The pies have it: Mark Hix celebrates the world's finest comfort food

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Sadly, the pie has a rather chequered history, due to the fact that there are so many shockingly cheap and nasty examples on our shop shelves. But a well-made pie using good ingredients is sublimely satisfying and guaranteed to make the family's eyes light up as you place it on the dinner table. Pie toppings can range from fluffy mashed potato to melt-in-the-mouth shortcrust pastry to puff pastry for a b'stilla, a Moroccan version of a pie.

Potato and cheese pie

Serves 4-6

This is a take on the French gateau Pithivier, which is filled with a delicious almondy paste and rarely seen on menus these days. It's not really a gateau but a pie and I've bastardised it into a savoury version. The cheese you use is up to you, but a hard cheese like cheddar or Lancashire or Emmenthal works very well. You can serve this as a snack or as a vegetarian main course or starter.

2 x circles of butter puff pastry about 30cm diameter and rolled to about 2-3cm thick
500g large potatoes, peeled and cut into slices about one-third of a centimetre thick
litre chicken or vegetable stock
250g mature hard cheese, grated
1 medium onion, peeled, halved and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium egg, beaten

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Bring the stock to the boil, add the potatoes and simmer for 2 minutes, then drain in a colander over a bowl, reserving the stock for another time.

Place one of the circles of pastry on a baking sheet and prick it all over with a fork.

Lay one circle of the pastry on a baking sheet, then put a layer of the potatoes on the pastry about 3cm within the edge, season and scatter the cheese and onion on top.

Repeat until all of the potatoes have been used.

Brush the edge with a little egg and lay the other circle on top, stretching it a little over the potatoes and pressing the two edges together with your thumb.

Mark the edge of the pastry with the back of a knife and, if you wish, score the pastry lightly on the surface from the centre to the edge in curved lines about 1cm apart; then leave in the fridge to rest for an hour.

Brush the top with egg and bake for about 30-40 minutes until golden then remove from the oven.

Serve hot or at room temperature.

Pheasant, cider and chestnut pie

Serves 4

Pheasants can be tricky birds to roast. They often come out the oven overcooked and dried-up rather than nice and pink. Slow-cooking them is in my opinion a much better option, and then you can use the meat for a soup, a tagine or a pie.

2 pheasants trimmed of all their meat and cut into 3-4cm chunks
500ml good cider
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
3 juniper berries crushed
1tsp thyme, leaves removed and chopped
1 bay leaf
Vegetable oil for frying
60g butter
2 onions, peeled, halved and finely chopped
3tbsp plain flour
tbsp tomato purée
1 litres dark meat stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
24 or so roasted and freshly shelled chestnuts or vacuum packed or canned ones, halved

For the pastry

225g self-raising flour
1tsp salt
85g shredded beef suet
60g butter, chilled and coarsely grated
1 medium egg beaten, to glaze

Put the pheasant meat into a stainless steel or ceramic bowl with the cider, garlic, thyme, juniper and bay leaf. Cover and marinade in the fridge overnight.

Drain the pheasant meat in a colander, reserving the marinade, and dry the pieces on some kitchen paper. Heat the vegetable oil in a heavy frying pan, lightly flour the meat with a tablespoon of the flour, season with salt and pepper and fry on a high heat a few pieces at a time until nicely browned.

Meanwhile, heat the butter in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently fry the onions for a few minutes until soft. Add the flour and tomato purée and stir over a low heat for a minute. Slowly add the marinade, stirring constantly to avoid lumps forming.

Bring to the boil and simmer until it has reduced by half. Add the stock and the pieces of pheasant, bring back to the boil, cover with a lid and simmer gently for about an hour until the meat is fairly tender.

Once the meat is cooked, the sauce should have thickened sufficiently and reduced, so it's just coating the meat. If not, dilute a little cornflour in some water and stir into the sauce and simmer for a few minutes. Add the chestnuts, transfer the meat into a large pie dish and leave to cool.

Meanwhile, make the pastry: mix the flour and salt with the suet and grated butter. Mix in about 150-175ml water with the egg to form a smooth dough and knead it for a minute. Roll the pastry on a floured table to about 1cm thick and cut out to about 2cm larger (all the way round) than the pie dish, or dishes, you are using.

Brush the edges of the pastry with a little of the beaten egg and lay the pastry on top, pressing the egg-washed sides against the rim of the dish.

Cut a small slit in the top of each pie to allow steam to escape, and brush with beaten egg. You can put a trim around the edge of the dish with a strip of leftover pastry. Leave to rest in a cool place for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Bake for 45 minutes, or until the pastry is golden. Serve with greens or mashed root vegetables such as celeriac or parsnip and/or small boiled potatoes.

Monkfish cheek and fennel pie

Serves 4

A few years ago, a request for monkfish, cod or skate cheeks (they are sometimes referred to as knobs) might have elicited a slightly odd look from your fishmonger, but thanks to an increased demand for them from the restaurant industry, they are slightly easier to get hold of these days. They are reasonably priced, delicious and, most importantly, they are sustainably and ethically correct, as they are making use of a part of the fish which is often thrown away.

About 1 litre fish stock
450-500g monkfish cheeks, trimmed and halved if large
70g butter
60g flour
2 bulbs of fennel
2tbsp chopped parsley
2tbsp double cream
4 servings of mashed potato with about 50-60g butter mixed in
2tbsp fresh white breadcrumbs

Quarter the fennel bulb then cut into 2cm chunks, separating the layers once cut. Bring the stock to the boil and cook the fennel for 6-7 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon; leave to cool on a plate. Add the monkfish cheeks and simmer for 2-3 minutes, remove with a slotted spoon and reserve the stock. Melt the butter in a saucepan, stir in the flour; continue stirring on a low heat for 30 seconds.

Gradually whisk in the hot stock, season, then simmer gently for 30-40 minutes, before adding the cream. The sauce should be quite thick by now; if not, continue cooking. Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Mix the monkfish cheeks, fennel and parsley with the sauce, then transfer to a large pie dish or individual ones. Season the potato, then pipe it on to the pies and scatter the breadcrumbs over. Bake for 20-30 minutes until browned and the filling is hot.

Date, almond and honey b'stilla

Serves 4-6

B'stilla usually refers to the Moroccan pie made with pigeon, which has a sweet and savoury element containing almonds, cinnamon and sugar. This is my own take on the dessert version of b'stilla, usually made with a rich creamy custard. I've spared you the task of making the warka pastry this time; all you have to do is assemble this like a b'stilla. You can find warka pastry in Middle Eastern shops.

20 good quality dates, stoned
100g ground almonds
1 egg, beaten
4tbsp clear honey, preferably a perfumed honey such as chestnut or lavender
60g butter, melted
4 sheets of warka, or filo pastry measuring about 25-26cm square
15g flaked almonds
tbsp icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 200C/gas mark 6. Brush a 20cm, non-stick, shallow cake tin with butter. Lay the pastry squares in the pan at alternate angles so the corners form the points of a star, brushing each layer well with butter before laying the next on top. Give the top layer of pastry a final brush with the butter. Mix the almonds with the egg and 3 tablespoons of the honey. Put half the dates on to the pastry and spread the almond mixture over. Put the rest of the dates on top and fold the pastry into the centre, overlapping it and completely covering the dates. Brush with butter and cook for 40 minutes. Pour the rest of the honey over the pastry, scatter on the almonds and bake for a further 10 minutes until the almonds are toasted. Remove from the oven; leave to cool a little, dust with icing sugar and serve in slices with thick cream, sweetened yoghurt, or crème fraîche.

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