Though the idea of a hot clam dip sounds so very midcentury—a swank holiday party snack that seems to go hand in hand with crab toast, devils on horseback, and rumaki—the idea of baked seafood dishes stretches back a bit further in our culinary history.
Clams Casino was a high-society appetizer popular in New York and New England at the turn of the 20th century, and clams oreganata often features prominently in the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional Italian-American Christmas Eve meal.
It’s the Feast of the Seven Fishes that brings clam dip to our table today. If you’re only familiar with the summery, seaside-inspired cold clam dips that feature copious amounts of sour cream and mayonnaise, I urge you to put the potato chips aside and pick up a few crackers or baguette slices for the wintertime clam dip counterpart.
Blended with butter, bread crumbs, and herbs, this bubbling casserole takes its inspiration from those fancy baked clams oreganata, only without all the work of filling all the individual shells.
And boy, was butter a big deal in the the family recipe I grew up with—two whole sticks’ worth, to be exact. No wonder I loved it as a kid! Those clams were bobbing in a big old butter bath!
While I was happy to avoid the fried smelts and alici (that would be the enormous bowl of spaghetti swimming in anchovies and olive oil) on the Christmas Eve dinner buffet, the clam dip was always served in the living room. It was the perfect location for a girl to stroll in and out, casually sneaking scoop after scoop until the casserole dish was depleted.
Though I don’t do the Feast of the Seven Fishes for my own holiday dinner, you’ll understand why I can’t resist an excuse to make hot clam dip anyway—and these days I don’t have to sneak around.
As a professional recipe developer (and an adult who would like to enjoy the penne vodka and shortbread and still be able to fit into her jeans the next day), I’ve taken a more critical eye at the family recipe.
It’s been tweaked and refreshed—still incredibly rich and buttery, but with shallots instead of onion powder, fresh herbs in place of desiccated dried ones, and crunchy panko rather than sandy Italian-style breadcrumbs.
If you’re more of a clams Casino person (and you’re not eschewing meat for the holiday meal), dice and cook 2 strips of bacon in place of the initial 2 tablespoons butter, then add the shallot along with a minced half of a red bell pepper.
- 3 6.5-ounce cans chopped clams
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
- 1 large shallot, minced
- 1 small to medium garlic clove, minced
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley + more for garnish
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh oregano
- 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- zest of 1 small to medium lemon
- 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons panko, divided
- 1 teaspoon + 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- baguette slices or crackers for serving
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Strain 2 of the cans of clams, reserving the clams and juice in separate bowls. Open the third can but leave as is. Set all aside.
- Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large skillet over medium-low heat, then stir in the shallot or onion. Cook for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onions are very soft. Keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t start to brown too much.
- Add 1 more tablespoon butter with the garlic, red pepper flakes, parsley, and oregano. Cook for 1-2 minutes more to soften the garlic.
- Add the whole can of clams (with juice) and the clams (but not the juice) from the other 2 cans.
- Cook until the liquid in the skillet comes to a simmer, then whisk in the flour, lemon zest, 1/2 cup panko, and 1 teaspoon Parmesan.
- The panko will absorb most of the liquid in the pan, so stir in 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the reserved clam juice until the dip loosens to your preferred consistency. I like it when it’s longer a thick paste, but is more scoopable and spreadable. Save the remaining clam juice for use in pasta or chowder.
- Spread the dip in a wide gratin dish–use one that’s going to give you a shallow but wide surface for the dip, so it’s not layered too deeply.
- Stir the remaining 2 tablespoons panko and 1 tablespoon Parmesan together in a small bowl, then sprinkle evenly over the surface of the dip.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes until the dip bubbles at the edges and the panko is golden brown.
- Sprinkle the dip with minced parsley for garnish and serve immediately with baguette slices or crackers.