Humble Pot Pie

January 17, 2012

Courtship consists in a number of quiet attentions, not so pointed as to alarm, nor so vague as not to be understood.
~Laurence Sterne

Pot pies seem reminiscent of a graceful courtship—first ogling, then the primal eye connect, doted upon, coddled, kneaded some, cozied, with disparate souls melded together, finally forming a union, ever mingling with ambrosial aromas and flavors. An almost silent, sapid tango.

Recently, home spun and hearty pot pies have gone somewhat underground in America’s home kitchens. A revival is in the making though. Nearly timeless, savory meat pastries have endured civilizations, castes, and continents. With slightly differing carriages, there are French (pâté en croûtes), English (meat pies), Spanish (empanadas), Chinese (jiaozi), Greek (kreatopitas), Italian (tortas), Slavic (böreks), Polish (pierogi), Russian (belyashi), Canadian (tourtières), Latin American (empanadas), Vietnamese (bánh patê sô) Indian (samosa), middle Eastern (fatayer), and so on. Each deserve our ardor.

Early English pies (“coffyns”) were savory meat pies with tall, slightly beveled pastries and sealed floors and lids. The bottom crust served as the pan, so it was rather tough and inedible. These pastries were often made several inches thick to withstand the rigors of baking.

The English word “pie” was later derived from the cagey magpie, a keenly sociable bird that forages for and collects sundry objects which adorn and bind together their bulky mud or manure nests. Medieval pies were similarly bowl-shaped, holding an array of fillings, whether savor or sweet and often both meats and fruits.

“Pot” took a more circuitous route—from late Old English pott and Old French pot, both from a general Low Germanic and Romanic word from the vulgar Latin pottus, of uncertain origin, said to be vaguely connected to potus “drinking cup.” Pot pie had more specific origins: American 1823. (All not to be confused with cannabis sativa or pot which is probably a shortened form of Mexican Spanish potiguaya or “marijuana leaves.”)


Preheat oven to 375 F

2 1/2 C all-purpose flour
12 T unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
4 T lard or shortening
1/2 teaspoon salt

6 T ice water

Place all the ingredients except the water, in a large bowl. Add the water, mash and work with your hands and fingers so that is assembled into a solid, smooth ball. If it is crumbly, add more ice water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Equally divide and form into two evenly sized thick disks, wrap each in plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for an hour.

Remove from the fridge. If the dough is too firm to roll, allow to rest at room temperature for a few minutes. Lightly flour a work surface and the rolling pin. Lightly dust the top of a disk of flour and roll into a round about 1/8″ thick. Roll outward from the center, rotating the dough, and adding flour as necessary to avoid sticking. Fold the dough in half and transfer to a 9″ pie plate easing the dough into the corners and up the sides.

Roll out the second dough disk to a 12″ round, again about 1/8″ thick. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet and refrigerate until ready for further use.

3 T unsalted butter
3 T flour
3 C whole milk, slightly simmered

1/4 C chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2 thyme sprigs
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Sea salt and white pepper

In a heavy medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and cook slowly over low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 5 minutes to make a blond roux. Remove the roux from the heat, pour in the warmed milk and whisk vigorously until smooth. Then add the stock, thyme, bay leaf, nutmeg, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper and simmer gently, whisking often for 30-40 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf and thyme.

1 C red potatoes, cut into 1/2″ pieces
1 C parsnips, peeled and cut 1/2″ diagonally
1/2 C carrots, peeled and cut 1/2″ diagonally
1/2 C celery, cut 1/2″ diagonally
12 white pearl onions
2 bay leaves
4 thyme sprigs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 C crimini mushrooms, cut into thirds
1/2 C frozen peas, thawed
2 1/2 C roasted dark chicken meat, shredded

2 eggs, beaten

Put the potatoes, parsnips, carrots, celery and onions in a large saucepan with water to cover with bay leaves, thyme sprigs, salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer over medium high heat and simmer until just tender, about 10 minutes.

In a chinois, drain the vegetables, discard the bay and thyme, cut the onions in half and spread on an edged baking sheet. Allow to cool to room temperature.

Strew the simmered vegetables, peas, mushrooms and chicken over the bottom of the pie shell. Season again with salt and pepper. Pour the béchamel over the chicken and vegetables. Moisten the pie shell rim with some of the beaten egg. Carefully cover the filling with the top crust and press the edges of the dough together to seal. Trim away any excess dough that overhangs the rim. Brush the top crust with the egg. Cut three small vents in the center of the top dough with the tip of a paring knife.

Bake until the crust is a rich golden brown, about 50 minutes or more. If the crust is browning too quickly, cover with aluminum foil. Allow to rest for 20 minutes, then serve.

Pourboire: consider lamb shoulder or shredded pork butt.