After working as editor of various computer magazines, Kevin Weeks is now a personal chef in Knoxville, Tenn. He specializes in cooking with a Mediterranean accent, filling plates with the flavors of Southern Europe and Northern Africa. Weeks also teaches cooking classes and blogs at Seriously Good.
The humble potpie was once the height of culinary style. Filled with four and twenty blackbirds, for example, it was, at least in the nursery rhyme, a dainty dish to set before the king.
During the Elizabethan era, these savory pastries — decorated with flowers, fanciful designs and heraldic devices — were elaborate assertions of the chef's skill in the royal households of France and England. Among the lower classes, potpies were popular because the addition of a crust helped feed another mouth or two, while individual pies such as pasties, empanadas and pierogies were well-suited for sale by street vendors as portable meals.
Potpies are still part of the traditional cuisine of many regions throughout Europe. The Galician empanada from northern Spain is a version made with chunks of pork or fish. Cornish tin miners brought their hand-held meat pies, called pasties, with them to the copper and iron mines of upper Michigan.
The famous Greek spanakopita is essentially a spinach potpie in a phyllo crust, and Italy offers its Easter pie (torta Pasqualina) from Liguria. It is a quiche-like vegetable pie that at one time sported 33 layers, symbolizing Jesus Christ's age when he was crucified. And Muscovites serve an open-top meat pie, somewhat similar in appearance to a deep-dish pizza, called rasstegai.
The pies have a long history in America. An early recipe by Mrs. E.A. Howland appears in The New England Economical Housekeeper and Family Receipt Book published in 1845:
"Pot Pie or Soup: Scraps and crumbs of meat make a very good dinner, when made into soup. Put all your crumbs of meat into the dinner-pot. Slice in two onions, a carrot; put in a little salt and pepper, and water enough to cover it; then cover it with a crust, made with cream tartar... Stew it one hour and a half, or two hours. A flour thickening should be put in five minutes before you take it up. You may bake your potatoes, or slice them, and cooke them with the meat."
There is no reason the potpie shouldn't do just as well in the 21st century, although it is a little harder to make than it might seem.
The trick is getting all the ingredients to the right degree of doneness at the same time. You have to avoid undercooking the carrots and potatoes, avoid overcooking the meat and peas, and have the crust turn out perfectly browned and cooked through.
It may be these timing issues (as well as the overall time required) that led to the abandonment of the homemade potpie in favor of the frozen variety. When I was growing up in the 1960s, my mother — who was an excellent cook — regularly stocked these pies for my siblings and I to eat when she and my father went out to dinner parties. They tasted fine to children's palates, were nearly foolproof to prepare, and included meat, vegetables and starch in a single dish.
Fortunately, the resurgence in so-called retro foods has brought homemade potpies back to the table, although more often in restaurants than in homes. Nevertheless, all that's required to make a potpie at home is a little patience. And there are few things more satisfying on a cold winter's night than a heaping portion of meat, vegetables and crust in a luscious sauce. Add a side of steamed cabbage in butter or some sauteed mustard greens, and you have perfection.
Tourtiere is a Quebecois pork-and-beef pie popular throughout the winter months, and a tradition in many French-Canadian homes on Christmas Eve. I first ran across a recipe (long since lost) in a food magazine in the late 1980s. I've been making it, in various incarnations, at least once a year since then. Made in a 9-inch spring-form pan and decorated with pastry cutouts, it makes a magnificent statement of culinary opulence, worthy of a royal feast, on a dinner table or buffet. Alternatively, you can make individual pies that are elegant enough for any fancy dinner. The pie is moist enough to not require a sauce, but when I serve individual pies, I usually make a sauce for presentation purposes.
Makes 8 servings.
Pastry (see below)
3 medium-sized potatoes (use medium-starch potatoes such as Yukon Gold), peeled and quartered
2 tablespoons bacon grease or vegetable oil
1 pound ground beef
1 pound ground pork
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 cup beef broth
1 teaspoon milk
Make pastry and refrigerate (see below).
Boil potatoes until fork tender. Drain and cool.
Heat bacon grease or oil over medium-high heat. Add beef, pork, onion and garlic. Season with salt, pepper, allspice and cloves. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring to cook evenly. Add beef broth, reduce heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes. Cool. Drain liquid and reserve.
Heat oven to 400 degrees.
In a bowl, coarsely crumble potatoes with a fork and add meat mixture. Stir in enough of the reserved broth to thoroughly moisten mixture, but no more.
Remove pastry from refrigerator and allow to warm up until top edges are pliable, about 10 minutes. Fill pastry shell with meat-and-potato mixture to within 1/2 inch of top. Beat together egg and milk and moisten pastry edges. Lay on top crust and press to seal. Brush entire pie with egg wash.
Cut several slits in top and bake in middle of oven for 40 minutes or until top is golden brown.
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup cold lard
1/2 cup cold butter
5 tablespoons ice water
Thoroughly mix flour and salt in a food processor.
Add approximately half the lard and pulse quickly a couple of times. Add remaining lard and pulse quickly a couple of times. Add butter and pulse for 8 to 10 one-second bursts until the mixture is the consistency of a coarse corn meal.
Dump mixture in a large bowl, sprinkle with 3 tablespoons of ice water and toss with your hands. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons of water and use your hands to mix in the water.
Form two balls from the dough, one a bit larger than the other. Press the smaller ball flat on a floured work surface and roll it out to form a rough circle. Using an 8-inch springform pan as a template, cut a circle the size of the pan, wrap in plastic and refrigerate. Roll out the larger ball of dough and line the inside of an 9-inch springform pan. Trim excess dough from rim. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate. Note: You may wish to also keep the dough scraps to decorate the pie with.
This recipe for chicken potpie is an adaptation of a recipe published in American Classics by the editors of Cooks Illustrated (Boston Common Press 2002). I used a biscuit topping (specifically, Bisquick) as a shortcut, but frozen puff pastry or a traditional piecrust work, too.
Makes 6 servings
1 medium onion
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts and thighs
2 cups chicken broth or stock
8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 teaspoon ground thyme
6 tablespoons butter, divided
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut crosswise 1/4-inch thick
2 small stalks celery, cut crosswise 1/4-inch thick
3/4 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup flour
1 1/4 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/4 cup dry sherry or vermouth
1 biscuit recipe (follow recipe for drop biscuits on the Bisquick box)
Heat oven to 400 degrees and place rack in lower-middle position.
Cut off top 1/4 inch of onion. Cut onion, top to bottom, into sixths. Trim off root ends, then cut wedges in half, crosswise. You will have an assortment of pieces, but on average, they will be about the same size as the carrots and mushrooms.
Put chicken and chicken broth in a saute pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer — do not boil, which toughens the meat. Cover and simmer gently for 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer chicken to a large bowl, strain and reserve broth.
Cool chicken until it can be handled, then cut into small (about 1/2-inch) pieces. Return to bowl.
Clean the pan with a paper towel. Return to medium-high heat, add mushrooms and sprinkle generously with salt. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until mushrooms have given up most of their liquid and begin to brown. Add thyme and 1 tablespoon butter and cook another 5 minutes until browned. Add mushrooms to chicken in bowl.
Add oil to pan along with the carrots, onions and celery. Stir to coat with oil, and cook until carrots are just tender (about 10 minutes), stirring occasionally. Add vegetables to bowl with chicken. Add still-frozen peas to bowl and stir to mix ingredients thoroughly.
Add remaining butter to the pot over medium-low heat and melt. Add flour and whisk to blend. Cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes. Whisk in 2 cups chicken stock, milk, salt and pepper. Increase heat to medium and cook until thick. (Note: The sauce will be quite thick. The juices released from the meat and vegetables during cooking will thin it to the correct consistency.) Taste and adjust seasoning, then stir in sherry.
Stir sauce into bowl with chicken and vegetables, mixing thoroughly. Pour into an 8-by-12-inch casserole dish.
Make the biscuit topping and drop by spoonfuls onto pie filling.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until topping is brown and filling is bubbly.