Pies and Tarts
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Pies – The upper crustHistorians have suggested pies can probably be traced back as far as the ancient Egyptians. The pharaohs’ cooks incorporated nuts and fruits sweetened with honey in bread dough, which was used in place of modern pastry. Paintings of pies have been found in tombs, so they were evidently popular.
It’s probable that the Greeks actually invented a form of pie pastry. The crusts during this period were made of a flour and water paste which was then wrapped around meat; this served to seal in the juices.
The Romans adopted the pie and used various types of meat in every course of the meal, including the dessert course (secundae mensea). According to records, shellfish, fish and meat were normal in Roman puddings and those puddings were a lot like pies. The popularity of pie spread through the conquered lands along the Roman roads, every country adapting the pie to their own taste and produce available.
The “special relationship” between Britain and America is mirrored in opinions voiced on the subject of pies. Mark Twain in his Complete Works (A Tramp Abroad) offers:
“Recipe for New English PieTo make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows:
Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour, and construct a bullet-proof dough. Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three-fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry in a couple days in a mild but unvarying temperature. Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples; aggravate with cloves, lemon-peel, and
slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugars, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.”
But to redress the balance we have:
“ Cold pie is a detestable
That's why I'm done -- or undone --
So far from that dear London.”
(From the headstone of a British nobleman in Kalamazoo)
A short while back we had British Pie Week when plates of pies were consumed with relish (and ketchup and HP Sauce) over the whole of the UK. I felt it my duty, dear reader, to bring you the results of my fact-finding mission, which included pie sampling!
I have munched and sometimes crunched, I have viewed and chewed dozens of examples from large manufacturers, small producers, supermarkets and bakeries. I have discovered some poor excuses for pies but I have also found a couple of gems that I have no problem recommending.
Simple Simon’s Perfect Pies:These are individual meal pies with a delectable crust that holds up well to baking. The fillings are generous (each pie contains 65g of shredded red-skinned Rooster potatoes topped with the main filling) and flavourful with an amazing choice for vegetarians, fish-lovers and meat-eaters.
These delights are the result of the hard work of internationally trained chef Bernard Alessi. His pies are artificial-additive-free and he uses local produce whenever possible. They are freshly baked and delivered directly to your own front door. Orders received by 2pm will be baked and despatched the following day by courier. I can confirm that the pies will reach you in peak condition.
I have tasted a selection of these pies and I do have a favourite. It’s been hard to decide as they were all amazing. The Haddock Pie with Creamy Leek Sauce should be a prize-winner. The filling was moist but not too liquid. The pastry was tender and the whole pie had a feeling of a luxury meal. I love to cook but I would not feel ashamed of presenting these at a dinner party.
Simple Simon’s Perfect Pies are available at a small number of outlets and by mail-order. For more information visit www.simplesimonspies.co.uk.
Higgidy PiesThis is an astounding success story. A company that has been around for only a couple of years now has 100 or so staff working for them. They need that many as Higgidy pride themselves on producing hand-made pies. Yes, a pair of real hands would have lovingly caressed the pastry and carefully spooned the filling into each and every Higgidy pie.
These pies have a rustic home-made appeal. Each pie is a triumph of both texture and taste. The fillings are of the highest quality, with meat in chunks, sausages that have a marvellous flavour, chicken that looks like it has been pan-sealed rather than boiled. These are pies that you would make yourself if you could be bothered... and had the skill. You could lie and say you did... but I am sure you are above such trickery.
British Beef, Stilton and Ale Pie is a winner. The meat is succulent and the Stilton is introduced as a seasoning and resists overpowering the beefy flavour. The crust retains the generous filling on heating so each individual meal pie remains attractive.
My first choice from the Higgidy pie range is Free Range Pork Sausage and Mash. This sounds a strange pie filling and I was dubious until the first bite. It works, dear reader, it works! I think the secret lies in the quality of the sausages which are delicious. It would have been easy to cut corners and use a cheap banger but the result would be a shadow of this pie. I wouldn’t serve these to guests, though... because I’d want to eat them all myself!
Higgidy have an informative and amusing web site at www.higgidy.co.uk
The author, Angela Boggiano, is a girl after my own heart. She is of Italian descent and of Northern English roots so she has a passion for cooking and a need to communicate that passion. Lucky for us. She is an experienced food writer who has worked on numerous magazines and has several books to her credit.
There is a lovely selection of traditional pies here but also some ideas that could easily be adapted by changing fillings. I am particularly impressed by Gooseberry Raised Pie which is totally new to me. It has the hot water crust of a pork pie but it has a sweet filling. Peach and Apricot Amaretto Pie is a single crust pie with an interesting crunch of Amaretti biscuits on top. Smart enough for any meal for friends, drizzled with single cream or crème fraiche.
Baby Apple Calvados Pies are a little different from the regular apple pies. The apple brandy makes for a richer filling and individual pies always make guests feel pampered. Don’t we all prefer a whole something to a slice of something? Perhaps a SMALL glass of Calvados would go well with these baby pies.
For many people the word “pie” conjures memories of savoury pies. I confess that one of my earliest recollections is of eating a meat pie from the foil dish one freezing night whilst watching stockcar racing. Not exactly gourmet fare but the hot, steaming pastry encasing a gooey gravy with a few morsels of meat was welcome. Let’s not be food snobs. Even fast food has its place.
Angela has enough savoury pies to gladden the heart of any hearty eater. Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is perhaps the most celebrated of British pies. There is plenty of advice about making a raised pie so it should hold no terrors. It’s a handy skill to master and a lot less complicated than it sounds. Raised Fish Pie uses a shortcrust pastry which gives a more delicate crust to surround a filling of salmon fillet and smoked salmon. Angela suggests a lemon and herb mayonnaise to serve with this and I’d add a green salad or some green beans.
Pie is a stunner. If the thought of pie-making has even crossed your mind then buy this book. I guarantee that you will not be disappointed. Yummy!
Author: Angela Boggiano
Published by: Mitchell Beazley
Janet Clarkson is the author of this fine little tome and she is a GP and lecturer in the School of Medicine at the University of Queensland, Australia. That might give the impression that pies are dodgy and dangerous things to eat! Janet has a passion for food history and she writes often on that subject... and pies are safe to eat, at least these days.
I say “these days” because pies have not always been the diverse and delicious delights that we find today. They originated out of necessity and were the forerunner of the fridge. That is to say they were one of the first food preservers and the crust was of industrial and unbreakable quality that was not intended to be eaten by gentlefolk. (Although I suspect a slab of anything soaked with cooking juices might have been tempting to the lower orders.)
Pie is one of the few culinary triumphs to have emanated from Britain. Its traditions have spread throughout its colonies and are now adapted as national specialities in the USA (fruit pies), in Australia (meat pies in mushy peas), and New Zealand (mutton pies). They have been the staple of both rich and poor and they have travelled well.
Pie – A Global History is one of a series of food history books from Reaktion. Each one has a different author and covers a different food but they all have the same high standard of presentation and content. This, like the others, is not a recipe book (although there are several) but it quite definitely is a book that is fascinating for both domestic foodies and food academics. It’s thoroughly well researched and Janet has a humorous and accessible style. The illustrations are quite charming and range from medieval sketches to stills from the 2007 film of Sweeny Todd, the story of which is enough to turn anyone from the pie path.
I expected this book to be a good read and it does not disappoint. It would be a great gift for any lover of food, food history or history in general. Pie – A Global History is an attractive volume and a worthwhile addition to any serious book collection.
Pie – A Global History
Author: Janet Clarkson
Published by: Reaktion Books
Pies Pies Pies is another example of a book containing triple-tested recipes that are reliable. There are over 100 of them and many with step-by-step photographs. There is a good chapter of basic pastry recipes but also instruction on fruit preparation for tarts and on using chocolate. Then it’s on to the recipes both savoury and sweet, traditional and contemporary.
Anything with pastry has my name on it, so I am the worst reviewer to be limited to just a few recipes to consider. Wild Mushroom Pithiviers are a savoury version of the more common sweet Pithivier with an almond filling. This mushroom version works well with its creamy and rich centre. You could easily make one large pie instead of these small ones.
Game and Herb Pies are made in small brioche tins which make for a striking presentation. If you don’t have those then use muffin or Yorkshire pudding tins. The filling is decadent and delicious and this is a great recipe for stretching game to feed a crowd. This might be my choice for a New Year’s dinner.
Dessert is what many think of when the word Pie is mentioned. Plum and Cardamom Pie is a take on the classic Plum Tart. This is an easy freeform or rustic pie made directly on the baking sheet rather than in a pie dish. The cardamom gives an interesting and exotic flavour.
Banana and Chocolate Ice Cream Pie has a no-cook biscuit base and a topping of sliced mini Mars Bars - this is a good dessert to prepare in advance. But my favourite sweet pie from this book is undoubtedly Pinenut and Honey Tart. This will remind you of holidays in Greece and would be ideal served in the afternoon with a bowl of chilled Greek yoghurt alongside.
Pies Pies Pies is as good as all other Good Housekeeping books, and exceptional value for money at only £5.99.
Cookbook Review: Pies Pies Pies
Author: Good Housekeeping
Published by: Collins and Brown - Anova
It’s a bold, colourful volume with clear text and easy to follow recipes. They are easy to follow because they are easy recipes. That isn’t to say that these tarts and pies are common-place. There are plenty of new ones and a good selection from both the UK and North America.
Phillippa has covered every aspect of tart and pie making. There is a history of pastry, as well as recipes for just about every type imaginable. You should have a go at making your own pastry for these pies before resorting to shop-bought. Although puff pastry sounds a bit daunting, you should have no problem with the others.
The recipes are divided by type of filling. There are all kinds of fruit but also Sugar and Spice, Nuts, Dairy and Chocolate. It’s easy to find a selection of recipes that are just right for any fruit when it comes into season, and chocolate is good all year round!
There are several old-fashioned favourites such as Tarte Tatin, Bramley Apple Tart, Linzer Tart and Bakewell Tart, but the new recipes look scrumptious, too. How about Coffee and Cardamom Tart? It’s a fragrant, nutty confection without an overly strong coffee flavour. Or Pineapple and Rum Custard Galettes? It uses puff pastry, but you should use bought pastry if that is the only way you’ll try this one.
The classic American pies are well chosen and you would probably have heard of them, even if you have never eaten them...till now! Maple Pecan Pie has almost tooth-aching sweetness but a texture and taste that will encourage you to make it often. It’s one of the simplest tarts to produce but will be a winner with everyone.
I could continue with my list of “you must have a go at...” but I’ll end by saying that you should have a look at this book yourself. It has fine examples of classic, contemporary, international and home-grown tarts and pies and it’s altogether a book to buy and enjoy.
Tarts and Pies
Author: Philippa Vanstone
Published by: Grub Street