Commonplace, Vol 1, Issue 9

In which the writer makes raised pies. Pies pies pies.

Hello. I’ve been making raised pies. Pies are a huge part of medieval cookery, particularly late medieval English, but I’ve never really engaged with them before (apart from actual meat mince pies at Christmas, and that was for the filling, not the whole pie). That’s partly because my hands are almost always warm, and most pastry won’t cooperate for me because of that - even dipping my hands into ice water at intervals didn’t work. But a proper raised pie is made with a hot-water crust, and that does work for me. So, pies.

My main source for this isn’t medieval, it’s Jane Grigson’s English Food, originally published in 1974. I confess I’m not entirely clear whether the title of the book is English Food, or the longer version, but it’s a great book. The edition I have is a later edition which has been edited a bit by Grigson’s daughter Sophie, but it retains the late-mid-century feel and the solid historical background.

Part of Grigson’s approach is what I can only describe as modular. She’ll describe a broad class of foods, and then what you need to do for all the variations. So her recipes for raised pies are in three sections: one on the actual hot water crust and the assembly process, one for the jellifying stock which fills in the gaps after the pie cools, and one for the actual filling for the pie. I’ve been cooking the chicken pie, which is actually about equal parts pork, beef, and chicken.

The raised pie is, I think, the most involved thing I’ve ever made. My most hammered down medieval-style narrative-account of the process is still 11 sentences, and that’s with a few run-ons that are absolutely cheating and should be broken up into two or more. From starting it to eating it is about 30 hours, and while a big chunk of that is letting it cool and set, there’s a solid two or three hours of work at the start, and some frequent check-ins as it proceeds. I suspect, however, that you could make up to four more or less simultaneously without hugely increasing the time spent.

The first thing that needs to be done is to make the stock, even though that won’t be put into the pie until the very end. It needs to set into a jelly as it cools, so you need to have a good lot of bones or other gelatin-y bits in there. Grigson recommends pigs’ hooves, but I know the reception I’ll get in the butchers around here if I go looking for those; I’ll try some country butchers when we can move about more. So I’ve used chicken bones, or more precisely, chicken wings, which have plenty of bone and plenty of gristle-y stuffs which work nicely. I’ve also added some roughly chopped onion, carrot, and herbs, and some long pepper, because the jelly absolutely has to taste good on its own. Once that’s bubbling down on the back of the stove, you can set to the next bit: the filling.

The filling is the stuff which goes between the layers of chicken. It’s made of minced pork, minced beef, chopped bacon, a dash of wine or beer, parsley, and some spices: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. And salt and pepper. The proportions are a bit mutable, and Grigson’s original instructions use pork fat, lean pork, and veal. You essentially chuck the whole lot in together - 500g of each of pork and beef, and three rashers, in mine - and mix it up. The parsley vanished into the first one I did, so I upgraded from the original tablespoon to a handful in the second one. It also vanished. The mixed-up filling gets set aside for when you’re assembling.

The next bit is to slice up some chicken pieces. I tried just chunks in the first pie, and they were ok, but the thin slices in the second version worked out better - they lay flat and allow for more layers. I also beat an egg in a cup here, and put it aside for later.

And now the pastry. The cake-form I’m using for the pie is bigger than Grigson’s, so I needed to increase the amount of dough. 625g of plain flour, with just over half a teaspoon of salt. I think there would have been more salt in some period versions, because the shell there was more of a storage container for the meat than an edible element itself. And then a mix of 250ml of boiling water, with about 200g of lard melted into it. This makes a weird, hissing, spitting mix of viscous hot fluid, which you then upend into the flour and mix up.

Grigson wants the pastry kept as hot as possible, cooling only enough to have structure as you squish two-thirds of it into the cake form to make the base and sides of the pie. This needs to form an actual watertight vessel, so it’s formed up in the tin, and pushed up the sides. Other sources want the pastry cooled at this point. I found that it became very hard to work as it cooled, but that there was a sort of sweet spot at just about body temperature where it had enough rigidity to stay up along the sides, and enough fluidity to still be motile.

Next up, working reasonably quickly now so that the pastry for the lid - the other one-third - doesn’t coo too much, is packing the stuff in. First, you need to line the whole thing with bacon rashers, and then build up layers of filling, chicken and more bacon. I got these thin enough in the second one to have three layers of each, although I feel like getting to four would be optimal. I also gave up on spoons very quickly here, and started pushing the meat in with my hands. This is probably not for the squeamish. The filling should mound up a bit it the middle, ideally, rather than lying flat - this makes the process of adding the stock later easier.

Once that’s all in, you roll out the remaining pastry for a lid, and use some of the beaten egg to seal the edges, and brush it with more. This is the bit where I’m currently having a small issue - even my most carefully formed lid cracks as it cooks. Dame Edith, one of the SCA’s premier cooks in the Isles, suggests forming the lid by pressing out the pastry in the same way as the base and sides, squishing it by hand, rather than rolling, so that’ll be the next thing to try. It’s also important to leave a small hole at the very apex of the pie, for steam to escape, and for the stock to be poured in through. I have this at 1.5cm, or just a little bigger than the end of my kitchen funnel, and it seems about right.

The now formed pie goes into an oven at 200C for half an hour, and then down to 160C for two hours. This sets the pastry first, and then cooks the meat through. After the two hours, the pie is taken out, and allowed to cool a little. Once it has done so, the sides of the cake form come off. They’ll probably still be a little soft, but the pie should hold its shape pretty well. You brush the sides with more beaten egg, and put it back in the oven for another few minutes - this gives the sides a touch more stiffness, and also better colour.

Once it’s out of the oven, you let it cool overnight. The meat will shrink as it cools, and come away from the sides and top of the crust, so that it’s sitting on the base, with maybe 5mm of clearance all around. Reheat your jellifying stock - which will ideally have set overnight to prove it can do so - and pour it in through the hole on the top to fill up the space between the meat and the crust. And then you leave that to set, and about 30 hours after you started, you have Pie.

In the first pie, I hadn’t quite understood when the shrinking effect would happen, and tried to pour in the stock before it had fully cooled, which resulted in the pie having a gap between meat and crust, and a very little jelly at the bottom of the gap. In the second one, I had a crack in the lid, which would have been an issue if I had had enough stock to fill it to that level - but I got the sides. On the other hand, the jelly was still a little bit runnier than was ideal, so I need to have more stock, or add gelatin.

This is essentially fine detail in something that’s to be eaten immediately, but I do want to get it right. In the medieval or early modern pie, the jelly was part of the preserving effect, like butter on top of potted meats, ensuring that there were no air gaps from the outside of the crust on one side right through to the other. And to get that right, I need to have uncracked pastry right the way up, and enough stock to fill it entirely.

Once I’ve got that right, I can start looking at the decoration. There are two things to do in this; the sides and the top. The sides are decorated by cooking in a pie form, as depicted:

I suspect that this would actually help in forming the pie, too, as the shape gives the pastry something to hold to. And then the top is traditionally decorated with little pieces made from the leftover pastry - leaves and vines and flowers. Both forms of decoration, though, will need to wait until I’ve nailed down the basic techniques.

It worked out ok in version 2, and it’s certainly good for eating. Just a few form factors to get right!

In other stuff, the garden is growing in fits and starts as rain occurs. Ireland is having a drought at the moment, but we’ve had some rain on the east coast, which seems to be rather more than the rest of the country. This means that our raspberries are actually getting close to fruiting.

A few more days, and they’ll be in - this is much earlier than in previous years, so I can only conclude that this weather suits them.

I’m also observing that the stuff I sowed with Thompson & Morgan seeds all came up, and the stuff I sowed with other seeds had about a 33% success rate - which is to say, the peas came up, the gourds and carrots did not. I’m just sticking with the good seeds hereafter, no matter how tempting the packets on the racks in the hardware shops are.

This issue has been brought to you by semi-rainy days, a variety of English food writing, Aldi’s excellent brioche loaf, and a variety of ramblings with the dog. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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