Chances are you know these exceptional chicken sandwiches. Even if you’ve never had the good fortune to eat them, you will have seen them in photographs and on television, year after year, on the first Tuesday in November—probably in the company of a glamorous actress, a frocked-up socialite or even visiting royalty.
The Melbourne Cup, after all, is about more than fine horseflesh and Fashions on the Field. It’s also about glitzy marquees and sumptuous finger food—and this, the quintessential chicken sandwich, is caterer Peter Rowland’s signature Cup Week canape. He’s been dishing them up at Flemington—and at 21sts, weddings and funerals—for more than 50 years.
What makes these sandwiches special? It’s not so much about fancy ingredients as it is about attention to detail during assembly. Ordinary white toast bread is fine, and so long as you use chicken breast (no dark meat) you’ll be on the money. This is not a time to steer off salt—because the chicken will be served cold you’ll need to season it generously. If you’re not making your own mayo use a north American brand such as S & W or Best Foods, and mix it with sour cream or Greek yoghurt to cut the richness.
The critical thing is to be almost ridiculously lavish with the sandwich filling. The layer of herby, mayo-laden chicken must be at least as thick as the bread, ideally thicker. “The secret is more mayonnaise than what you think you need,” Rowland told ABC Radio in 2010.
Be warned that there should be so much filling that it might seem impossible to cut off the crusts (this is non-negotiable) without squashing the bread, the filling or both. We’re here to help: Lesley Russell, during her time at Peter Rowland Catering in the late 1980s, made hundreds—maybe thousands—of these chicken winners, and she has the necessary tricks up her sleeve. Follow her directions in the method (the chilling step is vital) and you’ll be on a sure thing.
There were no Thermomixes at Rowland’s back in the day but Lesley says they are the ideal tool for this task: they’ll turn out perfect poached, shredded chicken, blitz your herbs and make your mayonnaise too. Pass the champagne, darling.
Cooking the Chicken
Making the Sandwiches
Cooking the Chicken
- Pour the water or stock into the mixing bowl and add the onion and bay leaf. Heat 10 minutes/70 degrees/speed soft.
- Cut the chicken into chunks and place in the simmering basket alternating the thick and thin parts so it fits neatly. Lower the basket into the mixing bowl keeping an eye on the liquid level; the chicken should be submerged but the liquid shouldn’t be in danger of spilling over.
- The temperature reading will drop below 70 degrees when the cold chicken is added. Reset the Thermomix to 70 degrees and once it reaches temperature, cook the chicken 30–40 minutes/70 degrees/speed soft with the MC in place.
- Test the chicken to make sure it is cooked sufficiently— it won’t be firm but nor will it feel loose in the middle. If you’re not sure cut it open at the thickest part, it should be pink but not raw. Switch off the Thermomix and let the chicken cool in the liquid for 15 minutes, it will continue to cook slightly in this time.
- Remove the chicken to a plate, cover and refrigerate until completely cold. This step can be done the day before.
Making the Sandwiches
- Prepare the filling first. Place half the cooked chicken into the Thermomix. Shred it 5 seconds/Reverse/speed 4, there should still be pieces. Tip out into a sizeable bowl and repeat with the remaining chicken.
- Place the spring onions and parsley into the Thermomix and chop 2 seconds/speed 7. Add these to the chicken.
- Weigh out the mayonnaise and sour cream then add both to the chicken. Season with salt and pepper then stir everything together thoroughly but lightly with a wooden spoon. The chicken mixture should be moist; neither sloppy nor dry. You can make the whole mixture in the Thermomix if you like but be careful it doesn’t become paste.
- Make the sandwiches. Lay out the slices of bread in pairs so they match up crust-for-crust and decide which are tops and which are bottoms.
- Place a spoonful of the chicken mixture into the centre of all the bottom slices of bread. Do this with all 10 slices making sure they are even; you may have to borrow filling from one to the other. In the end, the filling should be basically the same thickness as the bread.
- Spread the chicken out to the edges. Place the tops on and press down lightly to make even sandwiches.
- Stack the rounds of sandwiches no more than two high in a tray and wrap thoroughly in cling wrap. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours. This step is essential as this is what makes them cut cleanly later on.
- When cutting the sandwiches do one at a time for best results. Trim the crusts off, making sure the sandwich remains a square.
- Cut into four even triangles or three even fingers. If cutting into fingers, platter them with the filling facing upwards.
AND … If you’d like to vary the recipe and add a mildly nutty flavour, use commercial wholemeal bread instead of white. Or spin out the chicken filling with chopped, fresh pistachios or toasted almond slivers—finely diced celery makes a good addition, too.
One of the best things for cutting sandwiches is a retro electric carving knife. Failing that, a very sharp chefs knife, but not a serrated one, is best. Make sure you cut back and forth; don’t press downwards because the bread becomes compressed.
The sandwiches can easily be cut and plattered in advance; wrap them thoroughly and refrigerate until needed.