I am the Piemaker..


Yeah yeah, who ate all the pies? Not this Brummie Tummy but I will confess to liking a piece of pie every now and again. There’s something special about the hot filling (savoury or sweet) encased in a crisp, crumbly pastry case. These days, quality is sacrificed for convenience – Look at Gregg’s and Supermarkets with their pasties containing meat of indeterminate origin in a salty slop they call gravy. The humble pie in the Fish and Chip shop hasn’t fared too well, either – Often they’re just defrosted in the warm cabinet before being nuked in a microwave prior to serving to warm it up so you’re left with scalding hot filling and soggy pastry. Then you get pies that are served in pubs, where the meat filling is piled into a pie dish and some puff pastry is plonked on top before cooked in the oven so you get the height from the puff pastry but little else, rarely has the filling matched the immediate impact of the puff pastry top.

It’s quite rare to be able to get a (decent) home-made pie as a result and there may even be a danger that a generation of kids won’t know what a decent pie is – They think that the pies are a soggy pastry crusty with a filling that’s more a meat gravy and teeny-tiny pieces of meat, so you only know it’s a beef pie because it smells beefy (and it says so on the packaging). However, the home-made pie is currently undergoing a bit of a comeback and I’m seeing a lot more “bespoke” home-made pies available to buy from farmer’s markets and Higher-end food halls like Selfridges. Whenever I can make it to a local farmer’s market, I quite like pies from 19 Gales and it often makes me lament at how you can’t get a proper homemade pie in restaurants these days. The first kitchen I worked in made their own pies and it saddens me to think that not only has that place closed down now, but their delicious pies with it.

I first got thinking about making my own pie when I was at my Sister’s a couple of years ago and everyone was getting giddy with excitement because W had “made her chicken pie”. Now, I hadn’t been to her house for several years so I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. That was until I tasted it; it was pretty much chicken pieces in a velouté crammed to the top of a deep pastry casing. I had never eaten anything like it – How many pies have you bought only to find that the filling only comes halfways up the pastry resulting in a gaping hole between the filling and the pastry lid? Not W’s pie – It was pretty much bursting with chicken, so far removed from anything I’d ever eaten and I immediately saw why everyone was raving about it so much. I liked it so much that I got the recipe from W – along with her moderations and hints. I quite fancied doing a version with vegetables too as (much as I loved W’s pie), it was a bit too one-dimensional for me. As The Mothership would say: “There’s too much chicken in that chicken pie” (yes, truly). As fate would have it, there was a feature in that month’s edition of Waitrose Kitchen by Tamasin Day-Lewis and her recipe for Chicken and Vegetable Pie. Sometimes, you have to take the hints that serendipity throws your way.

Wendy's (Famous) Chicken Pie

Making your own pies from scratch isn’t an easy process, nor is it too intricate but it’s definitely a labour of love because there are so many different components which all take time, but I find it rather therapeutic and as cheesy as it sounds, the time and effort each pie takes could have you saying that they’re made with love:

Firstly, you need to make the pastry. I follow a very basic shortcrust pastry recipe of double the amount of flour to chilled unsalted butter (there’s no lard in my pastry) with a pinch of salt, blizted in the food processor until it resembles breadcrumbs, then ice-cold water is slowly added until everything combines together. Once that’s done, wrap in clingfilm and leave in the fridge to rest and chill for a few hours whilst you get on with the filling. W’s original recipe poached the chickens and you’d use the resulting poaching liquid for the velouté. However, I know that my roasting skills (especially for chicken) are good enough that I won’t dry out the meat. More to the point, I like the flavour that roasting the chicken gives – Especially as I can slow roast some garlic at the same time and add extra flavours with bay leaves and whatever I have to hand. Once the chickens have been roasted, bring them out and let them cool down before you strip all the meat away from the bones and delicious chicken skin. The garlic will have confit’ed and taken on a sweet flavour whilst being all soft and unctuous. Peel these precious pearls from the skins and set aside. I also like to retain the chicken wings as a bit of a cooks treat and keep the chicken skin for a friend’s cat, what’s the point of cooking if you don’t treat yourself in the process?

Chickens - ready to roast Roast chickens garlic confit peeled garlic confit Chicken - stripping meat shredded chicken

With the meat all stripped off the carcass, I decant all the roasting juices into a jug and use the carcasses in a stock for the velouté. The velouté itself is quite simple; make a roux (butter and flour) in a saucepan, taking time not to brown the roux but cook out the raw flour taste if you can. I like to add the mashed confit’ed garlic at this point for a nice garlicky flavour to my velouté. From there, I alternate between adding the milk and stock to the roux little by little and whisking all the time so as to not get any lumps. You want to end up with a fairly thick sauce so that it’s not too watered down by the double cream you’ve yet to add. Plus, you have to remember that the filling has yet to cook so it will inevitably get a bit more watered down in that process.

mashed garlic confit velouté

Whilst the sauce is cooling, you can prep your vegetables; I like using celery, carrots, leeks, mushrooms and pad it out a bit with potatoes (otherwise I get complaints there is too much chicken in the pie again). All veg is lightly steamed – not fully cooked as it will still cook when you bake the pie later. All the chicken meat and vegetables are then mixed together with the velouté so everything is thoroughly mixed and enveloped in the thick velouté sauce. Use your hands and really get stuck in – There really isn’t a better way to ensure a thorough and complete mix (making sure your hands are clean beforehand, of course).

Veg mixed chicken and veg Chicken pie mix Pie filling

With the filling made, the pastry should have had enough time to rest in the fridge, so it’s time to roll out and line the pie tin. I cut away 1/3 of the pastry and save that for the lid, for the rest, I roll it out so that it lines the whole time (including the depth) with a bit to hand over the edges for crimping later. However thick or thin you want it is up to you, but remember that it’s more likely to break if it’s too thin and will possibly take longer to cook if the pastry is too thick. Fill the lined pie tin with the filling – taking care not to break the pastry. But don’t skimp on the filling either – Fill it RIGHT up to the top (it will shrink slightly from cooking, anyway). I knock all the air bubbles from the filling but dropping the tin slightly, before piling in more filling. Brush the edges of the pastry with water before adding the lid to the pie – trimming away any excess edges. With the lid secure in place, crimp the edges; you can just use a fork dipped into cold water and indent the edges, but I like to crimp it to that it’s a bit like a Cornish pastry, then make indents with my finger and thumb tips. Brush the pastry with beaten egg and make an incision at the centre of the pie before baking at the bottom of the oven for a couple of hours (covering the top with foil if it’s too brown).

Ready for filling ready for pastry lid Crimping Ready to bake

Hot from the oven

As ever with baking, the smell is what will get you the most: There is something about the smell of pastry baking that makes you feel almost traditional. That, combined with the smell of the chicken-infused velouté cooking in your oven will have you aching for the pie to be cooked faster. Once it’s cooked, leave it to rest for 10mins or so before diving in. Hopefully what you end up with is a crisp pastry with a filling which is savoury and creamy, with all the flavours from the garlic, chicken and vegetables all amalgamated together. Trust me, you’ll not buy a shop-bought pie ever again..

Purple Dinner

(Although, you don’t need to have purple potatoes with it like I did above)

You can view more photos at my Flickr

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