On a quiet (and they are always quiet) Friday afternoon at work, my mind always drifts to what I will cook at the weekend. Usually it will be something encased in pastry, whether sweet, savoury or both.
Sometimes, a hastily prepared meal doesn’t feel satisfying; perhaps to the stomach they are, but not having enough time or being too tired to prepare something fancy often irritates me. Perhaps we’re just too hungry to wait for something (in which case it could be a BLT or bread and soup or pasta) or perhaps it’s because we’re halfway through the end of the month, and as usual, broke, so we have to have store cupboard meals. Don’t misunderstand me. Store cupboard meals can be great: comforting and filling. For example, last night, as we rifle through the last vestiges of our kitchen scraps, I made roast chicken risotto, using a chicken leg that I roasted and some chicken stock that I had made weeks ago from an old carcass. The deeply savoury chickeny-ess was infused through every tiny opaque grain, made creamier yet with a tablespoon of double cream (in turn left over from a delicious pasta dish that my husband had made earlier in the week). It was made sublime with the enhancements of fresh parsley and thyme leaves from my tiny herb garden and a swift grating of fresh Parmesan (no fridge, no matter how empty, should be without Parmesan, butter and cream – the triumvirate of many luxurious tasting pasta dishes, not to mention pies and mashed potato too!). But there is that unstated fact that a pie has to have a certain amount of care lavished on it, and a homemade pie always tastes special. Like it was made with love.
I am mostly despondent in the week at my lack of time for a couple of reasons. Notably, I do not have the financial luxury of staying at home all day to hone my cookery skills, which leads to my second reason: I am unable to hone my cookery skills due to lack of time. However, I do find that pies are fairly quick to turn out, (although my pastry can be hit or miss if I rush it - either too short or to tough), are filling and nearly always offer leftovers. A pie is a good way of making a little go a long way. I grew up on meat pies, made with the some left over mince or stew, bulked up with potato, carrot and swede and swathed in a deliciously short lard pastry (my mother and grandmother only use lard for their pastry – they find my usage of butter in pastry amusing. They may have a valid point). The meat pies were always wonderful served straight from the oven with some gravy and yet more mashed potato but I liked them best of all when cold and slathered in ketchup. In fact, I think that most pies are better served at room temperature or colder.
Us Brits love meat pies. We have whole cafes devoted to just to pie and mash. Rightly so. Sometimes there is a craving, so age old in our stomachs, that can only be satiated with a meat pie (the gravy just starting to ooze through the top crust, inside the rich sauce, maybe enriched with ale, maybe with oysters, some tender steak, a little kidney for flavour, some button mushrooms for texture and a further enhancement of that earthiness), dolloped with creamy mashed potato (but not that restaurant creamy puree of potato. I mean potato that might have the odd lump here and there and doesn’t drip from your spoon elastically but falls with a reassuringly sturdy ‘plop!’), ‘garnished’ with a good slathering of homemade mushy peas and the whole thing enveloped in gravy that has probably been made from granules but boy does it hit the spot so much better than pizza or a burger.
I have been thinking about writing about pies for a while, and you can see from previous writings, that I have made the odd pie here and there. Whether you call it a flan, a tart, a pie, a pasty, a pudding, a tourte or a parcel, the one thing that all of these wholesome delicacies have in common is a pastry jacket. Filo, puff, flaky, shortcrust, butter. For many years I would only eat the pastry of meat pies or pasties. Even now, if I am unsure of the origin of the filling (I have had to many crunchy bits of gristle between my teeth not to be cautious), I will still eat only the crust and feed it’s innards either to my husband or to our dogs.
But I digress. There are a couple of books on pies that I have been swotting up on recently, notably, The Art of the Tart and Tarts with Tops on, both by Tamasin Day-Lewis, which produce almost foolproof pies. Another one, which I brought back from America, is an old Penguin handbook from the early 80s called The Pie’s the Limit! by Judy Wells and Rick Johnson. This book is, despite it’s age, a wealth of knowledge. Not only does it offer the reader a huge variety of pies from all over the world, but also details the production of various types of pastry and the science behind pastry. This book makes me feel as though I actually could make puff pastry instead of just dreaming about it. And I long to make homemade Croissants.
A recent trip to the US encouraged my pie making internal baker to emerge, slightly shaky but eager to produce pastry as well (and as effortlessly) as my mother. The Coconut Cream Pie, baked by Perkins, gluttonously but joyously consumed by myself was my first taster of what you can actually put inside a tart shell. French Silk Pie, Grasshopper Pie, Pecan Pie, Apple Pie four inches deep; seductive names that conjure up 1950s housewives spinning around baby blue kitchens pulling twenty pies from enormous food bearing ovens. And I want a piece of that.