Thursday, 16 June 2011

Pastry is the enemy!

Years ago a friend presented me with a recipe book dedicated to pies in the hopes that I would be inspired to experiment and consequently he would reap the pastry encrusted rewards.   I found several great recipes (two listed below) which have become favourites, but had yet to brave making my own pastry (I hadn’t even glanced at a pastry recipe since “the marble counter incident”... but more on that later).  Genetically I am predisposed to be bad at pastry making.  I have hot hands (with cold feet oddly enough – although yes, ok – that doesn’t affect my pastry making prowess) and nowhere near enough patience.  Last weekend I decided that it was high time I stormed my pastry-phobic fortress and tried my hand at a recipe for mini Apple and Calvados Pies, as a birthday food parcel for that same pie-hungry friend.

In an attempt to get ahead of the game and shuck my poor pastry track-record I decided to have a look for as many helpful tips and techniques as possible.  The number one tip which appeared on almost every site was to keep the pastry as cool as possible: chill the ingredients; use your fingertips (which are the coolest part) to work the dough; use a marble work surface and so on...

Unfortunately marble alone is not enough to cure my pastry woes: while I was still at university, dad bought mum (who is also pastry-challenged) a marble work surface and rolling pin (one assumes this too was a slightly self-motivated gift).  One of the few times it was used resulted in an enraged phone call to let them know that it was all their fault: due to the defective genetics which had been passed on to me I had not only failed at making pastry – I had gotten so angry about it I had smashed the marble work surface by hammering it into submission with the rolling pin.  Needless to say, they weren’t convinced of their allocation of the blame. 

My new plan of attack was simple; chill everything and keep hands cold at all times.  I opened all of the windows and doors, changed into summer clothing even though it was raining and ran my hands under the cold tap at regular intervals.  Finally – victory!  Pastry you may have won countless battles but I’ve finally discovered a way to win the war...

Firstly measure out the dry ingredients.  I have been told that baking is like a science, where every measure must be accurate to keep the ratio of fat and flour correct.  Obviously with my scales I haven’t got a hope of exact measurements (one solitary grain of sugar can often cause the dial to jump erratically by 100g).  Thankfully it still seemed to work.

Once the dry ingredients are measured, sift them together from a height to lighten the mixture (very messy unless your aim is a darned site better than mine!).

Next add the chilled butter, rubbing it in until it resembles coarse breadcrumbs (using the same technique as making crumble topping).  Lift the mix well out of the mixing bowl during this stage so that as much air is incorporated as possible. 

Add the chilled, beaten eggs one by one, mixing in between.  Slowly add the rest of the chilled liquid to achieve the desired consistency.  If too much liquid is added the pastry becomes too sticky and impossible to work with, if you have to add more flour at this late stage it becomes tough (what a fussy, pedantic foodstuff!). 

Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge for a minimum of half an hour.  If you decide to chill it for longer then you will need to stand it at room temperature for 15 minutes before starting to roll in order to stop it cracking.

Divide the pastry into two (one for the bases and one for the lids).  Dust the work surface, your hands and the rolling pin (or clingfilm’d wine bottle in my case) with icing sugar.  Roll half of the dough out; and here is where everyone seems to have a different, elaborate, sure-fire trick for getting perfect pastry.  By rolling it: without overworking or stretching; while being very gentle, quick, light, and firm; only in one direction; only away from yourself; only towards yourself; standing on your head and whistling “Sweet Home Alabama” in F minor.  How can anyone use a rolling pin with that much guidance?  I’m afraid I just rolled it... simple as that: I rolled it, turning it every so often so it wouldn’t stick, until it was flat(ish – I was using a wine bottle after all).  That was it. 

Butter and flour the tin (I made tiny pies in a mini-muffin tin), cut the pastry to fit and place in the fridge for another half hour to cool again.  This should stop the pastry from shrinking when cooking. 

Prick the bases with a fork, cover with baking parchment, fill with baking beans/dried pulses/rice for added weight, and blind-bake for 15 minutes at 180˚C.  Lift out the baking parchment and contents, apply an egg wash and return to the oven for a further 5 minutes.  The egg wash acts as a moisture sealing glaze and is made by mixing 1tsp liquid (milk or water) per egg white (with spices mixed in if desired).

Roll out the second half of the pastry for the lids and leave on a baking sheet in the fridge to keep cool.

Meanwhile, make the pie filling.  Melt the butter in a pan, add the apples, sugar, cinnamon, raisins (if using), zest and Calvados.  Cook until the apples have softened (approximately 10 minutes).  If the mixture looks too runny add a small amount of arrowroot to thicken.  Remove from the heat and leave to cool.  Then stir in the cream.

Finally assemble the pies.  Spoon the filling into the par-baked crusts, brush the tops with more egg wash and seal the pastry lids over the top.  Bake for 15 minutes until crisp and golden.  While these are baking mix the cinnamon, mascarpone and calvados to taste.

500g plain flour, sifted
 100g icing sugar, sifted
250g cold butter, cubed
Optional pastry flavouring (zest of 1 lemon, 1tsp mixed spice/cinnamon/cloves/nutmeg etc)
2 large eggs, beaten
a splash of milk

Apple and Calvados Filling: (makes 24 mini pies or 12 cupcake sized pies)
25g Butter
8 Granny Smith (or similar tart dessert) apples, peeled, cored and diced to 1cm
75g caster sugar
1/4tsp ground cinnamon
1 lemon, zest
3tbsp Calvados
4tbsp double cream
(I added a large handful of raisins into the filling)

Cinnamon Mascarpone:
100g Mascarpone
2tbsp Calvados
1/2tsp Cinnamon
Icing sugar to taste

Venison Pie with Thyme, Mustard and Shallots - Filling: (serves 6)
40g Dried Wild Mushrooms, soaked in boiling water to rehydrate
25g plain flour
1tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1kg venison, cut into large chunks
2tbsp olive oil
400g shallots, peeled but left whole
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
2tbsp dark muscovado sugar
500ml ale
300ml beef stock
2tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2tbsp Dijon mustard
Salt and Pepper
Toss the venison in a bowl with the flour, thyme and some seasoning until coated.  Fry the shallots in half the olive oil over a medium heat until beginning to colour and soften, add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Remove from the pan and set aside for later.  Brown the meat in batches in the rest of the olive oil then return the shallots and garlic to the pan.  Stir in the sugar, then add the ale, stock, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, mushrooms and 100ml of the mushroom’s soaking liquid. Simmer 2 hours then leave to cool overnight before assembling the pie for the flavours to develop.

Beef and Stilton Pie - Filling: (serves 6)
2tbsp sunflower oil
1kg braising beef, cut into large chunks
4 carrots, peeled, and cut into large chunks
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 small pinch of chilli flakes
4tbsp flour
2tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 bottle (75cl) full-bodied red wine
1 bouquet garni
150g Stilton cheese, crumbled (I use more when I make this)
Heat the oil in a pan until smoking, brown the beef in batches (do not stir – leave to brown a few minutes each side without moving).  Remove from the pan and set aside for later.  Add carrots, onion, garlic and chilli to the pan and cook 8-10 minutes until starting to soften.  Stir in the flour to create a roux and cook until the flour starts to brown.  Add the vinegar and cook until it is reduced slightly.  Add wine, beef and any juices then season.  Bring to the boil, add the bouquet garni and simmer 2 hours or until the meat is tender then leave to cool overnight before assembling the pie.  Sprinkle the stilton over the filling just before adding the pastry top.

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