We’ve spoken to the experts, to make you a pastry chef to be proud of. Laura Fell puts her pinny on. Illustrations by Tom Bingham.
At various times, in various northern motorway junctions, you might notice that someone has scrawled ‘Vote for Pies’ across a motorway bridge. Sadly, it’s not a public proclamation of the love of the pastry dish (it’s a band, immortalised in a Gomez song, and Alexei Sayle book), but if it was, it would make more sense. Because nothing says homecoming more than being welcomed at the front door by the smell of a home-cooked pie.
Wonderfully versatile, shortcrust is the perfect partner to sweet and savoury pies. So we asked Peter Kellet (who co-owned J B Richardson’s Bakery in Chorlton), Jamie Dargie (head chef at Abel Heywood), and Kevin Rivers (head chef at Pie & Ale), to share their pastry prep list.
- Cold hands and a warm heart make the best pastry
This might be an old wives’ tale, but there is truth behind it. If your hands are too warm then the fat in your pastry mix is more likely to melt, which would result in your mix becoming too greasy. Ideally, the area you’re working in should also be cool, but that can be rather unpleasant if you like to feel movement in your hands.
2. Beat it, don’t cut it
Most recipes will recommend that you cut up the fat, then you add the flour, and then you create breadcrumbs by rubbing the flour and the fat together. This, according to Peter, is wrong. The fat should be beaten as much as possible, so it becomes soft, and then the flour should be added. By beating the fat, rather than cutting it, it’ll create the desired softness in the pastry. It’ll also help limit the risk of shrinkage, as there will be more air in your mix.
3. Take a break before you get back to flaunting your
Once you’ve kneaded your pastry, wrap it in cling film, and put it in the fridge for around 20-30 minutes. This will allow the gluten in the flour to relax, which will help your pastry roll with ease. Once you’ve taken the pastry out of the fridge, you’ll want to leave it until it warms to room temperature. When you’re rolling out your pastry, keep moving it regularly, as this will reduce the risk of the pastry sticking, and it’ll also help ensure that your pastry keeps an even shape. Don’t work it for too long. If you overwork it you’ll weaken the gluten, which will turn your delicious pastry into a dry, and rather disappointing affair.
4. Making, and attaching, a lid
Given that your pastry scraps have already been worked once, using them for the pastry lid will make the lid of your pie tougher, which is a desirable outcome. Once you’ve worked the pastry for your lid, glaze your rim with egg wash. Then unroll your pastry, using a rolling pin, over your pie. You’ll need to trim off any excess pastry and then crimp
the pastry together, so that edges stay firmly sealed. Slice a hole in the pastry lid, so compressed steam doesn’t bust your pie.
5. A good pie shouldn’t have a soggy bottom
Jamie recommends that the first step is to ensure that your pastry mix is correct, as excess moisture in your pastry mix will only lead to a soggy bottom. Equally, if you’re using a lot of vegetables, or ‘wetter’ ingredients, it’s important to dry them out as much as possible. It’s also vital that your pie is not overfilled, as this will also alter the crust of your pastry. Blind baking, when the pastry is cooked at a high temperature before the filling is added, can also reduce the risk of your pastry going soggy.
6. Altering the flavour of your pastry
If you’re feeling more creative, changing the flavour of your pastry can turn out wonderfully. However, Kevin says it’s important to remember that adding certain ingredients, like cheese, will alter the bake of the pie, as the cheese is likely to cook quicker than the pastry. If you’re making a meaty pie, Peter recommends using lard, instead of butter, as it’s more likely to enhance the flavours of the meat.
7. If you’ve had to take pies off the menu because you’ve embraced veganism
At Pie & Ale, instead of using butter, Kevin will use vegetable shortening. It’s important to note that if you’re using vegetable shortening then you’ll need to add more water to the pastry, because it doesn’t have the same liquid content as butter. Unfortunately, this will sacrifice the flavour of an all butter pastry, so you’ll really have to make sure that the flavour of your filling is truly exquisite. No pressure.
8. If your pie gets into a bit of trouble
When you’re making your pastry mix, you can add more flour, or a bit more water if it’s necessary. But, once it’s in the oven, it’s a lot more challenging to rescue a pie. This is when the ‘warm heart’ part of the old wives’ tale comes into play, as it’s paramount that you give your pastry the time, and care, it needs in order to succeed.
9. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
By making mistakes, you’ll begin to truly understand how to make pastry. It will take time, but you’ll learn to recognise when you’ve added too much water, or if you’ve worked the pastry for too long. Making shortcrust pastry will eventually become as natural to you as riding a bike. Of course, unlike riding a bike, making delicious pastry probably won’t increase the chances of you fitting into those jeans.
10. Finishing off a pie
Both Kevin and Jamie recommend a simple egg wash, as it will give your pie a gloriously golden finish. If you would prefer to finish your pie with flare, you can also sprinkle herbs, or nuts, over your pie. Or, you can create decorative shapes with your scrap pastry. Peter recommends making a pastry leaf: begin by making a diamond shape with the pastry, then pinch one end of the diamond. To finish, knock out the diamond, with the back of a knife, to create leaf-like imprints. It really is as easy as pie.