The modern pie

The modern pie

by Clare Gazzard 08 October 2015

Pies are a timeless classic, the ultimate comfort food, a handy snack, a sweet dessert... Constantly changing and evolving, Clare examines what makes a pie a pie in the modern world.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

Having attended cookery courses in South Africa, Vietnam, Thailand and the Caribbean, Clare is always looking to expand her culinary know-how and improve on recent kitchen disasters.

The pie is something of a phenomenon; both humble and iconic at the same time, a national institution yet with thousands of regional variations worldwide, the ultimate crowd-pleaser but still a dish that provokes endless debate… Pastry or mash? Lid or full crust? Puff, short or filo? Hand-held or sharing? Dish or freeform? Gravy or sauce? Sweet or savoury?

The questions are endless, and therefore suggest that the pie is the ultimate dish for versatility – open to interpretation on many levels and suited to any occasion or personal taste. The traditional definition of a pie however, begs to differ, referring to a baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry. Although tempting to stick with this classification, it feels such a shame to rule out all the other fantastic pie variations out there; the modern pie has moved on.

Type of pastry

Looking at this definition, it appears that we should (for the sake of argument) discount anything topped in potatoes: so no fish pies, shepherd’s or cottage pies for now. The pastry top and bottom scenario suggests a shortcrust-type pastry is used, something like a classic game pie or perhaps for Christmas, a mince pie. What about flaky puff pastry with buttery, golden layers? Or crisp and crunchy filo? The now common availability of both these types of pastry as ready-made options makes them more accessible to the home cook, when previously they would be much more time consuming and labour intensive to make at home than shortcrust.

Puff is often the pastry of choice in the UK and Europe, a chance to show off a laminated pastry against many rich fillings, such as a classic rich chicken and mushroom pie or beef and ale. A classic French pithivier sticks to the tradition of a full pastry casing but using puff, with layered fillings inside to match the pastry. Filo is much more commonly used in Middle Eastern and North African cuisines, with a history of use dating back to the 13th Century and the Ottoman Empire. Crisp and almost brittle when cooked, filo sheets are layered together to encase fillings, such as spiced lamb and apricot, or in the sweet/savoury combinations of bisteeyas and pastillas. Filo also offers a lighter option for anyone still craving the comfort of a pie, but with less of the butter and fat associated with other pastries. For help choosing the right pastry and getting the best results, see our tips and tricks.

Shape and form

A pie with a top and bottom again suggests something quite fixed – pastry baked in a tin or mould to form a rigid, free-standing structure. As impressive as this looks, it again is a lengthy process to undertake at home. For the modern, busy home, a simpler option is often preferable.

A lidded pie is the easiest switch to make; dispensing with the bottom and side casing, the filling is baked in an ovenproof dish with a lid of pastry to cover. This works equally well with puff, shortcrust and scrunched up filo. The lid could also be baked separately, cut square, round or shaped as desired (one way to keep the kids happy!) on baking trays and positioned on the pie filling afterwards, meaning a perfectly crisp, non-soggy topping. If watching your waistline, removing the pastry base also reduces the calorie count somewhat, which could even be reduced further by creating a lattice topping instead of a whole pastry sheet.

The other undertaking is moulded or freefrom. Lining a tin or dish can be tricky, and relies on you having the correct shape and size for the recipe, while freeform opens up a whole world of possibilities. In the loosest sense, pastry is folded around a filling to enclose it and baked. This could be as a galette or open fruit pie, where a circle of pastry is folded up around a filling, leaving the centre open, or as a fully enclosed parcel, such as a pithivier or en croute.

Freeform is also more adaptable for individual options, if we stretch the definition far enough we could include Cornish pasties, South American empanadas, filled vol-au-vents and pastry bombes, which encase a filling but in a handy hand-held form.

Fillings and international flavours

A filling of ‘fruit, meat and vegetables’ is fairly broad, and could in theory cover any filling you desire. For meaty options, Britain can hold its head high. Melton Mowbray pork pies have protected PGI status, while London is having a revival of traditional pie ‘n’ mash shops, specialising in minced meat pies, normally made with an eel liquor. The availability of more wild game from butchers and supermarkets has made this an increasingly popular filling, while the classics of steak and ale, steak and kidney and chicken and ham, are staples on any self-respecting pub menu. Further afield, in Australia and New Zealand a meat pie is synonymous with a street food snack, while Mexican empanadas and Jamaican beef patties offer spicy variants.

Vegetables take the starring role in many pies, often with the addition of cheese for added protein and texture. Rationing during war-time Britain introduced several classic vegetable pies, such as homity pie (a simple mix of potatoes and hard cheese such as cheddar) and the mixed vegetable Woolton pie, named after Lord Woolton, who was head of the Ministry of Food at the time. In the Med, greens and salty cheeses such as feta are preferred: the Greek spanakopita is a filo pie filled with spinach and feta cheese and similarly in Croatia, the sparnik is a traditional pie with kale or chard. Indian spices add interest, and curried vegetables make an excellent base for a pastry topping. The US take a traditionally sweet take on vegetable pies, with pumpkin and sweet potato pies a staple of Thanksgiving and festive feasts.

Continuing with the sweet theme, fruit pies come in many shapes and forms. The word pie in America is more usually associated with a dessert – think apple, coconut cream, lemon meringue, banoffee, key lime and pecan pies. In a lot of these recipes, the pastry base remains but the lid is often replaced by a sweet alternative such as whipped cream, baked meringue or fluffy sponge… perhaps not ones for the health conscious! Working with the seasons, surplus crops of tart fruits, such as rhubarb, gooseberries and blackcurrants, make delicious pie fillings to balance the rich pastry, while at Christmas, dried fruits and spices take their turn.

British game pie with orange and parsley gremolata.