The quest for pie – One day toward the beginning of last week, or maybe it was even last weekend, I was eating dinner with my wife and her parents. I don’t remember the conversation leading up to it, but at some point the words “steak and kidney pie” fell from my lips and landed on the table with a crash. Then I had to explain that, yes, it was actually kidneys in the pie and not kidney beans (as my wife first guessed), and how difficult was it to procure beef kidneys in Korea? My mother-in-law said that they probably sold them at Garak Market, and she would see about picking one up next time she went. The conversation meandered off and I forgot all about pie.
No, that’s a lie. In fact, while the conversation was meandering elsewhere, I became obsessed with pie—I’m talking Weebl & Bob obsessed here. After dinner my wife mentioned that there was an Australian pie house in Apgujeong-dong called Bondi Pie Co., and we (I) decided on the spot that we would be having dinner there. We settled on Wednesday, and all day Wednesday I had pie on the brain. Whenever my mind wandered I would see steaming, golden pies floating through the air. So when we met at Apgujeong Station at around eight o’clock that evening, I was hungry and ready to devour my fair share of pastries.
After one hour of wandering around the area with no pie in sight, though, we finally decided to go into one of the shops near where we thought Bondi should have been and ask them about it. The girl behind the counter shook her head. I can still hear her words: “Bondi closed not too long ago. The owner moved back to Australia and closed up shop.” My dreams of pie were shattered. But now I was a man with a mission. I wasn’t going to let some fickle Australian snatch away my dreams. Sure, I had never actually made a savory pie before, but I’d eaten plenty, and there always has to be a first time for everything. As we settled for cheese steaks that night in Apgujeong, I plotted my revenge on the food gods.
Pie as it is known in the States, at least where I grew up, is mainly a dessert food. I would eat pie from time to time, but I preferred chocolate and nut pies to fruitier versions, and all things considered I would choose cake over pie any day of the week. We knew of chicken pot pie, of course, but that was an anomaly, a freak sideshow in the world of baked pastry goods. It never occurred to me that the pie horizons extended so far beyond my provincial little world.
I was introduced to pie-as-meal when I studied in London for a semester during my junior year in university. At the time (this was before The Naked Chef and the current revival of “British cuisine”—two words that wouldn’t have been caught dead next to each other), England was infamous for its food, and I had been told to expect the worst. I won’t deny that England has its share of crappy food, but even back then the stereotype was far from justified. I had a number of very pleasant meals during my time in England (about a third of the journal I kept during that semester recounts my gustatory experiences), but one food quickly became my favorite. That food, of course, was pie.
There was a bakery around the corner from the building where I attended most of my classes, and I got into the habit of picking up a Cornish pasty on my way in for lunch. If you’ve never had one, it is a pocket of pastry dough filled with chopped steak (or other meats) and vegetables and baked. It got so that the guy behind the counter would take out a pasty as soon as I walked through the door. Then there were the dish pies, my favorite being the aforementioned steak and kidney pie. More specifically, I grew quite fond of the steak, kidney, and Guinness pie. Many an afternoon would I sit down for lunch in a pub with a steak, kidney, and Guinness pie and a pint of Guinness for good measure (because you can never have too much Guinness). It might sound odd, but over a decade later those are among my fondest memories of London.
In preparation for baking my first pie I ransacked Google for recipes and ideas. I knew basically what I wanted in the pie, so mainly I was searching for pastry recipes and to get an idea of how it was done. In the process I came across a wealth of information concerning pies. Wikipedia says that the pie originated with the Egyptians (who, having also given us beer and bread, are quickly becoming my favorite ancient peoples) and then spread to Greece and later Rome, appearing in England in the 12th century. I found more information elsewhere suggesting that these 12th century pies originated with Christmas pies that were made when the Crusaders returned to Europe with new spices. And here I thought the Crusades were about religious intolerance. Who would have imagined that it was all about pie?
Along the way I dug into my beloved OED for a little etymology action. The earliest entry listed for pie is 1303, but that is in Latin. The earliest English (Middle English, to be precise) entry comes from 1362, and Chaucer mentioned pies in 1386. There is no definitive information on the origin of the word, but the entry notes that many believe it is related to “magpie,” which are also called “pies.” The note at the bottom of the entry says that this may be due to a connection between the “piebald” appearance of the bird and the varied ingredients in a pie, or possibly from the magpie’s habit of picking up miscellaneous articles.
I also found a number of references to the old nursery rhyme about blackbirds in a pie: “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye / Four and twenty blackbirds backed in a pie. / When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing, / Wasn’t that a tasty dish to set before the king?” I don’t know about you, but I was rather skeptical of this nursery rhyme when I was young. How could twenty-four blackbirds baked in a pie start singing when the pie was opened? Well, as it turns out, large pies were sometimes part of the entertainment at medieval feasts—the crusts were baked first and then small animals (and sometimes even dwarfs!) were placed inside the pie to be released when the crust was cut (more information here on the What’s Cooking America site and also at this page on the nursery rhyme). I’m guessing that’s also where the trick of having women pop out of cakes originated.
Before continuing with my tale, I’d like to take a little detour and discuss the nature of pies. This detour was inspired by an innocuous little sentence in the Wikipedia entry, namely: “Today, virtually every country in the world has some form of pie.” I did a double-take when I read that. Korea has no tradition of pies, and I can think of a number of other countries (other Asian nations and most sub-Saharan African nations, for example) that have no tradition of pies. It wasn’t until I read this sentence on the Mrs. Mac’s website that I understood: “Nearly every country in the world has it’s own version of the ‘meat pie’. South America has Empanadas, Cyprus has Bourekias and Poland has Pierogiz.”
I had to look up empanadas, and I found no information on Bourekias, but I was already quite familiar with pierogi, having slaughtered them in large numbers as a child. If you’re going to consider pierogi a form of pie, then Korean dumplings (mandu) could also be considered pies, but I think that’s stretching it a bit. If we’re going to determine what is not a pie, though, we first need to have a definition of pie. The OED calls it “A dish composed of meat, fowl, fish, fruit, or vegetables, etc., enclosed in or covered with a layer of paste and baked.” Dictionary.com says that it is “a baked food having a filling of fruit, meat, pudding, etc., prepared in a pastry-lined pan or dish and often topped with a pastry crust.” Merriam-Webster OnLine, in simpler fashion, defines pie as “a meat dish baked with biscuit or pastry crust” (by the way, I would like to congratulate the folks at M-W OnLine for going out of their way to make it difficult to link to a specific entry—great job!). Judging by these definitions, there are two basic requirements for pie: that it have a full or partial pastry shell and that it be baked.
Thus dumplings, pierogi, and the like do not qualify as pie. A case could be made for these foods as pastry, since this word originally referred to all foods made from paste, and early pie crusts were in fact simply flour and water. These crusts were not edible, though, because when you bake flour and water you get a crust that is too tough to eat. This is why dumplings are not baked, they are boiled, steamed, or fried. And since they are not baked, they are not pies. Korea and other Asian nations have breads filled with fruit and other fillings, but I wouldn’t call these pies either—they may be baked, but unlike bread, pastry doesn’t use leavening agents like yeast or baking soda.
OK, end of detour. Apologies to those of my readers who may not be culinary pedants (which is probably most if not all of you). But there was a nugget of useful information in that detour, mainly the composition of early pastry crusts. These early crusts, called “coffins,” were used as containers to seal in the pie ingredients so that none of the juices or flavors escaped. Fat was added to the recipe later on and the crusts became edible. Some recipes I found on the internet called for shortening, but I ended up deciding on a simple mix of all-purpose flour, butter, and a little water.
We had planned to do the pies yesterday, but on Saturday disaster struck. I came down with a really wicked cold (I’m only starting to recover from it now), and I was in dire straits for most of Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The thought of abandoning the pie-making venture did flicker briefly in my mind before I snuffed it out. I’ll be honest—there were times during the process when I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have postponed the event, but like I said before, I was obsessed. I wasn’t going to let a little cold come between me and my pie.
I started with the pastry dough early in the day, then set that aside in the refrigerator. The next step was cutting up all the ingredients: two large onions, about eight stalks of celery, three or four carrots, a whole bunch of small potatoes, and a plateful of tenderloin beef. This took quite a while, and halfway through the chopping my wife took over so I could rest while my sinuses tried to obliterate my brains. When she was done I started the cooking. The vegetables went into a huge pot of boiling water, seasoned lightly with salt and a mixture of ground red, white, green, and black peppercorns. The meat went into a wok with salt and pepper, some Worcestershire sauce, and my secret blend of spices (if you must know, the blend consists of thyme, sage, and nutmeg), and I cooked it over high heat until it was browned and mostly cooked.
To make the gravy I took the liquid from the vegetables (a tasty broth in itself) and the juices from the meat and combined them. Then I made a roux—flour cooked in butter over high heat—and browned it as much as I could without burning it. When the roux was done the liquid went in a cup at a time, accompanied by furious stirring and much sweating. When the gravy was done the meat and vegetables went back into the pot and I stirred the whole mixture together. Up until this point I had been too busy to snap pictures, but I decided to get a photo of the filling before it went into the pies. Next time I’ll have to do this with Kevin around so he can make sure a thorough photographic record is kept.
I had originally told my wife and my mother-in-law that the pie filling was going to be “something like stew.” Of course, it’s not really anything like stew, but I didn’t know what else to call it. My wife kept commenting that my cooking methods were nothing like what one normally does with stew, and it wasn’t until she saw the finished product above that she understood. There is actually very little gravy compared to the other ingredients—just enough to make sure the pie stays moist.
While I was making the gravy and then mixing all the ingredients together, my wife was rolling out the pastry covers. We decided to do individual pies in soup dishes to make it easier to eat, and we also decided to do only top covers and not full pastry shells. I would have preferred full pastry shells, but sometimes you have to compromise. I also would have preferred thicker covers, and was surprised to find that my wife had rolled the covers quite thin. As a result, though, the covers were also quite large and there was a lot of excess dough to make the crust edges. That’s the part that everyone loves anyway.
With the filling in the dishes and the pastry covers on, we put the pies into the preheated oven. A half hour later, this is what came out.
The two pies on the bottom are for my wife and myself so I didn’t bother with fancy edges, but the top three were for the rest of the family (my sister-in-law joined us for dinner) so I made a passing attempt at fluting the crust edges. I had forgotten to tell my wife to put the covers back in the refrigerator when she was done rolling them out so they would be easier to handle, and as a result they were a bit flimsy when I tried to shape them. Still, not bad for a first attempt.
And there I was—after a long week of broken hearts, shattered dreams, and vindictive sinuses—face to face with my beloved pie. Sure, it wasn’t quite the same as the pies I had in England, but it was a pie nonetheless. The verdict? I was quite pleased with the way it turned out. I had been worried that butter wouldn’t produce as nice a crust as shortening, but it turned out great. The filling was also quite rich and tasty. After I broke through the crust but before I devoured the pie, I decided to capture one final image of my first attempt at reviving an old memory.
Everyone else thoroughly enjoyed their pies as well, and we’re already looking forward to our next adventure—steak, kidney, and Guinness pie! I’m hoping to improve on my technique with what I’ve learned from this attempt.
By way of closing today’s entry, I want to briefly mention what’s ahead here at Liminality. As some of you may know, it is that time of year again—time for the month-long hell known as NaNoWriMo, when otherwise sane people around the world decide to write a novel in a month. I’m currently busy preparing for our kick-off party and trying to get my affairs in order before the chaos begins, so it is quite possible that this will be my last entry until December (or, more likely, the end of November, as I’ve finished up early the past two years and expect to do so again this year).
I could think of worse entries to have up on the front page of Liminality for a month. Enjoy your November, and may all your pies be tasty!