Upper crust

Author: Brigitte Hafner
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

In her book English Food, Jane Grigson writes, "The idea of making boxes of pastry, or coffins as they were called in the Middle Ages, and filling them with pork and game, has been with us so long, and so enjoyably, that it is impossible to imagine an English table without them." So, with the weather turning decidedly English here in Melbourne, I think about cooking a pie for lunch. A grand pie that will fill me up and warm my insides. But how does one decide on what kind of pie, and on what kind of pastry?

I recently made a chicken, leek and tarragon pie that was easy and really delicious. I simply put a chicken in a pot with carrot, onion, celery and peppercorns, covered it with water, cooked it until soft, then allowed it to cool overnight. The next day I sweated some leeks in butter in a pot until soft, added the shredded chicken meat and tarragon and seasoned it well. I made a roux, added some white wine and a little of the chicken stock to make a thickish sauce, and added just enough to the chicken filling to make it loose and wet. I poured it into a pie dish, covered it with pastry and baked the pie until it was golden brown. It was warming and hearty… and all gone quite quickly.
If you want to make this sort of pie - a deep-dish pie filled with beautifully braised beef or chicken with a flaky pastry on top - I recommend you use either puff pastry (and if you were to buy it, I strongly recommend Carême pastry), or a shortcrust pastry. Or you can use my favourite, a sour cream pastry; I follow Maggie Beer's recipe, as it's very easy to handle, and although quite rich, it has a beautiful delicate texture. It can be rolled out to line the bottom of the pie too, but just take care not to make the filling too wet.

I'm tempted to be traditional and make a steak and kidney pie this time round, but the truth is I'm not a huge fan of kidney. During the Middle Ages, meat was a rare luxury, so offal and wild game, which benefit from slow cooking, were common ingredients in English pies. The game would have been hung first, feathers and guts intact, to tenderise it and improve its flavour. When meat was used, it was used sparingly, and the pie was padded out with vegetables, dried fruit and spices. The pastry - made from flour and lard, suet or butter - was a very good way of extending the dish even further, and the pie crust was perfect for mopping up the sauce. Nothing was wasted.

Pies have also been favoured for the fact that they travel well. I've always loved old-fashioned pork pies; they're great for taking on picnics and I think they're best made with a hot water crust, which is made from lard and is very robust. I consider making this for my lunch, but it's not what I want.

What I really want is a deep, rich beef stew encased in pastry. So I decide on a steak and mushroom pudding. Yes, a pudding. Despite the name, I consider this to be a pie. It has a pie crust (the pastry is made with suet, the hard creamy white fat that surrounds the kidneys of cattle and sheep) which encases stewed meat, but it just happens to be steamed like a Christmas pudding rather than baked in the oven. Traditionally, a pudding bowl would have been filled with raw ingredients - pieces of chopped meat and offal dredged in flour were combined with sliced onion, seasoning and stock - and then sealed in pastry and steamed for five hours. I prefer to brown off the onions and beef and cook the filling as I would a stew, with red wine and chicken stock, before putting the mixture in the pudding mould. That way I can ensure the flavour is just right before I seal the pie, and I only need to steam the pudding for 1½-2 hours.

I wonder why this style of pie seems to have fallen out of favour. And why we don't use suet more often. I imagine it's because we've all been told that animal fats are bad for us, which of course in excess they are, but they are certainly no worse than margarines or other trans fats. Suet is a natural fat and a great source of winter energy. Suet needs a lot of cooking and it isn't at all delicate when you roll it out, yet after cooking, the pastry achieves a luxurious quality and lightness that belies most people's expectation. Even though it is made of animal fat, I don't find suet pastry to be as rich as sour cream pastry.

I present the steak and mushroom pudding for lunch, turning it dramatically from the mould onto a plate. It's a golden steaming dome that releases a beautiful beef- and mushroom-scented sauce when cut. The pastry has soaked up the sauce but has retained its lightness and flakiness. It's delicious. And perfectly English.

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