Our Sundays have been in turmoil in recent weeks. First, I switched our sacred roast chicken for grilled, and now the last of the decent floury-potatoes for roast tatties have all but given up the fight against the armies of new potatoes that swamp the shops this time of year.
What started off as minor change, became a radical turn of events last Sunday. It was a chilly day and from nowhere I got the craving to make a pie. After 11 years in Sweden, I get that sometimes: an unswayable yearning for something particularly English.
In Sweden, pie (spelt paj) is basically a quiche; a staple of simple lunch restaurants across the land and usually not very good (not counting Pia’s chicken and feta paj, which is out of this world). In England a pie is something else altogether: an ancient and regal dish that has stood at the heart and soul of our nation’s culinary heritage since time immemorial. Yeah!
Sunday, I decided, we would eat pie; beef and Guinness pie, a classic combo of succulent chunks of meat in rich Guinness gravy, wrapped in a crispy, buttery pastry crust. I would use some of the grass-fed chuck steak I had bought at my local farm the day before. The term comfort food annoys me intensely, but if it didn’t, that is what I use to describe what I was about to unleash on my lovely family.
Despite its overwhelming deliciousness, a pie is a simple dish. Broken down to its parts it is stew with some pastry on top. But it is easy to mess up (especially the pastry), and then it becomes the sort of insipid, soggy affair that gave England its unjust rep for bad food.
So, not surprisingly, the secret of a good pie is in the pastry. Some people use puff pastry, but I’m a short crust man myself. Puff pastry just doesn’t feel right. It’s not Tudor enough to make a proper English pie; even one using locally reared Swedish beef. Henry VIII would never have called for a puff pastry venison pie; of that I’m pretty sure.
On Sunday, my pastry was a triumph, I’m pleased to report. The key is to use softened butter, in small cubes, to work fast, with cold hands, and to keep the roughhousing to a minimum. Then, my friends, you get pastry worthy of a proper English pie.
As ever, Pia and the kids warmed to my efforts, and now pie is on the menu every Sunday (I have been ordered to see to it that it happens). Next up, chicken I think.
Here’s my recipe for earth-shattering beef and Guinness pie. For best results make the stew the day before and leave it in the fridge.
- 25g plain flour
- 900g chuck steak cut into small cubes
- 2 onions halved and thinly sliced
- 1 can of Guinness
- 500 ml beef stock
- 2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Set your oven to 170c
Coat the meat with the flour and fry in batches until golden brown.
Add the onions and continue to fry, till soft.
Transfer to an oven proof dish.
Splash some of the beef stock into the frying pan, boil and scrape up all the frying residue.
Pour this along with the rest of the stock, Guinness and Worcestershire sauce in with the meat.
Cover and cook in the oven for around three hours, then leave to cool completely.
- 200g plain flour
- pinch of salt
- 110g butter, cubed, room temperature
- 2-3 tbsp cold water
- 1 egg
Sieve the flour into a large (huge) bowl and add the salt.
Dot the butter around.
Rinse your hands in ice cold water and dry.
Using a fast and light rubbing motion (running your thumbs across your fingers) lift, sift and rub the butter into the flour. Rinse your hands in cold water again if they get too warm. After no more than five minutes you should have a texture like sand.
Pour in some of the water and start to combine the sand and water by cutting through it with the blade of a knife (no kneading hands). When the pastry has come together in a ball (add more water if you need) wrap it tight in cling film and leave in the fridge to rest for half-an-hour.
TO MAKE THE PIE
Pour the filling into a pie dish.
Roll out the pastry to about three millimeters thick.
Cut out a thin, long strip of pastry, moisten the rim of the pie dish with water and lay the strip all around, pressing down firmly.
Cut out the rest of the pastry in a round, a little bigger than the dish, and lay it over the top. Trim it to size and seal the edges with a fork.
Brush the top with beaten egg and make a little hole in the middle for the steam to escape.
Bake at 200c for about 30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.