Upper crust: Skye Gyngell's sweet and savoury pies fit for a king

Flaky, buttery, comforting, you can fill a home-made pie with anything from fish to fruit, says Skye Gyngell. (Though it's probably best to hold the 24 blackbirds)

Restaurants can never quite replicate the cosy experience of sitting around the kitchen table with family and friends, eating a piping-hot pie you have made with your own hands.

Fill them with anything you please, from fish to rabbit (as I have done here), or beef, chicken with field mushrooms or chard and Gorgonzola. The only requirement is that they be crumbly and buttery in texture and a golden-brown colour.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, petershamnurseries.com

Basic pie dough

This is a good, basic pastry dough for all pies. It has a slightly higher fat content than most pastries, but this gives it a lovely buttery, flaky texture.

Makes enough dough for a 10-inch pie

500g/1lb plain unbleached flour
Pinch of salt
300g/10oz unsalted butter, well chilled
1 whole egg
A little cold water if necessary, to bring the dough together

Sift the flour and place in a food processor with the salt. Cut the butter into small cubes and add to the flour. Turn on the machine and pulse until you have the consistency of wet sand. Now add the egg and continue to pulse. The dough will begin to come together and form a ball. If the pastry seems a little dry, add a tablespoon or so of cold water, which will soften the dough and help the mixture come together.

It is important not to overwork the pastry, so as soon as a ball has formed, remove from the food processor, wrap in clingfilm or parchment paper and chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. You can do it the day before cooking if you like.

For all of these recipes, you will need a 10-inch pie tin with a removable base.

Rabbit pie

Serves 8

For the filling

1 farmed rabbit
1 litre/13/4 pints fresh chicken stock
40g/11/2 oz butter
1 onion, peeled and finely sliced
4 slices of pancetta, or smoked bacon, cut in half-inch strips
2 cloves of garlic
2 sprigs of thyme
1/2 tbsp plain flour
3 tbsp double cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, finely chopped
1 egg, beaten

Ask your butcher to cut the rabbit into pieces – you want the hind legs, fore quarter and saddle.

Place the chicken stock in a heavy- based pan large enough to hold the rabbit comfortably. Place over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Add the rabbit pieces and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Now remove from the stove and set aside to cool.

While the rabbit is cooling, place half the butter into a pan and, once foaming, add the onion, sweat gently for 10 minutes then add the pancetta, garlic and thyme and cook for a further 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and transfer to a mixing bowl.

Strain the rabbit from the stock and set aside the liquid. Pick off the meat from the rabbit and add to the mixing bowl. In a smaller saucepan, add the rest of the butter and place over a low heat. Once the butter has melted, add the flour and stir well to combine.

Ladle in the stock and cook, stirring often until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Add the cream and cook gently for five more minutes. Season with salt and plenty of pepper. Remove from the stove and spoon over the rabbit. Add the parsley and stir to combine.

Once the pastry has rested, remove from the fridge, divide in half and on a well-floured surface roll one half out in a circular shape to an eighth of an inch thick. Line the tart case with the pastry, pressing firmly into the base and sides. Prick the base with a fork and return to the fridge for a further half-hour.

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Once the oven is hot, remove the tart shell from the fridge, line with parchment paper and weigh down with baking beans – if you don't have these, uncooked rice, beans or chickpeas will do. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 15 minutes, then remove both the beans and the parchment paper and return to the oven for 10 minutes more.

While the pastry is cooking, roll out the second piece of pastry to the same thickness and set aside until you have taken the base from the oven and allowed to cool slightly. Brush the sides of the cooked shell with the beaten egg and fill generously with the rabbit mixture. Place the pastry lid on top; using a small sharp knife, make a cross in the centre, brush all over with the beaten egg and return to the oven for 25 minutes or until golden-brown and bubbling. Remove and allow to cool slightly before serving.

Fish pie

I really like fish pie that is made inside a pastry case – it is generally lighter than one topped with potato. Buttered spinach is a nice accompaniment.

Serves 8

For the pastry

Follow precisely the basic pie dough recipe above left – only the filling is different. For the filling

1 tbsp unsalted butter
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut finely
2 sticks of celery, finely chopped
2 leeks, white part only, well washed and chopped
2 fresh bay leaves
1 small bunch of thyme, leaves only – but don't chop
250ml/8fl oz double cream
500g/1lb halibut or any white-fleshed fish
2 medium potatoes, such as roseval, peeled and chopped into one-inch cubes, cooked until just tender in well-salted water and drained
1 bunch of flat-leaf parsley, leaves only, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the butter in a medium-sized, heavy-based pan and, once melted, add the carrots, celery, leeks, bay and thyme. Sweat very gently for 15 minutes, having added a little seasoning. When the vegetables are sweet and tender, pour in the cream, cook for one to two minutes then set aside (this can all be done while the base of the pie shell is baking).

Cut the fish into cubes and stir into the cream mixture, along with the cooked potatoes, and sprinkle over the parsley. The fish should not be cooked prior to going into the pie, or it will overcook and become tough and tasteless. Season well so that its flavour stands out from the flavour of the pastry. Now follow the rabbit pie recipe, including the cooking time, and serve.

Sweet tart with pastry cream and fruit

This is a classic French tart, comprising sweet pastry, filled with custard that has been thickened with a little flour. Any seasonal fruit is lovely, strawberries, raspberries or apricots in the summer – or as I have done for this recipe, poached rhubarb and quince. Whereas summer fruit can be served just as it is, or glazed with a little jam, most winter fruits need to be poached or roasted before they are placed on top of the pastry cream.

Serves 10

For the pastry

250g/8oz plain unbleached flour
1 tsp vanilla extract
150g/5oz unsalted butter, well chilled and cut into cubes
1 egg yolk
A little cold water if necessary, to bring the dough together

For the pastry cream

500ml/17fl oz whole milk
1 vanilla pod, cut in half lengthwise
8 egg yolks
150g/5oz caster sugar
1 tbsp plain flour

Follow the instruction for the savoury pastry, substituting vanilla extract for the salt and using only egg yolk rather than the whole egg. The only other difference here is that once you have removed the baking beans and the parchment paper, you should allow the pastry to cook for 10 minutes longer – it must be golden-brown with a biscuity texture. While the pastry is cooking, prepare the pastry cream – this can be done the day before.

Place the milk and vanilla pod in a pan over a low to medium heat on top of the stove. Bring to just under a simmer, immediately remove from the heat and set aside to infuse for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, place the yolks, sugar and flour into a bowl and beat together well. Remove the vanilla pod from the milk and pour the warm milk over the egg mixture, whisking as you do. Return the custard to the pan, place over the lowest heat and stir with a wooden spoon constantly until the custard is thick – this requires a little patience, as it will take about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain through a fine sieve.

Once the custard has cooled to room temperature, spread over the base of the cooled tart shell and place in the fridge until you are half an hour or so ready from serving. Top with the fruit of your choice and serve.

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