Inside a pie

Well I have no recollection of what started us off.

We must have been talking pork pies with Sarah from Brays Cottage pies – you remember, I was a Pop Up Pie Assistant selling her brilliant pork pies recently – but how did it get from there to Linda ( @goodshoeday ) at with knife and fork and I agreeing that we would spend one of the potentially hottest weekends in July in a kitchen making pork pies from scratch?

Somehow the plan was for both of us to make pork pies independently, Twittering along as we went. Sarah used the hashtag #porkpiemake in one tweet, and that became the signature for the event.

Rules were few, we had to make traditional pork pies, using outdoor reared pork, hot water pastry, extra flavours were optional, jelly also optional. We would bake over the weekend, Linda and I would taste test as soon as we could, and we would also send samples to Sarah for comments, and constructive criticism.

Saturday morning came, I had exhausted both the internet and my (fairly extensive) cookbooks and decided on the recipes I would use, so it was time I started. Sarah had kindly sent an insulated box and ice sheet so that the pies could be sent safely to Norfolk to her for taste testing, which had arrived nice and early. All ingredients had been bought. #porkpiemake was off and running.

First thing to do make the jelly.

Pigs Trotter Jelly

Two trotters had been bought at Walthamstow Farmers Market from The Giggly Pig Company. I tried to split them but the skin was too strong for my feeble wrists so I just slashed them here and there. They went into the pressure cooker with water to cover and some aromatics (carrot, red onion, celery stick, bay leaf, peppercorns) and were cooked for roughly an hour and a half, then strained. The stock was then boiled down slightly until it set firm when cooled in the fridge on a saucer (rather like checking for jam setting). Then and only then I salted until it tasted suitably savoury. Into bowls and into the fridge for the time being.

Then the meat. I decided on two types of pork, fatty pork belly to keep the meat moist and tender, and loin for the lean meat element. Some kind of cured pork adds to the flavour and keeps the filling pink (in the old days saltpetre would be added to fresh pork, but that is very hard to get now) : I decided on pancetta, it has a good strong meaty flavour and is sell salty than English bacon. Negroni package it ready cubed in two versions, I like the one with herbs added.

In a perfect world, the meat would all be hand chopped but this is hard work, even with knives freshly sharpened the fibres in the fatty meat catch and resist. So I decided to hand chop the leanest parts and slice and finish the pork belly and fatty parts of the loin in the food processor together with the pancetta – just quick pulses to bring the meat to a chopped state.

Into a bowl with the seasoning – fresh sage and lemon thyme from the garden, fresh parsley, black pepper and powdered mace. Lots of old recipes mention using a spoonful of anchovy essence and I fancied trying that, but I didn’t have any in stock at the moment. But what I did have was Thai fish sauce, which is probably the eastern version of anchovy essence and made in a similar way. So a tablespoon of that instead of salt.

Chopped Pork

Linda and I had also thought it would be nice to try two variations, I decided to keep one half with just with the fresh herbs, and to add apricots and lemon to the other half of the meat. I had fresh apricots in the fridge so chopped up 4 of these and added that with the grated zest of a lemon to half the seasoned meat, covered both bowls and into the fridge for the flavours to blend.

apricot flavoured meat

That was it for Saturday. Sunday morning, bright and early, I was up making the hot water crust pastry. I was baking today, and delivering the pie samples to Linda who would kindly get them to the post office to send to Sarah

Lots of different recipes for this around: some use plain flour, some bread flour, some add an egg, some just lard, some butter. Even the amount of water varied. Most say to use the mix warm, but Sarah recommended letting it cool right down and to roll it then. I decided in the end to try Dan Lepard’s recipe from the Guardian, as he is very reliable.

Whilst the pastry rested, I prepared the tins. I was going to use a muffin tin as moulds for the individual pies I wanted to make, as suggested by Sarah. I had thought of hand raising but though moulding was probably the safest bet for the first time I had ever touched hot water crust pastry, let alone raised 12 pies individually. I greased the tins with melted lard, and base lined them with little circles of parchment – not mentioned in any recipe, but whilst I could run a knife round the edge of the tin if the sides stuck, the base would be impossible to free.

Meat out of the fridge and portioned up into 100g balls ( in the end these portions were a little on the large side, so I nipped a little from each and made an extra one)

Portioned meat

Pastry rolled and cut into circles and filled into the cases. Drop a ball in. Ah. Problem. In the time that it had taken for 12 circles to be filled into the tin, the first ones had contracted. Hot water pastry has quite a high gluten content and so is very resilient, so each of the little circles had to come out of the mould and be re-rolled. You can see the difference between the ones at the front, and the ones at the back that are still to be rolled again. So the trick seems to be roll them quite a bit bigger than you think you will need.

pie shells

Next, lids on and time to cook.

pies for the oven

I was really not sure what temperature to use, I went with Delia, Gas Mk 4 but seriously this is far far too cool. After baking for an hour, the tops looked good, and the insides were registering 90 degrees c on the meat thermometer, so I took them out of the moulds (thank goodness I had lined the bottoms) to find that the pastry inside the tin was still pale and flaccid.

pies upside down

Not even strong enough to stand up on its own. So I upended them onto the baking tin and most of them broke a little.. Oops. I patted them back into place and baked for another half hour. Better though not really golden enough but I was getting twitchy about the pork drying out with the extended cooking. It was a great pity I didn’t notice Bray’s Cottage tips for cooking their pies – it might have saved me a LOT of hassle…

Jelly out the fridge now, and heated until melted. Sarah’s tip for the jelly was hot jelly and hot pie to keep bacterial contamination to a minimum (the jelly is the worst place for bacterial growth – think of petri dishes with bacteria growing on agar agar in them… not that different really). I created little funnels from parchment paper. I poured the warm jelly into the top of the pie.

It came straight out the bottom.. the upending had not done the structure of the pie any favours and so we ended up with jellyless pies. A shame for me, but Sarah’s pies are made with no jelly and are still delicious so I wasn’t too disappointed.

Inside a pie

I was really delighted with the results. The pastry was very thin and light, could have done with being much darker on the sides and base, but cooked through, none of that nasty white soggy inside that you sometimes get in commercial pies. The seasoning in the plain pies was not too strong, although the sage was a bit forceful, and I think I would use less sage and more lemon thyme next time. The pancetta gave a nice pink tinge as was hoped, but wasn’t strongly noticeable which was good – I wanted a pork pie after all, not a bacon one. When Linda tasted one she said it reminded her of “my Christmas chestnut stuffing” – not a bad description.

But the apricot and lemon was rather disappointing. When I mixed the apricots into the meat it looked an awful lot of fruit to meat, and I was nervous that the fruit would create too much juice and ruin the balance, but in the event it cooked away and was barely noticeable. The lemon peel was just about tasted, and went well, so I think I would try the blend again but double the number of zested lemons. I think dried apricots will have a stronger flavour with less juice, so I will try them with some apricot compote to add extra sweetness.

All in all, a most satisfying weekend’s work. And I had pies for dinner all week 🙂