’ll end up with is a very sad approximation that will not bring you joy. Live a little. Some fatty soups every now and then won’t kill you, either.

So now I’ve shared my secret recipe. I hope you make it for a new friend, soon.

Recipe: Chicken Breast Surprise

Ingredients:

  • 4-5 chicken breasts — boiled or baked and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 can cream of chicken soup
  • 1 can cream of celery soup
  • 1 cup regular mayonnaise
  • 1/2 tablespoon curry powder
  • 12-15 slices American cheese (not the kind you have to unwrap — that doesn’t melt correctly. Get the “deli deluxe” version. No, you can’t use cheddar or gouda or some fancy cheese, darling)
  • 1-1 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs (buy them boxed or make them yourself in your food processor)

Instructions

1. Mix all of the ingredients and put into a glass baking dish (13x9)

2. Lay the cheese slices evenly across the top and sprinkle the breadcrumbs across the top

3. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until bubbling through. Serve over any type of pasta.

4. Before you pour it into your casserole dish, it should have a slightly yellow tint from the curry.

5. Ready for the oven!

6. If you want to make this healthier, try serving with some veggies, or a salad.

Tags: Sunday Dinner Ideas

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Written By

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker

Becky Hepinstall Hilliker is the co-author of Sisters of Shiloh (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) and a freelance writer. See Full Bio

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