I thought that, after I conducted an incredibly scientific taste test of Wendy's new ghost pepper offerings, I had satisfied my curiosity regarding these particular fast food creations. I was wrong, though, because this past weekend, I attempted to make Wendy's Jalapeno Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Ghost Pepper Fries at home in my own kitchen. So, just in case you were curious about whether or not it can be done… it can. And here's the proof.
Building a sandwich isn't exactly difficult, but I knew going into this whole adventure that the success of building this particular sandwich rested on the backs of two things: Whether or not I could find a good spicy chicken breast recipe, and whether or not I could accurate recreate the almighty ghost pepper sauce. The chicken was actually the easy part; I ended up adapting this spicy chicken tenders recipe from Cooking for Two to suit my purposes. And the ghost pepper sauce? Also not that hard, surprisingly. Since we know that Wendy's ghost pepper sauce is buttermilk-based, all I needed to do was Google “buttermilk ghost pepper sauce,” and up popped this little PDF full of ghost pepper recipes from The Cooking Dish — which had exactly what I needed in it. It's on page three, for the curious.
Furthermore, I actually already had a good deal of the ingredients needed to make these two copycat recipes in my fridge and pantry: Red onions, cheddar cheese, chicken breasts, and the sorts of things one needs in order to bread and bake said chicken breasts. I did, however, need to acquire a few things — namely, jalapenos, dried ghost peppers, and buttermilk. The jalapenos and buttermilk I knew I could get at my grocery store; and hey, guess what? It turns out dried ghost peppers are absurdly easy to get a hold of, too. I ordered mine for $6.50 on Amazon Thursday afternoon, and they arrived in my mailbox on Saturday (thanks to the wonders of Amazon Prime). What a time in which we live, no?
So on Sunday, I made Wendy's Jalapeno Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Ghost Pepper Jalapeno Fries for dinner — and, of course, I documented the entire process. My kitchen gets absolutely no natural light, so the pictures seen here may all have a slight yellow cast to them; apologies about that. Blame my overhead lights and the architects who built my apartment complex. In spite of the lighting issues, though, they do accurately depict what went down in my kitchen on Sunday. Here's how it went:
Re-hydrating the Ghost Peppers:
We know that Wendy's ghost pepper sauce has dehydrated ghost peppers in it; what we don't know is whether those dehydrated peppers were re-hydrated before the sauce was made. My recipe called for re-hydrated ones, though, so that's what I did. A quick Google search revealed that it's actually quite simple to do; I followed these instructions from Amy in the Kitchen, which pretty much just amounted to pouring boiling water over the dried peppers and letting them sit for a bit.
There's my pot of water. Since a watched pot never boils, I got busy removing the stems and de-seeding a couple of my peppers while I was waiting. My knife skills are definitely nothing to write home about, but luckily all you need to do to accomplish this particular goal is slice off the tops of the peppers, cut them open, and yank out the seeds with your fingers.
To be honest, I wasn't totally sure how many I should use. The sauce recipe (which I halved — I'll explain why when we get to it) called for half an ounce of re-hydrated ghost peppers — which was exactly the weight of my entire package of peppers. However, I didn't know whether the peppers would gain a little weight once they were re-hydrated, and if so, how much they would gain. I ended up using five, mostly because it arbitrarily seemed like a good number to me.
NOTE: Wash your hands frequently while dealing with these things. Capsaicin — the stuff in chili peppers that makes them so dang hot — has a lot of staying power, so the last thing you want to do is, say, handle a ghost pepper and then rub your eye with your hand. I have not experienced this horror myself, but I would imagine that it would be excruciating. Consider yourselves warned.
Anyway, once the water was boiling, I poured it over the peppers in a heat-proof bowl and let them sit for about 20 minutes.
Some instructions I found actually have you dry roast the peppers in a pan for about a minute before pouring the water over them; however, in the interest of not turning my apartment into a gas chamber, I opted not to use that step. I have no idea whether it would have made any difference, but hey, you can always give it a shot on your own if you like. Let me know how it goes.
While the peppers were soaking, I started a little prep on the rest of the sauce by chopping up half a red bell pepper. After the 20 minutes were up, I removed the ghost peppers from their steamy bath with a slotted spoon, drained the water, gave the bowl a quick rinse, and got ready for sauce time.
The chili-flavored water, by the way, apparently can be put to other purposes; however, I had nothing planned for it, so I just got rid of it. Was it a waste? Maybe, but what was I going to do with six cups of warm chili water?
Making the Sauce:
Next: The sauce. As I mentioned, I halved the recipe I found — because otherwise I would have ended up with a quart of ghost pepper sauce, and there is no earthly reason I would ever need that much of it. As it is, I have more leftovers than I know what to do with. Seriouly, you guys. Does anyone want any ghost pepper sauce? Because I have plenty.
In any event, those are your ingredients up there: Buttermilk, mayo, black pepper, parsley, a red bell pepper, and the ghost peppers. The recipe instructs you to put everything in a food processor one ingredient at a time; I, however, do not have a food processor. I do have a blender, but I was kind of afraid that if I used it to make ghost pepper sauce, every smoothie I made in it thereafter would taste like burning. Instead, I pulled out my trusty immersion blender. I have this sucker from Proctor Silex — it's not fancy, but it's affordable, it does everything I need it to do, and I'm fairly convinced that Proctor Silex appliances are immortal. My electric kettle is also from Proctor Silex; it only cost me about $10, and I've had it for almost 10 years. You could do a lot worse. Trust me.
The instructions don't actually specify that you should chop the bell pepper before adding it to the mix, but I went ahead and did it anyway — I figured my immersion blender would probably thank me for it. Furthermore, since immersion blenders don't particularly enjoy blending tiny quantities of things (there's not enough stuff for it to, y'know, immerse itself), I didn't add each ingredient one at a time; I just dumped everything in the bowl — a cup and a half of buttermilk, half a cup of mayo, a teaspoon of dried parsley, somewhere between a quarter and a half a teaspoon of black pepper, half a red bell pepper, and my five ghost peppers — and got to work.
And a few minutes later:
Voila! Ghost pepper sauce! And you know what? It's hot. Seriously. It's way spicier than the version on the actual Wendy's sandwich and fries. You can adjust the spiciness depending on how many peppers you put in, but five gave it a pretty strong kick. It's still not totally unbearable, though, so you won't be screaming in agony if you eat it. So, y'know… there's that.
Making the Chicken and the Fries:
And now the chicken. I'm not sure whether the Wendy's spicy chicken breast is fried or baked; I suspect it's fried, but I opted to bake mine instead, mostly because huge vats of hot oil terrify me. I also employed a technique I learned from these amazing BBQ chicken fingers from Sally's Baking Addiction — double-breading your chicken. Basically, it involves marinating the chicken in something gooey beforehand, dredging it in a mixture of flour and spices, dunking it some egg, and then rolling it around in some Panko bread crumbs. The result is a deliciously seasoned chicken tender (or breast, in this case) that's moist on the inside and crunchy on the outside. Best. Chicken fingers. Ever.
First, after thawing some frozen chicken breasts in the fridge overnight, I stuck them in a Ziplock bag with maybe a quarter cup of mayo. I didn't measure how much mayo I used, because it doesn't really matter; nor did I take a picture of this step, because raw chicken breasts sitting in a bag full of mayo is kind of disgusting. Anyhoo, I stuck the chicken-and-mayo bag back in the fridge while I made the ghost pepper sauce, so it had been sitting in there for about an hour by the time I started in on this part of the experiment. I also preheated my oven to 450 degrees.
Your ingredients, as you can see up top, are as follows: Flour, salt, paprika, garlic powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper, regular black pepper, a couple of eggs, and Panko bread crumbs. If you do not regularly use Panko crumbs when you make breaded things, you should begin doing so immediately. Panko crumbs are far superior to regular bread crumbs. Just sayin'.
Anyway, here's my chicken-breading setup:
On the right, we have half a cup of flour mixed with half a teaspoon each of paprika, garlic, salt, pepper, and chili powder, along with a quarter teaspoon of paprika; in the middle, we have the three eggs after an unfortunate encounter with a fork; and on the left, we have the Panko crumbs. After you pull your chicken out of the bag (making sure to shake off any excess globs of mayo), you dredge it in the flour, then in the egg, and then in the Panko crumbs. I made three breasts — one for me, one for my boyfriend (because this was last night's dinner), and one extra one that will probably be used for lunch at some point this week.
Oh, and let's not forget the fries:
I did not make my fries from scratch; the idea of julienning enough potatoes to make two portions of fries did not, shall we say, do it for me. So I got these fast food-style frozen fries instead, which only required me to stick them on a cookie sheet and shove them in the oven for a bit.
Both of these suckers bake at 450 degrees, so I stuck them in the oven together; the fries got about 15 minutes, while the chicken got about 20.
While everything was baking, I got the rest of the toppings ready. Another corner I cut? Not making cheese sauce in addition to shredding some high-quality cheddar. I realize this makes my copycat Jalapeno Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich a little less authentic… but I'll be honest: I kind of hate cheese sauce unless it's on mac and cheese. "Nacho cheese?" No me gusta. I would rather have more actual cheese, so that's what I used instead. I also didn't get Colby jack, mostly because I already had a giant brick of super sharp cheddar in my fridge and didn't feel the need to go buy a second brick of something else. Whatever. That cheddar is delicious.
As you can see, I also chopped up a couple of fresh jalapenos and sliced some red onions.
I also had some fancy-schmancy kaiser rolls on hand, mostly because I was pretty sure a regular grocery store hamburger bun would not be up to the challenge of holding everything I was planning to put on it.
And 20 minutes later, we have three golden, crispy chicken breasts and a sheet full of golden, crispy fries!
The Final Result:
And here are my Wendy's ghost pepper copycat items, fully assembled. You'll notice the lighting is a little better here; I took these pictures in my living room, which, in contrast to my kitchen, is full of natural light. The fries got a sprinkling of freshly shredded cheddar, a drizzle of ghost pepper sauce, and a chopped jalapeno garnish; meanwhile, the sandwich consisted of the chicken breast, more shredded cheddar (and lots of it), sliced red onions, a drizzle of ghost pepper sauce, and another dash of chopped jalapenos. Here's a close up of the fries:
And here's one of the sandwich:
And you know what?
It was pretty good! I went light on the ghost pepper sauce, since I knew it was so much spicier than its inspiration was; even going as lightly with it as I did, though, the whole packed one helluva wallop. The chicken wasn't quite as crispy as Wendy's, but that's to be expected.
My only complaint — which is also the reason I will probably not make cooking with ghost peppers a priority in the future — is that peppers that score this highly on the Scoville scale just taste… spicy. They don't really have a flavor of their own, so when they're the primary element of a dish's flavor profile… well, you can see where the problem might lie. That said, though, I can safely say that this whole experiment was a relatively accurate recreation of Wendy's ghost pepper items — with the added bonus being that you can adjust the spice level to your liking, depending on A) how many ghost peppers you put in the sauce, and B) how much sauce you put on the sandwich and fries.
So there you have it, ladies and gents: How to make the Wendy's Jalapeno Fresco Spicy Chicken Sandwich and Ghost Pepper Jalapeno Fries in the comfort of your own kitchen. Not going to lie: It's a little labor intensive. It took me about an hour and 45 minutes from start to finish; I could have cut the time a bit if I'd multi-tasked by making the sauce while the chicken was baking, but in the interest of not screwing anything up, I figured I'd take it one step at a time. It is, however, not terribly complicated; it doesn't require any fancy cooking techniques, and anyone with a well-stocked kitchen probably already has most of the ingredients on hand.
And here, I believe, ends my quest to expore every single aspect of Wendy's ghost pepper menu. Fare you well, ghost peppers; may we each have enough memories of each other to last a lifetime.
Images: Lucia Peters (21)