Up until last year, of course, I was obliged to laugh at Pi Day, because – as any fule kno – the date is properly written 14/3, not 3/14. However, hubris is its own reward, and here I am in this inverted world, and oh yes, we celebrate Pi Day, we do. It’s not that we’re geeks or anything, but we have a Pi shower curtain and a Pi ice-cube tray and inevitably a Pi plate and I wrote m’wife a whole story about Pi for her birthday, so yeah. There will be pie tonight.
In honesty, though, pastry has never been a laughing matter around me. Thing is, my mum used to make the best pastry, without apparently thinking about it: toss the fat into the flour, chop it up a little with a knife, then in with the fingers and rubbity-rub and there you go. I had watched this happen all my life; I thought it must be easy.
Hah! It is apparently not a heritable skill. I tried a couple of times as a young man, found that the fat just squished into nasty warm lumps and didn’t at all rub into the flour, the texture never came anywhere near breadcrumbs and the resultant pastry was kinda more like leather really. And then I read somewhere that no man may call himself a good cook unless he is a good pastry-cook, and my self-conceit hit rock bottom, and I stopped even trying. I couldn’t make pastry, and that was that.
Then Karen came to visit me in the UK, and I recited all the reasons why I didn’t make pastry and therefore couldn’t consider myself a good cook, and she said, “Phooey. Don’t use your fingers, use a tool. We do it with forks, but there are actual pastry-blenders,” and she bought me one for Christmas.
Only then she went away, and I put it in a drawer and didn’t use it because pastry was still not in my mindset; and when I moved to the US of course I put it in my shipping, because she had given it to me – and it didn’t arrive. It’s one of the things that vanished en route, because either pastry-blenders are an article of pinchworthy value, or else the universe doesn’t want me to acquire piemaking skills.
But! Universe, you are too late to stand between us, pie and me! Because one of the lovely things that happens when you get married is that people send you gifts, and one of ours was a food processor; and another of the lovely things that happens is that you get to hang out with all your wife’s friends, and you run through all this spiel about how you’ll never be a good cook because you’re not a good pastry-cook, and they all throw things at you and cry, “Oh, for cryin’ out loud, use a machine, Brenchley!”
So it still kinda-sorta feels like cheating, but I blend flour and fat in the food processor before tipping it into a bowl to pull the pastry together by hand, and it works just fine. Tho’ America and I still stand askance on the whole subject of pie, because my English soul thinks a proper pie is a savoury stew beneath a pastry lid, where everyone here thinks it’s a fruit compôte within a pastry case, when it isn’t just sugar and nuts. But that’s okay, there’s room for both. If not on the same plate…
Just to be perverse, here’s my recipe for Shepherd’s Pi. Which of course includes no pastry anywhere.
Take a pound of minced/ground lamb (or beef is good too, but if you use beef, it’s Cottage Pi, okay?), and brown it off in your favourite cast-iron wedding-present casserole – thanks, Aliette! – or other stovetop-to-oven dish. Take your time, break up all the lumps into individual little threadlets of meat and don’t just let it turn beige, brown it properly. Do it little by little, if that’s what it takes. We’re looking for the Maillard Reaction here (I told you I was geeky), it’s all about the flavour. If you’re lucky, there’ll be enough fat in the meat and you won’t need to add any; if not, use good olive oil.
Once it’s all deep brown and a little crispy, remove the meat from whatever fat you have and set it aside. Add more oil if you need to, and fry a thinly-sliced onion until soft but not coloured. Add as much garlic as you like, crushed with salt to a paste; then toss in some chopped or broken mushrooms, a sliced carrot or two, a stick or two of celery, like that. Leek is good. Fry them off for a couple of minutes, then add the meat back in. Follow that with a tin of chopped tomatoes, a bay leaf, fresh thyme if you have it. Add half a pint of good stock – lamb if you have it, chicken else – and black pepper, and bring to a simmer.
Simmer very gently for 3.14 hours. Hey, it’s Pi Day. And I’m serious, fairly: cook it for as long as you can bear to, it just keeps getting better. Leave it on the back of the stove all day if you can, topping up with occasional water as needed. You want the meat to break down entirely into the sauce, the onions to disappear. When it’s thick and gloopy and utterly delicious, add salt as needed.
Meanwhile, you will have made your mash. I like to use a ricer for ultimate smoothness, and I have taken to baking rather than boiling the potatoes; you don’t have to peel ’em, you get skins to play with after, and the flesh is tender but dry so you have better control of whatever liquid you want to add. I like to infuse a little warm milk or half-and-half with shallot or green onion or leeks again and stir that in, but mostly what I add is butter. I might also add mashed celeriac (that’s celery root over here), and always of course salt and pepper.
Then the mash goes on top of the meat sauce – still in the same favoured cast-iron casserole dish if you’re lucky, if you’re me – and the whole thing goes into a medium oven for a while so that the mash and meat can get to know each other. I like to finish the surface of the mash with a fork, so it has a texture – ribbed for your pleasure – and dot with a little more butter. Finally, put it under the grill or broiler until the top is crunchy golden-brown veering towards black on the ridges, and serve. Happy Pi Day.