"It was 1985 when I first put a baby guinea fowl in clay at Berowra Waters Inn," says Janni Kyritsis. "When I moved to MG Garage in 1997, I revisited the recipe, but used a mature guinea fowl to serve two people. Today, I still use the recipe, but I love chicken when I think of home cooking - it works just as well and it's very special when it comes to the table. You can present it, then carve it up and return it to the table. Enclosing the bird in clay ensures it cooks evenly and remains succulent. Clay has been used for cooking for thousands of years - it's easy to imagine our ancestors coating a bird in mud before throwing it into the coals. The first time I attempted to cook with clay, I used a pheasant with its feathers still on, expecting the feathers to be caught in the wet clay. Some did get stuck in the clay, but the result was a cooked half-plucked bird with clay sticking to the skin. Encasing food has become one of the signatures of my cooking. I use any possible way to make sure the food remains juicy and retains flavour, and I love the theatre of unwrapping the parcels. Salt crust, muslin, caul fat, bone-marrow dumplings, parchment paper, lettuce and vine leaves, pig's trotters and duck's necks - all have played a part. Start this recipe the day before; the flavour of the pancetta marries with the bird overnight and gives a nice rosy colour to the breast (you could also prepare it in the morning for the same evening). Pour a few tablespoons of hot veal glaze over each bird before serving."
- 120 gm butter, diced
- 4 large field mushrooms, wiped, thinly sliced
- 1 tbsp coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tsp thyme
- 4 large iceberg lettuce leaves
- 2 small chickens (1.2kg-1.3kg)
- 1 tbsp brandy
- 8 thin slices flat pancetta
- 1 kg clay (see note)
- Plain flour, for rolling clay
- Barley pilaf
- 125 gm butter, diced
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 190 gm pearl barley (1 cup)
- 180 gm currants (1 cup)
- ½ tsp cumin seeds, toasted
- Finely grated rind of 1 lemon, plus 1 tbsp juice
- 1Melt butter in a wide saucepan over high heat, then reserve two-thirds for brushing later. Add mushrooms to remaining butter in pan and sauté until soft (2-3 minutes). Add herbs, season to taste with salt and white pepper, then cool.
- 2Blanch iceberg leaves until just tender (1 minute), refresh in cold water, then pat dry. Rinse chickens inside and out and pat dry well. Place ½ tbsp brandy in the cavity of each bird, then stuff with cooled mushrooms. Cover breasts with pancetta slices, then lettuce and brush liberally with reserved melted butter. Place two 50cm sheets of baking paper on a bench with long edges overlapping by 3cm. Place chicken at the centre breast-side down, then wrap paper around, folding to enclose and folding ends inwards. Turn chicken over, repeat with remaining chicken and refrigerate until required.
- 3Divide clay into 2 equal blocks, then roll each on a lightly floured surface into rectangles just large enough to enclose birds (about 40cm x 30cm). Place each breast down on the diagonal on a piece of clay (ensuring paper remains closed). Fold corners up to cover, then pinch and press clay to seal. Turn chickens over seal side down and refrigerate overnight.
- 4For barley pilaf, preheat oven to 150C. Melt butter in a casserole, add onion and sauté over low heat until softened and golden (2-3 minutes). Add barley, stir for a minute, then add currants, cumin seeds, 1 litre water and season with 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp coarsely ground black pepper. Cover with a lid or seal with foil and bake until tender (1½ hours). Remove from oven, stir in lemon rind and juice and keep covered to stay warm. Meanwhile, remove clay parcels from fridge and bring to room temperature (about 30 minutes).
- 5Increase oven to 225C. Bake birds on a baking tray until clay is beginning to colour and inside temperature of bird is hot; insert a metal skewer into each bird for 20 seconds, then touch to your bottom lip – it should feel hot (50-55 minutes). Remove from oven and rest for 10 minutes.
- 6To serve, break and remove the top of the clay and roll back the baking paper to partially unwrap. Carve chicken and serve with mushroom stuffing and pilaf.
Clay is available from art-supply shops; ask for lead-free plain clay.