christmas chicken

this is the kind of dinner dish that makes an ordinary tuesday seem special. all you need is to know one day in advance that you’ll be wanting to eat juicy pieces of crispy-skinned chicken, and the rest is just a bit of seasoning and waiting.

buy a chicken: just a few pounds, fresh. make a rub of four spices and salt and sugar, and pat it onto the bird. sneak slivers of garlic under the skin before you tuck the little chicken into the back of your fridge for a day or two.

the rest is a science i would never have been able to work out on my own – a balance of timing and temperature –  but in the end, all you need to know is the clear sizzle of chicken fat melting off to the bottom of the pan. the thin crackle of crisp meat as you flip the roasting bird once and then twice. the scent of the garlic and spices filling the house. warm, inviting, delicious – it feels like christmas.

Christmas Chicken
spice mixture from and roasting method from The Zuni Café Cookbook via smitten kitchen
Serves 3 to 4

a few notes:

  • A small bird is optimal for achieving the crispy-skinned, juicy-on-the-inside thing: it means a shorter stint in the oven and a more generous skin-to-meat ratio
  • Salting the chicken a day in advance and letting it rest in the refrigerator results in a chicken that cooks up more moist and tender
  • Don’t worry about trussing (tying with twine) the drumsticks. The bird ends up looking somewhat immodest, but leaving the legs untied maximizes the amount of skin that can crisp up

2 teaspoons regular or garlic salt
1 teaspoon white sugar
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (3- to 3 ½-pound) whole chicken
5 cloves garlic, sliced


1 to 3 days before serving:

  1. Remove and discard the neck and giblets (if any) and the lump of fat inside the chicken. Rinse the chicken and pat very dry inside and out. Be thorough — this will ensure a crispy skin and golden-brown bird.
  2. Approaching from the edge of the bird’s cavity, slide a finger under the skin of each of the breasts, making 2 little pockets. Now use the tip of your finger to gently loosen a pocket of skin on the outside of the thickest section of each thigh. Slide the garlic slices into each of the 4 pockets, using your fingers to distribute them evenly beneath the skin.
  3. In a bowl, mix the salt, sugar, cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Rub the chicken with the mixture. Cover chicken, and place in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours.

Day of serving:

  1. Preheat the oven to 475°F. Choose a shallow flameproof roasting pan or dish barely larger than the chicken, or use a 10-inch skillet with an all-metal handle. Preheat the pan over medium heat or set dish in oven until hot.
  2. Gently pat the chicken dry if needed. Twist and tuck the wing tips behind the shoulders, and set it breast side up in the pan. It should sizzle.
  3. Place the chicken in the pan in the center of the oven and roast for 30 minutes. Listen and watch for it to start browning within the first 20 minutes. If it doesn’t, raise the temperature progressively until it does. The skin should blister, but if the chicken begins to char, or the fat is smoking, reduce temperature by 25 degrees.
  4. After 30 minutes, carefully turn the bird over. (Drying the bird and preheating the pan will have kept the skin from sticking.) Roast for another 10 to 20 minutes, depending on size.
  5. Carefully flip the bird back over to re-crisp the breast skin, another 5 to 10 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the breast reads 180°F.
  6. Remove the chicken from the oven and turn off the heat. Lift the chicken from the roasting pan and set on a plate. Carefully pour the clear fat from the roasting pan, leaving the lean drippings behind. Add about a tablespoon of water to the hot pan and swirl it. Stir and scrape to soften any hard golden drippings.
  7. Slash the stretched skin between the thighs and breasts of the chicken, then tilt the bird and plate over the roasting pan to drain the juice into the drippings. Let the chicken rest, covered loosely with foil, for about 15 minutes before serving. (The meat will become more tender and uniformly succulent as it cools.) Serve with drippings on the side, reheated if needed.

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