Last week was British Pie Week and it would be rude not to take part even though we don’t really need an excuse for pie in our house. I had already made an apple pie earlier in the week but this beauty was our dinner on Saturday evening.
There’s nothing new about pie, they have been around for a long time with evidence of ancient Greeks and Egyptians making a paste of ground grains and filling it with honey for flavour and energy.
The word “pie” covers a vast range of different foods: A classic pie is completely enclosed in pastry – top and bottom, like this one. A pie might just have a filled pastry base, although this is more commonly called a flan or tart. It may even have a potato top like shepherd’s pie or fish pie. However, I refuse to accept that “pot pie” is a pie. There is nothing more disappointing than settling down in a cosy pub, ordering a classic steak and kidney pie and being served a bowl of stew with a puff pastry disk plonked on top. That just doesn’t do it for me!
There are two main decisions to be made when making a pie; what filling to make and what kind of pastry to encase it in. Rich meat pies with gravy work well with shortcrust pastry or a thicker, more robust suet crust. Fruit pies can be made with puff or shortcrust but I much prefer a sweet pâte sucrée. A classic pork pie needs a hot water crust. A drier filling, such as cheese and onion or vegetable works best with a crisp shortcrust too.
When I decided to make a minced beef and onion pie I was certain that I wanted to use shortcrust pastry. A suet crust might have been a better but I was deep in the realms of nostalgia and I knew what I wanted:
Martin and I both grew up in Northwich in Cheshire. As a child I was never allowed to eat in the street, it just wasn’t the done thing. As a teenager I discovered the illicit joy of buying and eating hot food straight from the shop and once I met Martin one of the things we loved to eat most was a pie from Birtwistles Butcher’s. The meat and potato was wonderful but the steak and kidney was a thing of beauty. Good quality minced meat in a delicious gravy encased in a crisp pastry case. Eating it straight from the bag was nigh on impossible but that never stopped us from trying. Once the pastry dam was broken meat and gravy the temperature of molten lava would fow out and you would find yourself with pastry shards in a bag full of hot mince. Somehow, the impossibility of it was part of the pleasure.
Martin and I were up in Northwich visiting family earlier this year and, finding ourselves in the town centre at lunch time, we opted for a steak pie each. They were exactly as we remembered them, just as delicious and just as unmanageable. Heaven.
This pie does not attempt in any way to replicate the Birtwistle pie (I wouldn’t know how) but I did want to aim for a rich flavoursome gravy and a thin crust. I used Guinness West Indies Porter in my gravy beacuse I like the rich deep flavour it gives. You can choose any ale you like or leave the beer out althogether and use extra beef stock, it is entirely up to you. I used a fresh beef stock too but you may choose not to.
This recipe makes quite a lot of gravy – too much gravy can lead to a soggy bottom on the pie but you really don’t want a dry filling. There is always a little bit of tension between the two. There are two ways to combat this: try heating a baking tray in the oven and place your pie on that to bake – it helps to crisp up the pastry on the base of your pie. You can also try draining some (not all) of the gravy off the mince before you fill your pie. Keep the gravy and serve it with the cooked pie. It all depends on how upset you get about a soggy bottom!
This pie is best served on a plate with vegetables but you could always put it in a paper bag if you prefer!
For the Filling
2 Tbsp Vegetable Oil
500g / 1lb 2oz Minced Beef
1 Onion (chopped)
1 Medium Carrot (peeled and cut into small dice)
1 Stick Celery (thinly sliced)
2 Bay Leaves
1.5 Tbsp Plain Flour
250ml / 9fl oz Beer (see above)
250ml / 9 fl oz Beef Stock
A Splash of Worcestershire Sauce
For the Pastry
350g / 12 oz Plain Flour
175g / 6 oz Fat (Butter or half butter/half lard)
3 – 4 tbsp Cold Water
1 Egg Yolk (to glaze)
Make the filling
Heat the oil in a deep frying pan and add the onion, celery, carrots and bay leaves. Sweat gently until the carrot is cooked and the onions are soft and translucent. Remove the vegetables from the pan and set aside.
Tip the minced beef into the pan and break up with a spatula. Keep cooking until it is all well browned. Return the vegetables to the pan with the meat. Tip in the flour and stir well (don’t let it stick).
Pour in the beer, stir well and bring to the boil, simmer for five minutes stirring occasionally then add the beef stock. Bring back to the boil, stir well and simmer once again for a minute or two. Add the Worcestershire sauce and taste. Season if needed. Set aside to cool.
Make the Pastry
Put the flour and diced butter (or butter and lard) into a food processor and blitz until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Alternatively, put the flour into a large bowl and rub the ingredients in with your fingertips. Add the water a little at a time (you may not need it all) and mix until the pastry comes together into a dough. Knead briefly (handle pastry as little as possible. Wrap in cling film and put in the fridge to chill.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
Grease an 8” metal pie dish.
Roll out two thirds of the pastry on a floured work surface until it is slightly larger than the pie dish. Gently drape the pastry over the dish, pressing firmly into the corners.
Pour the cooled pie filling into the pastry case. Roll out the remaining pastry and use it to cover the top of the pie.
Trim off the excess pastry and crimp the edges. Cut a hole (steam vent) in the middle of the pastry top. Use the pastry trimmings to cut out decorative shaped and place them on the top of the pie. Mix the egg yolk with 1 tsp cold water and use to glaze the top of the pie.
Bake for 30 minutes until golden brown. Serve with Carrots and green veg.