Sunday, 25 November 2012

Memories of pies past

Saturday evening. The dishes had all been cleared away and we were sitting in the living room watching The Generation Game.

My mother was at the back of the room, seated at the table. A folded tablecloth was spread her end of the old, dark wooden dining table, folded away now.

In front of her, a chopping board and a white enamel tin, trimmed with a narrow blue stripe on the rim.

Slowly, methodically and laboriously she was cutting up beef; excising the cartilage and any gristle. And probably a lot of the fat too.

It was almost a surgical procedure, requiring huge concentration. And it always had the aura of being a chore.

But the following day, together with lamb’s kidneys, it would be cooked into steak and kidney; rich and tender, with an unctuously sweet gravy, served with a piece of a golden, crispy disc of shortcrust pastry.

It’s amusing to think that my mother deconstructed a steak and kidney pie – I have no idea, to this day, why she did it, but it is one of those dishes that I think back on with real fondness.

Yet food for her always had the element of a chore; it was ‘a duty’. And in many ways I’m grateful that she considered it such – she looked after us seriously, and on a very limited budget.

I simply wish that she’d have been able to take more joy in it – and that she’d passed on some of her knowledge.

Not that’s not still well and truly in the land of the living. But while we’ve slowly danced around the core issues in recent years, I still find the questions at the heart of the matter hard to ask.

Who had first deconstructed that dish? Her or her mother before her? And why?

She did make pies. I remember – with equal fondness – her pork pies. Cutting and trimming the pork would take at least as long, but these were Saturday lunchtime pies.

She hated onion, so would only add a little from a box of Whitworths dried, rehydrated in boiling water, to the pork and grated potato – I have no idea what else apart from the obvious seasonings.

There’d be two of these joys. The second would be finishing cooking as we dived into the first, with decent bread and butter on the side.

When I tried to reproduce one a few years ago, it was dry beyond belief. I haven’t repeated the experiment – mostly because I want to hold on to the memory, of which dryness holds no part.

But all this struck me again yesterday, as I stood in the kitchen in the early afternoon, cutting beef and removing the cartilage and gristle.

I was not as precise as my mother – well, not quite. But then it was not a chore. And the aim was not something deconstructed, but something retro: a steak and mushroom pie, straight out of the pages of the Hairy Bikers’ pie bible.

I had asked Matthew for chuck steak, but in keeping with these times, he didn’t have such a specific cut, instead offering me ‘braising steak’.

At home, I diced it and got rid of the gristle, then browned it in fat.

Now this was my first departure from the recipe. The book says, on the one hand, that it’s a real “heritage” dish, but then says to use an “oil”.

I used lard. Much more “heritage”.

When the meat was browned, it was removed to a dish and replaced in the pan with thinly sliced onion and three cloves of finely chopped garlic. These were then gently browned.

Now the recipe called for the meat to be decanted into a casserole dish and sprinkled with plain flour. But that means that the flour is not cooked through.

So instead, I added a heaped tablespoon of plain flour to the onion when it had softened, allowing it to cook through for a minute, before starting to add red wine and deglaze.

From then on, of course, it was a matter of playing it by ear, until it had reached a desired consistency. Approximately 250g of beef stock went into the mix too.

Once this was fine, it all went into a casserole, was brought to the boil on the hob, then lidded and popped it into an oven (130˚C fan) for an hour and a half.

Trust me – the smells were divine. But you do have to switch the oven on. I set the temperature and then forgot to turn the damned thing on – distracted by a call at the door.

Fortunately, it was simply a matter of things being delayed, not ruined. But I still felt like smacking my own head in annoyance.

Anyway, once that was done, approximately 250g chestnut mushrooms, quartered, were added – and it went back into the oven for a further half an hour.

In the meantime, it was a chance to get on with the pastry.

We’re talking 400g plain flour to 250g butter, plus one large egg – approximately.

I used 300g flour – and the relevant proportions of the other. Use whatever cold water you need to bring it together – add gradually.

Once mixed, it was wrapped in cling film and popped in the fridge.

Once the filling was cooked it needs to be allowed to cool. Reset the oven to 190˚C (fan).

When the filling is cool, the pastry is rolled and a tin lined.

It’s with the beef, onion and mushroom mix. The rim is brushed with beaten egg and then placed on top.  Once trimmed, glazed with more of the beaten egg, and with a couple of cuts in the top, it’s returned to the re-heated oven for half an hour.

For me, pies are a discovery. And they are also a learning experience. They’re very much an English thing too – and I am learning to increasingly love them and understand them as part of my own heritage.

But when I think back to my mother, surgically chopping meat, I still struggle to unite these culinary discoveries and memories of pies past. Or rather, with the processes that led to those pies of yore.

I don't think my pie was as neat as my mother's – and I still make the error of rolling it so thin that it tends to collapse a bit when I'm serving. And I could do with a proper pie slice.

But do you know what? I really don't think that those are the cardinal issues. Because at the end of the day, I get pleasure and a sense of acheivement from making a pie – and most important of all, it's good to eat.


  1. My Mum's cooking - wonderful when growing up and full of similar lovely (seemingly) memories - is a bit of a disappointment now. It reminds me of my Primary School Headmaster - who without trying manage to inspire me with a love of reading, only to find out when I talked to him about it some 20 years later that he then liked "Condensed Books" and wasn't a great tome reader by then at all. Similarly, things I've had to eat on visiting my Mum in recent years have been, not brilliant really and I tend to think/know, that I can do better. (My humble Cottage Pie went down very well on her last visit!)

    When I'm doing a pie now (I haven't done pastry for a long time and really must get back into it. After tossing the Braising Steak in flour, I've occasionally boiled it in the beer, or wine I'll be cooking it with later for a little while. I buy some lovely steak from a butcher in the next town down - but it is an unknown quantity and isn't always soft and fluffy! It's then that I'll slotted spoon it out and into the frying pan with the onions and start building up the rest of the stuff. Nevertheless - we usually make the pie last two nights between the two of us and it usually tastes the best once reheated the following night.

    1. Brilliant. Thanks, Patrick. And the whole think with memory and inspiration is fascinating, isn't it?

  2. Pleased to see your pie had a base. Too many people miss out that crucial aspect of a pie. If it ain't got a base, it's simply a casserole with a pastry lid