There are few things as comforting as pie, but many people shy away from pies as difficult dishes to make. Pastry can seem a bit daunting to begin with, and quite fiddly, but it needn’t be, and a home-made pie can be one of the most rewarding dishes to make. You will need some tools – A sieve or strainer, a rolling pin, a sharp knife, a large mixing bowl, some greaseproof paper or foil. Pastry cutters, a pastry brush (the silicone ones are brilliant) and a flour shaker are an optional bonus if you have them.
Start with a simple filling. One of my favourites is to use my Mum’s recipe for minced beef which has the beauty of being tasty, inexpensive, filling, and low maintenance, and then elaborate on that as my mood takes me.
For the filling:
- 300g – 500g minced beef
- A couple of medium carrots, or the equivalent, you can add parsnips for a sweeter taste, or turnip also works.
- A medium onion (or two small ones)
- A bay-leaf
- Herbs to taste (thyme works well, or try a few cumin seeds)
- A pinch of salt
- About 300ml water (or real ale for a treat)
Break up the mince into a casserole, peel the onion and slice into rings, or simply chop into medium pieces. Dice the carrots and other vegetables. Add the herbs and the water and stir gently to distribute the ingredients. Cover the casserole with the lid (or foil) and place in a medium oven (180 C, 350 F) for about an hour.
Immediately after putting the filling into the oven, make the pastry. This will give it time to ‘rest’ which is a way of saying it needs time for the ingredients to come together. For our younger readers – you will need very clean hands for the next bit.
For the pastry (this is not a slimming recipe):
- 125g (4oz) salted butter
- 250g (8oz) plain flour
- Up to 50ml (4 tablespoons) cold water (preferably chilled in the fridge)
Sieve the flour into a large bowl (not essential but worth it). Cut the butter with a blunt knife into thin slices and drop these into the bowl and coat them with flour. Then with your fingers, work the butter into the flour between your thumb and forefingers. The technique is to get as much of the flour into the butter as you can without it feeling greasy. If you have the proportions right, you should end up with something that looks quite like a bowl of breadcrumbs.
This is where the magic comes in, and as with all magic, there are rules. Pastry needs to be cold, and not overworked, so add the water in dribbles and mix into the crumbly mixture to bring the mixture together – you may not need all of it. I tend to use a metal spoon or a blunt knife for this, and very quickly it will bind into a solid mass. If you kneed it (like bread), your pastry will be leathery and tough, not crumbly and light. As soon as you have a smooth even consistency, shape it into a fat sausage, wrap it in greaseproof paper, or put it in a polythene bag, and stick it in the fridge for about 15 – 20 minutes to allow the gluten in the flour to react with the water.
Take the pastry out of the fridge about 15 minutes before you want to use it, or it will be stiff and difficult to roll out. After an hour, take the filling out of the oven and, placing a sieve over a pan, drain the liquid from the mixture. Keep the liquid for gravy. Pick out the bay-leaf. Set your oven to warm to 180C (375F) while you roll out the pastry.
Dusting a clean surface with flour, roll one half of the pastry back and forth with a rolling pin, and then turn it through 90 degrees, then roll it again, dusting the top with flour to prevent sticking as you go, until it is approximately 3mm (1/8 inch) thick. Roll it too hard and it will break up at the edges (which it will do to some extent anyway) so have patience. It needs to be larger than your pie dish or plate and a similar shape. Try and do this in one go, but it doesn’t work first time, form your pastry back into a lump and try again. If there’s not enough pastry, find a smaller dish.
Use a little greaseproof paper or foil to wipe a light coating of butter over the surface of your pie dish or plate to prevent the pastry sticking. You can use the rolling pin to lift the pastry by lifting the edge and then, using the rolling pin as a roller, lift the pastry as a piece using the roller to support it, and rest it over the pie dish or plate. Settle it onto the dish without pressing it tight. It should rest on, rather than be pressed into, the dish. Use a sharp knife to trim the edge of the pastry to the edge of the dish so that you have a smooth pie base – keep the pastry trimmings; you will need them.
Put the drained filling onto the pie base. If you are using a pie plate, leave at least 2cm (just under an inch) at the edge to allow the edge to be sealed. In a raised pie dish you can leave less margin – about 1cm (half an inch). Crack an egg into a mug and beat it with a fork, then paint the egg with a pastry brush (or the tip of your finger) around the edge of the pie base. This is the glue that sticks your edge together, so you’re looking for a smear – not too much.
Roll out the second half of the pastry to the same thickness (3mm, 1/8 inch). Using pastry cutters, a sharp edged cup, or a knife-tip, cut out circles of pastry. As you cut, place these in an overlapping circle around the pie like overlapping tiles. You may need to trim the edges of the circles from the edge of the dish. When you’ve completed the circle you should have a pie topping with a gap in the middle. Brush the tops of the circles with egg.
Now take all the trimmings and cuttings and quickly form these back into a lump. Work it just enough so it forms a piece, then roll it out again. Now is the time to get artistic. I’ve used a leafy theme for my pie, but you could do hearts for valentines day, or stars, or animal shapes if you have the cutters for them.
Place these so that the edges of the circles are covered and overlap, so that eventually you have a fully covered pie made from overlapping pastry. Don’t overlap more than once (into a triple layer) or your pastry may not cook through, and don’t worry if there’s the odd gap – your pie filling will steam through these nicely. If you want to get really arty, you can draw on your leaves with a blunt knife with a design to suit your shapes. Brush the remaining pastry with egg.
Place the pie in the oven at 180C (375F) for about an hour until the pastry is golden (brown = burnt). Remove from the over and allow to rest for ten minutes while you bring the liquid from the filling to a simmer in a saucepan. Once it simmers, mix a heaped teaspoon of cornflour in a cup with cold water to form a milky liquid. Add this slowly while stirring the simmering liquid until the gravy just thickens. You won’t need all of it.
Serve the pie with fresh vegetables and new potatoes, or for a real treat, chips.