Who can resist a pie?
Whether cutting into the crumbly crust of shortcrust pastry to reveal a hot, savoury interior, sinking a spoon through a cloud of meringue to reach tangy lemon curd or parting a fluffy mound of potato to delve into flakes of white fish in a silky sauce. It feels like you are unwrapping a present when getting stuck into a pie.
Pies were first developed as a way of carrying food on a journey and the Egyptians covered honey in grains to make a portable dessert. The Greeks, being practical people, are credited with wrapping meat in flour and water dough to protect and preserve – the first piecrust. The Romans were adept at adding spices and spread the delights of pie-making far and wide on their expansion of their Empire and the Europeans took to this legacy with gusto. Nursery rhymes tell of the British fondness for this hot, comforting meal – little Jack Horner stuck his thumb into one, Simple Simon met a pieman going to the fair and four-and-twenty blackbirds were baked in a pie.
One of the most unusual kinds of British pie is from the little Cornish village of Mousehole (pronounced mowzel) where whole pilchards are baked under a pasty lid with the fish heads peeping out of the crust heavenwards leading to its name – stargazy pie. Also famous from this part of England is the Cornish pasty made for workmen to eat down the tin mines. Some say that the miners grasped the thick pleated edge in their dirty hands and discarded it. Despite (or due to) the recent phenomenon of a pasty shop on every high street in the UK, in 2011 the Cornish pasty was granted Protected Geographic Indication by the EU. In March 2012, the British government’s decision to put 20% tax on hot food caused a furore and was variously described as ‘pasty-gate‘ and the ‘pasty tax’ and pressure led to a U-turn on the legislation. Farther North, the town of Wigan is renowned for the love of meat pies and the World Pie Eating championships. The East End of London was notoriously polluted in Victorian times and poorer residents were comforted by pies made of stewed eels (the only fish that could survive in the fetid Thames) bought from street sellers. Pie and mash shops sprang up which added mashed potato and ‘liquor’ (a liquid made from the eel-stewing water and parsley).
Pie-making helped the early settlers in America to preserve fruit for longer. They used local ingredients such as pecans and pumpkin, and their culinary enthusiasm coined the phrase ‘As American as apple pie’. ‘As easy as pie’ is refers to the act of eating one rather than making one. Other expressions from the US include ‘pie in the sky’ and polite as pie’.
Countries across the Middle East built on the early Greek expertise and developed many types of pastry-encased delights of their own. Ingredients for European mince pies where brought back from the Crusades. In the 15th century, the Persian poet Abu Ishaq wrote in his The Treasure of the Appetite: ‘We came into the kitchen for this purpose, that we might show the fried meat to the pastry’. There is a huge range of sizes and fillings with each region often having their own very particular shape from the large, spicy, pigeon pastilla of the Maghreb, through boreks, briks, spanakopitta, lahm bi ajeen, to dainty sambousek.
So what exactly is a pie and what’s the best way to make one? A loose definition is a savoury or sweet filling covered or encased. Pastry is not the only topping, for instance there is mashed potato over lamb mince in Shepherd’s pie and whisked egg white and sugar on lemon meringue pie. Many ‘pies’ such as key-lime and sweet potato are technically tarts but the affection for pie is deep-rooted in nostalgia.
Some of the types of pastry used in pie-making:
Usually twice the weight of plain flour to unsalted butter (or half butter, half lard), with the fat rubbed into the flour to the texture of breadcrumbs, bound with iced water. The challenge to the U.A.E. cook is to keep everything cold so turn up your air conditioning and put all the ingredients in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before using. To make lovely, crumbly shortcrust use a light touch, pulse if using a food processor, allow the pastry to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes or more before rolling out and never knead the dough.
A blanket of buttery puff pastry, the golden layers towering over the filling, is a delight. Although time consuming, it is worth making your own as most regular frozen puff pastry contains hydrogenated vegetable shortening or trans-fats.
Hot water crust pastry
This is robust dough for using in raised pies like game or Melton Mowbray. You’ll need a special pie mould and a bit of patience but the results are spectacular.The combination of hot water, fat and flour results in a hard, sticky paste which can be moulded by hand into a shape or raised-pie tin. Hot fat can be dangerous; beware of overheating the lard – it should not be heated to more than 30-40C.
Filo or phyllo (which is the Greek word for leaf) pastry takes skill to make at home as it needs to be stretched into very thin sheets. It is used extensively throughout the Middle East for all sorts of pastries and pies. While you are working, keep sheets that you are not using covered with a damp tea towel to stop them from drying out.
This is high up my list of great comfort foods:
Shepherd’s pie is made with minced lamb while Cottage pie is made with beef. It’s a thrifty dish, often made with the left-over meat from a Sunday roast joint.
1kg potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large leek, quartered lengthways and thinly sliced
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 large carrot, diced
500g lean minced lamb (or roast lamb minced)
plain flour (all-purpose)
1 tablespoon tomato purée
250ml lamb stock
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- Preheat the oven to 190C
- Put the potatoes in a large pan and cover with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes until tender. Alternatively steam for 20 minutes. Drain and leave covered with a tea towel and a lid for 5 minutes. Put through a potato ricer (or use a potato masher) and add 30g of butter, some sea salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Beat with a wooden spoon.
- Melt the remaining butter in a large frying pan and add the leek, onion and carrot. Cook over a low to medium heat until soft and golden (this can take at least 20 minutes).
- In a large pan or casserole dish, brown the mince over a medium to high heat. Stir in the flour and cook for a few minutes, then add the tomato purée. Cook while stirring for about 5 minutes. Add the softened vegetables, the stock, bay leaf, thyme, Worcestershire sauce and seasoning. Bring to the boil and then turn down to a very low simmer for about 25-30 minutes.
- Put the minced meat mixture into a baking dish. Spoon over the mashed potato, level with a fork and make marks with the tines. Bake for 25 minutes until the top is golden brown. Serve with peas.
Pies in Dubai
The wagyu beef pie pictured above in from Jones the Grocer; it’s usual in Australia to serve pies with ketchup I hear. It came to the table steaming hot and was savoury and satisfying (not trace of a soggy bottom).
Time Out listed a few top pie places but I’d like to know your favourites. And what about Middle Eastern pies? Or a good fish pie? Let me know your recommendations. What are the essential things that make a pie great for you?
So, hands up, who ate all the pies?
An abridged version of this article first appeared June 2012 edition of Cookery Plus magazine.