The ultimate winter warmer? It's as easy as pie
Forget the January health regime – when cold weather sets in, it's time to roll out the pastry, says Enjoli Liston
It has spent years out in the cold, but the warm, hearty pie is making a comeback. "Pies are trendy again," says Tristan Hogg, chef and co-founder of the Bristol-based pie company Pieminister. I am sitting in Tristan's cosy kitchen, where he and fellow founder Jon Simon are about to give me a masterclass in the art of pie making.
"There has been a massive resurgence of good British food tied to the renewed popularity of farmers' markets, local produce and artisan foods. Pies are part of that," Tristan says. "Five years ago, the pie market almost completely catered for the over-50s. Now, our customer base is mainly in the 25-40 age range."
Health-conscious eating habits and calorific pastry once combined to help to keep pies off the menu. But with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June and the Olympics kicking off in London in July, 2012 is the year to showcase the best of British cuisine – including its richest gems.
"Everyone needs hearty, indulgent food sometimes," Tristan says. "Just eat less of it."
Tristan may not realise it as he enthuses about the humble pie, but he is preaching to the converted. As a music festival-goer, pie is the tastiest, warmest, most filling, and best value-for-money meal you can get when standing in a field.
Buying pies is easy, but making them is a completely different matter. First there's the pastry, which seems complex enough without having to do the filling, too. Veteran pie-makers seem to swear by a multitude of tricks, but does making the perfect pie really have to be as complicated and time-consuming as it seems?
Before my master class, I ask pie aficionado Simon "Si" King – otherwise known as one half of cooking duo the Hairy Bikers – for advice. Like the Pieminister lads, who brought out A Pie for All Seasons last year, Si and co-chef Dave Myers have put their pie recipes into a new cookbook, The Hairy Bikers' Perfect Pies, which oozes with passion for pastry parcels.
"There's mystery in a pie," Si laughs. "I love that you don't know what the filling will be unless you've made it yourself. They look fantastic on the outside, but what lies within?"
Si acknowledges that he may not be the best advert for combining pies with a healthy diet ("A pie is not just for winter – I'm this rotund shape because I eat pies all year round") but his regular pie consumption does make him an expert. "Originally, the pastry was secondary to the filling," he says. "The pastry on Cornish pasties just protected the filling when workers took them down in the tin mines. Now, it's not just a vehicle for getting the filling into your gob – pastry is just as important."
Si insists there is no special trick to making exceptional pastry. He and Tristan agree that the secret to success is plenty of practice. "There are a lot of myths about pie making, but the real secret to making good pastry is just practice," Tristan says, emptying packets of pre-made, shop-bought pastry on to a floured surface. That looks a lot like cheating to me.
"I didn't have time to make it myself," Tristan explains. "Most people don't have time to practise, and for some, the worry of making the pastry puts them off making the whole pie. So why not just buy it? Shop-bought pastry is often so good that most people couldn't make it as well if they tried," he says. Perhaps that's the real secret to perfect pastry.
As he rolls out the pastry (to an even 3mm thickness), Tristan explains that we'll be making two kinds of "cannapie" – mini pies that make great lighter lunches or party food. He is using a smoked salmon, dill and crème fraîche mix for the first lot, and a "paddy's pie" (shortcrust pastry with a steak and Guinness filling) for the second.
Tristan and Jon advise me to make sure there's enough pastry left round the sides of the pie base to help to seal the pie properly and squeeze out all the air. That helps to prevent the filling spilling out, which is known as "cook out".
"'Cook out' and 'soggy bottom' are the pie maker's nightmare," Tristan says. He says a common mistake some people make is to try to cook pies with bottom-crusts in terracotta dishes, which "will never cook properly". Pieminister swears by old-fashioned metal and enamel pie dishes to ensure the bottom-crust doesn't go mushy (hence the term "soggy bottom").
So far, pie making hasn't been as complex as I expected. "Pies are much more forgiving than people think," says Tristan, who has just discovered that he has accidentally used puff pastry for the bottom-crust of the fish cannapies, instead of shortcrust. No matter. The "double-puff cannapie", as it is newly christened, emerges from the oven 20 minutes later looking, and tasting, fantastic.
Si stresses the importance of presentation: "A pie should call out to you and say, 'Eat me.'" Sitting on top of chive mashed potato, with a horseradish relish, and a little lemon garnish on top, my cannapie fits that bill.
I am impressed at how quick and simple Tristan makes the whole process look. "Good food just looks good," he shrugs. "Pies are the original ready-meal – they're a convenience food."
Si agrees: "Pies are so versatile. They're a world cuisine. Everybody has their own version of a pie."
Judging from the huge range of recipes in each pie book (Si's favourite pies range from sausage and rabbit slices to tandoori chicken samosas) it seems as though you can chuck anything in a pie and it'll taste good.
Well, almost anything. "When we were researching recipes for the book we went foraging. A lot of the food we found was great, such as alexanders, a kind of wild celery which we use in the recipe for fat hen's hare pie. But one thing we tried and failed with was badger," Tristan says. "It was roadkill," Jon says, with a slight shudder. "We cooked that thing for 10 hours and it still tasted bloody awful."
"We discovered there is a line that you shouldn't cross with foraged food and pie fillings, and badger is it," Tristan says.
Justine's chicken and tarragon pie By Si King and Dave Myers
Small knob of butter
1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
150ml white wine
1 chicken stock cube
1kg whole cooked chicken (you can buy a ready-roasted one from your butcher or use 550g cooked chicken meat instead)
400ml crème fraîche
2 tablespoon fresh tarragon leaves, roughly chopped
2 tablespoon plain flour
Flaked sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
For the filo topping:
40g butter, melted
4 filo pastry sheets (each about 32cm x 38cm), thawed if frozen
You'll need a 1.5-litre pie dish. Melt the butter with the oil in a large frying pan over a low heat, then add the onion and the crushed garlic. Fry gently for 5-6 minutes until the onion is softened, but not coloured, stirring occasionally.
Pour in the white wine, then crumble the stock cube into the pan and stir well until it dissolves. Simmer over a high heat, stirring constantly, until the liquid has reduced by half and thickened. Remove from the heat.
Take the skin off the chicken, then strip the meat from the bones and tear it into bite-sized pieces. Place these in a large bowl. Add the onion and garlic mixture and spoon the crème fraîche on top. Scatter over the tarragon, sprinkle the flour on top and season with a good pinch of sea salt and plenty of black pepper. Toss everything together until just combined, then spoon into your pie dish. Preheat the oven to 210C/Fan 190C/Gas Mark 6 .
Now for the topping. Brush a sheet of filo pastry with melted butter and cut it into 6. Scrunch up each portion with your hands and place it on top of the filling. Repeat with the remaining sheets of filo until the filling is completely covered.
Bake the pie in the centre of the oven for 30 minutes or until the filo pastry topping is crisp and golden brown and the filling is bubbling beautifully.
From The Hairy Bikers' Perfect Pies (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20)
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