Life of pies

From Moroccan-spiced pheasant to the classic porker, Mark Hix explores the world of the upper crust
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Indy Lifestyle Online

I've gone a bit pie-eyed recently. I even went on a mission around Spitalfields market in east London the other Sunday in search of a pie funnel, one of those quaint old gizmos that let the steam escape from the pastry. I was so intent on baking my own that I missed the Square Pie Company, which has revived traditional London pies and sells them at Spitalfields, Selfridges, on Virgin Upper Class flights and even at Glastonbury. See how trendy pies have become.

I've gone a bit pie-eyed recently. I even went on a mission around Spitalfields market in east London the other Sunday in search of a pie funnel, one of those quaint old gizmos that let the steam escape from the pastry. I was so intent on baking my own that I missed the Square Pie Company, which has revived traditional London pies and sells them at Spitalfields, Selfridges, on Virgin Upper Class flights and even at Glastonbury. See how trendy pies have become.

What a great invention the pie was - be they pocket-sized meals on the move or gigantic things, enough to feed an entire village. In the 12th century the Egyptians encased whole lambs in pastry. Our own Denby Dale pie is a giant meat and potato one made for special occasions. In 1988, a nine-tonne pie was made to mark the bicentenary of the first Denby Dale pie, baked to celebrate the recovery of George III. Mad, eh?

I did find a pie funnel to hold up the pastry, though I had to go across town for it. In fact I found two. One was the good old-fashioned ceramic type; the other was cute little black quail. Or is it a blackbird? Now I wonder how many of those you could bake in a pie.

Pheasant b'stilla

Serves 4

This may not be an obvious candidate for the Saturday pie slot, but I've been casting far and wide for good pies. If you've been to Morocco you may have come across b'stilla. It's usually made with pigeon and is a sort of sweet and savoury pie with sugar and almonds that were probably originally used to disguise the gaminess of the birds. As pheasants are cheap and plentiful, I thought they'd make a good alternative to pigeon, and this helps get round the potential dryness of pheasant meat. Chermoula is a classic Moroccan spice mix often rubbed on fish. I've used it to flavour the pie filling. Warka pastry - the thin stuff they make in north Africa - is tricky to buy and to make so you may be better off looking for filo.

About 20-24 warka pastry leaves or sheets of filo measuring about 18cm square
60g melted butter

for the game filling

1 pheasant with the meat removed from the carcass and cut into rough 3cm chunks
Bones from the pheasant carcass
1 litre chicken stock (can be made with a good quality cube)
6tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
4 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
A good pinch of saffron
1tsp powdered ginger
1tbsp chopped parsley
1tbsp chopped coriander
1tsp freshly ground black pepper
1tsp salt
1tbsp icing sugar
100g butter
5 hard boiled eggs, chopped

for the sugared-almond mixture

350g ground almonds
5tbsp icing sugar
3tbsp orange-flower water or 4tbsp water
1/2tsp ground cinnamon

to serve

Icing sugar
Ground cinnamon

Pre-heat the oven to 200ºC/gas mark 6. Chop the pheasant bones and simmer them gently in the chicken stock for 45 minutes. Strain the stock through a fine-meshed sieve and discard the bones.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, and fry the pieces of pheasant until nicely coloured, stirring every so often. Add the following chermoula ingredients - onion, garlic, saffron, ginger, parsley, coriander, pepper and salt, and stir well. Add the strained stock, bring to the boil and simmer very gently for 30 minutes.

Add the tablespoon of icing sugar and the 100g of butter and simmer for another 20 minutes. The meat should be tender now and the cooking liquid quite rich and flavoursome, reduced to a few tablespoons, just coating the meat. If not, simmer a little longer. Break the meat up a little into the sauce with a spoon, and leave to cool.

To assemble the b'stilla, first take a straight-sided tart or cake tin with a removable bottom (or a bottomless flan ring on a baking tray) measuring 18cm to 20cm across by 5cm or 6cm or more deep. Brush the bottom and sides with some of the 60g of melted butter. Lay a square of filo on the base. Then lay on another 5 sheets all round the tin, overlapping the central sheet on the base, then going up the sides of the tin so half the sheet overhangs the edge ready to be folded over later. Repeat this with another 5 filo sheets.

Mix together all the ingredients for the sugared-almond mixture and spread half of it on the base of the pastry, leaving about 1cm around the edges.

Place 2 more sheets of pastry over the sugared almond mixture. Mix the chopped eggs with the pheasant mixture and spoon all the pheasant and egg filling over the pastry. Cover with 2 more leaves of pastry. Spoon the rest of the almond mixture over the pastry then cover with a couple more leaves. Brush with more butter and fold the overhanging sides up and towards the middle then cover with one more sheet and firm down the top with your hands.

Bake the b'stilla in the pre-heated oven for about 20 minutes until golden brown. Carefully run a knife around the edge of the b'stilla to loosen the sides and place a serving dish or flat plate upside down over the tin. Carefully invert the b'stilla on to the plate and then slide on to a baking tray or the base of the tart tin without the sides. Brush all over with melted butter and return to the oven and cook for a further 15 minutes. If the b'stilla is browning too much then cover with foil and turn the oven down.

Remove the b'stilla from the oven and leave to cool a little. Using a fish slice, carefully transfer to a serving dish. Cut some long strips of paper about 1cm wide. Dust the top, preferably with a dredger or fine sieve with some icing sugar then lay strips a couple of centimetres apart and dredge with the cinnamon to create a lattice pattern or stripes.

Quince and cinnamon pie

Serves 4

You're more likely to find quinces in Greek or Turkish shops or a friend's garden than in a greengrocer. They need plenty of cooking and suit spices like cloves and cinnamon.

3-4 quinces weighing 1.2kg-1.3kg, peeled, quartered and the core cut out
150g sugar
1 stick of cinnamon
6 cloves
Juice of 1 lemon
1 small egg, beaten
1tbsp granulated sugar

for the pastry

120g plain flour
30g butter, cut into small pieces
30g lard, cut into small pieces
30g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
Water to mix

Put the quince in a saucepan with the sugar, cloves, cinnamon and lemon juice. Cover well with water, bring to the boil and simmer for 45 minutes to 1 hour until they are soft and tender. You may need to top up the water.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 5. Drain over a bowl into a colander then return the liquid to a pan and simmer until it's reduced by about half and thickened.

Lay the quince into a pie dish, or individual ones, and pour over the reduced syrup.

For the pastry, rub the butter and lard into the flour with your fingers to form a breadcrumb-like consistency. Add the sugar, egg yolk and a little water to make a moderately soft dough. Knead lightly for a minute then roll out on a floured table to about 1/2cm thick and slightly larger than the pie dish. Leave in the fridge for 30 minutes.

If you are using a large pie dish you may want to put a pie funnel in the centre. With the funnel poking through the pastry the steam can be let out keeping the pastry crisp. Lay the pastry over the quinces overlapping the edges of the pie dish by 1cm or so then trim the excess with a small knife. Brush the top with beaten egg and scatter over the granulated sugar. Bake the pie or pies for 35-40 minutes or until golden. Serve with thick cream or custard.

Mutton and turnip pie

Serves 4

There's a campaign to get more people eating British mutton this winter. I'm all for it. Mutton has much more flavour than lamb. It just needs longer, more gentle cooking.

1kg neck fillet of mutton, cut into rough 2cm pieces
Plain flour for dusting
2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped
Vegetable oil for frying
A small sprig of rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1.5 litres chicken or lamb stock (can be made with good quality stock cubes)
400-450g turnips, peeled and cut into rough 2-3cm chunks
250-300g puff pastry, rolled to about 1/2cm thick
1 egg, beaten

Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/Gas mark 6. Season the pieces of mutton and dust generously with about a tablespoon or so of flour. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and fry the pieces of mutton and onions, without colouring them too much, for 3-4 minutes. Add the rosemary and stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 11/2-2 hours until the mutton is soft and tender. This may take a little longer, or it may be quicker, as it's difficult to put a cooking time on braising cuts. Add the turnips, cover with a lid and add a little more water if necessary. Simmer for about 15 minutes until the turnips are cooked. Remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Meanwhile cut the pastry a little larger than the pie dish, or dishes if you're making individual pies. When the mutton mixture is cool, transfer it to your pie dish or dishes. Brush the edges of the pastry with some egg and lay the pastry on the dish, pressing the edges on the rims. Cut a slit about 2cm-3cm in the centre to let the steam out, or for larger pies, place a pie funnel in the centre of the dish surrounded by the filling, then lay the pastry over it with the funnel poking through.

Bake the pies for 40-45 minutes until golden. Serve with buttered cabbage, boiled potatoes or some mashed swede.

Pork pie

Makes 6-8

Homemade pork pies are nothing like the ones you buy. The pastry is easy to make and if you haven't got a mincer at home on your mixing machine, you can just chop the meat up very finely by hand. A helpful butcher might mince the filling for you.

Your pie doesn't have to be pork. Try rabbit, game or chicken, but include some fatty pork belly or veal to keep the meat moist. The famous Melton Mowbray pork pie is made with uncured pork, not cured, and is less pink than imitators. The seasonings and spices are secret, but I use anchovy essence - it's worth keeping a bottle in the fridge.

You can use various types of moulds for this, including individual open-bottomed soufflé rings, or raise them by hand. All you do is take a large disc of pastry and shape it round the filling into a bulgy-sided pie. Join to a smaller circle of pastry at the top by pinching round the edge.

I prefer to eat these pies warm rather than cold as it brings out the flavour and the pastry tends to be crisper.

for the filling

1kg boned shoulder of pork, 20 per cent fat
250g unsmoked, streaky bacon
1tsp chopped sage
1/2tsp ground cinnamon
1/2tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2tsp ground allspice
1tsp anchovy essence
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the hot-water crust

200ml water
175g lard
500g plain flour
1/2tsp salt
1 egg, beaten

Chop some of the best bits of pork into rough 1cm dice. Mince or finely chop the rest with the bacon. Add the seasonings and mix in the diced meat. Take a small teaspoon-sized piece of the mixture and fry it to check the seasoning, adjust if needed and pre-heat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.

Mix the flour and salt in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Bring the water and lard to the boil, then stir it into the flour with a wooden spoon to form a smooth dough. Leave the dough covered for about 15 minutes or so until it can be handled.

Roll a ball of the dough on a lightly floured table to about 12cm-14 cm in diameter. Make another circle about half the size for the top. Put some of the filling in the centre of the larger circle, lay the smaller circle on top and raise the sides of the larger one up, then pinch the lid and the top of the sides together with your fingers. If it looks a bit of a mess, you can reshape it as the pastry is quite pliable.

Brush the pies all over with the beaten egg and cook them for 35-40 minutes. If they are colouring too much, cover them with foil and turn the oven down. Serve them warm or cold, preferably with homemade piccalilli.

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