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De la Cuisine: Easy as Pie

Eugenia Uhl Photograph

The late Craig Claiborne, longtime food writer for the New York Times, once declared that there is nothing better on a cold wintry day than a properly made pot pie in the British tradition: stewed chicken with carrots, white onions, mushrooms, bacon and hard-boiled eggs layered in cream sauce and topped with puff pastry.

He was not wrong, but all along I believed that pot pies were as American as apple pies.

Pot pies are certainly not part of the Acadian or Creole cuisine, but years ago Mama found them in the supermarket freezer. They came packaged in those little foil pans, ideal for popping in the oven when our busy schedules demanded a quick, easy meal. We didn’t know better, so these little pot pies seemed acceptable enough until we ate those prepared by Mama’s dear friend, Miss Doe (short for Doreen) who was a St. Martinville native but had married a Yankee (God save her) and lived most of her married life way up in Pennsylvania, poor thing.

When Miss Doe and her husband, Larry, retired, they built a lovely little cottage, where Rock and I now live, on Bayou Teche in St. Martinville. She was a darn good cook and a marvelous baker, and it was considered a real treat when she invited us to supper, which more often than not  was served on her fine china at a table in front of a roaring fire. Since fireplaces were not very common in St. Martinville back then, we felt like we had been transported to another place, far more chic than anything we knew at the time.

Her pot pies were made in individual baking dishes, and they were absolutely wonderful – chock-full of tender chunks of beef, chicken or turkey and perfectly cooked carrots and peas in a rich, thick gravy and topped with her incredible pie crust. Oh, how I wish I had that recipe now! But alas, Miss Doe, Mama and the formula for the pies are gone. However, I’ve done some homework and have come up with recipes for a traditional pot pie and a couple of new ones that will surely warm the soul and the body when those dismal cold days arrive.      

CHICKEN POT PIE
This chicken pot pie is more than satisfying. Make it a day ahead of time, and shove it in the oven the next night.

Pastry:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick cold butter, cut into small
    pieces
1/4 cup ice water
Filling:
4 whole boneless skinless chicken
    breasts (about 2 pounds)
1 cup heavy cream
4 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch
    pieces
2 zucchini, unpeeled and cut into 1/2-
    inch pieces
5 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped onions
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken broth
1/4 cup white wine
1 tablespoon dried tarragon
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black
    pepper
Cayenne to taste
1 large egg
1 tablespoon water


To make the pastry, mix the flour and salt in a large mixing bowl. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender or two knives until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.

Add the ice water, and blend into the flour mixture. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and press large chunks of the dough away from you with the heel of your hand. Gather the dough into a ball, and repeat the process. Shape the dough into a thick circle, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before using.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Place the chicken breasts in a single layer in a baking pan. Pour the cream over them, and bake them for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the chicken, and reserve the cream and pan juices. Let the chicken cool, and then cut into 1-inch chunks.

Blanch the carrots in boiling water for 3 minutes. Add the zucchini, and cook for 1 minute more. Drain, and cool under cold running water.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onions, and cook, stirring, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the flour, and cook, stirring constantly, for 4 to 5 minutes more.

Add the broth, and cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. Stir in the reserved cream mixture and the wine. Reduce the heat to low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until thick, about 5 minutes. Add the tarragon, salt, pepper and cayenne, and simmer for 1 minute. Add the chicken and vegetable mixture, and mix gently into the cream sauce. Remove from heat.

    Increase the heat in the oven to 425 degrees.

    Mix the egg and water in a small bowl. Pour the chicken filling into a deep 2-quart casserole dish. Roll out the pastry, and place on the dish. Trim the pastry, leaving a 1-inch border. Brush the edges with the egg wash, and press the overhanging dough onto the dish. Crimp the pastry, and brush the top with more of the egg wash. With a knife, make a couple of slashes in the center of the pastry for steam vents. Place the dish on a baking sheet, and bake until the crust is golden, about 20 to 25 minutes. Serve hot. Serves about 6.

BEEF POT PIES WITH YORKSHIRE PUDDING
2 large eggs
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt, divided
1/4 teaspoon black pepper, divided
Cayenne to taste
1 cup milk
2 small red potatoes (about 1/2 pound),
    peeled and cubed
1/2 cup chopped white onions
1 clove garlic, minced
3 tablespoons butter, divided
3/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
2 1/2 cups rare roast beef
1 cup frozen English peas, thawed
1 egg white

    
    Combine the eggs, flour, 1/4 of a teaspoon of the salt, 1/8 of teaspoon of the black pepper, the cayenne and the milk in an electric blender or food processor, and process until smooth, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides. Cover, and chill for 30 minutes.

    Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water in a small saucepan until tender, about 10 minutes. Drain, and set aside.

    Cook the onions and garlic in 1 tablespoon of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat, stirring, until soft. Add the cream, the Worcestershire sauce and the horseradish. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 8 minutes.

    Combine the potatoes, the roast beef, the peas, the remaining 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt and the remaining 1/8 of a teaspoon of pepper in a large bowl. Add the cream mixture, tossing to coat. Spoon the mixture, dividing it evenly, into four lightly greased 2-cup baking dishes. Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of the butter, and pour it evenly around the inside top edges of the baking dishes. Place them on a baking sheet, and set aside.

    Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

    Remove the batter from the refrigerator.

    Beat the egg white at high speed with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form; fold it into the batter. Set aside.

    Bake the pies for 2 minutes, and then remove them from the oven. Pour about 1/2 cup of the batter over the top of each pie. Bake for 15 minutes, and then reduce the temperature to 400 degrees, and continue baking 10 to 15 minutes more or until the pastry is puffed and golden. Serves 4.

    Last spring, when crawfish were in season, I “put up” 3 quarts of crawfish étouffée. A few days ago, my husband suggested we take out a quart and use it to make a country-style pot pie. All we did was put the étouffée in a 9-inch square baking pan and top it with nine unbaked biscuits from the following recipe. Then we baked the crawfish étouffée pot pie until the biscuits were golden-brown, 10 to 12 minutes at 425 degrees. You’ll have some biscuit dough left over, but you can bake them and have them for another meal.     

HERB CHEESE BISCUITS
3 ounces sharp cheddar or Monterey Jack
4 ounces unsalted butter, chilled and cut
    into 8 pieces
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon minced fresh basil leaves
1/4 cup milk


Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

In a food processor, shred the cheese. Distribute pieces of the butter around the bowl of the processor, and pulse just to combine. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and basil, and pulse two to three times, just until the butter is incorporated into the dry ingredients and the mixture resembles large crumbs. Add the milk, and pulse several times until the dough begins to clump together.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead two or three times to form a ball. Pat, and roll into a 3/4 of an inch thickness. Cut the dough in rounds, using a floured 1 1/2-inch biscuit cutter. Put the biscuits on a baking sheet, and bake until golden. Serve warm. Makes 24 biscuits.

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