Chicken Pumpkins

How do you make chicken bites look like little pumpkins? The trick to this savory treat is a few strategic (but straightforward) knife cuts. The nuggets are soaked in buttermilk, then coated in Cheddar-cracker breadcrumbs and stuffed with mozzarella for the ultimate chicken and cheese experience.
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  • Level: Intermediate
  • Total: 2 hr 50 min (includes chilling time)
  • Active: 40 min
  • Yield: 8 servings
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Ingredients

4 chicken breasts (about 2 pounds total)

3 cups buttermilk 

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper 

4 mozzarella cheese sticks  

Vegetable oil, for frying 

2 celery stalks with leaves attached  

One 14.2-ounce box Cheddar crackers, such as Cheez-It (about 5 cups) 

Ranch sauce, for serving 

Directions

Special equipment:
a deep-frying thermometer
  1. Cut a series of deep slits crosswise into each chicken breast (do not cut through), about 3/4 inch apart from one another. Cut each chicken breast in half lengthwise.
  2. Whisk together the buttermilk, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a large bowl. Add the chicken and toss to coat. Cover and refrigerate at least 2 hours and up to overnight. 
  3. Meanwhile, cut each cheese stick in half crosswise so you have into 8 pieces. Freeze until solid, about 2 hours. 
  4. Fill a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot with 3 to 4 inches of vegetable oil. Heat over medium heat until a deep-frying thermometer registers 350 degrees F. Set a rack on a baking sheet. 
  5. Meanwhile, trim the skinny tops from the celery stalks and remove any leaves. Cut eight 1-inch pieces from the skinny tops (these will be your pumpkin stems) and set aside. 
  6. Add the Cheddar crackers and 1 teaspoon salt to a food processor and process until finely ground. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl. 
  7. One at a time, remove the chicken pieces from the buttermilk mixture, letting the excess drip off. Transfer to the bowl of cracker crumbs and toss to thoroughly coat. Shake off any excess coating and transfer to a cutting board, cut-side down. Place a piece of cheese on one end of the chicken and roll up to enclose the cheese. Seal with a toothpick.  
  8. Working in batches of two, carefully lower the coated chicken into the oil using a slotted spoon. Fry the chicken until golden, cooked through and a thermometer inserted in the center of the meat registers 160 degrees F, about 4 minutes. Remove to the prepared rack to drain. Insert a celery stem in the center of each pumpkin so it sticks in the cheese. Serve hot with ranch sauce.