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Throwback Thursday: Cape Colony chicken pie

Throwback Thursday: Cape Colony chicken pie
Cape Colony chicken pie, better known as hoenderpastei. In the background is a spread from Renata Coetzee’s classic The South African Culinary Tradition (Struik) (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Hoenderpastei, as this pie is often called, opens the door to old Cape colonial cuisine with its strange complexity and flavours. Its elements include sago, ham, hard boiled eggs and mace.

Today, many people look at you blank when you say that last word. Mace. It’s the outer casing of a whole nutmeg. Little curled pale brown strips of sweet spice. Once upon a time, it was used in almost everything cooked at 

the old Cape. Today, it’s hard to find in supermarket spice aisles. In Cradock, my local supermarket hero, Nan Tam, ordered it for me, so I now have a good stock of it. See if you can find some – I’ll be using it in a number of recipes. Otherwise, most specialist spice stores may well have it or be able to get it for you. 

As for boiled eggs and sago, they’re not ingredients that would come to mind today if we were casting around for things to include in a chicken pie. But life and people were different then. Ham? Also unlikely as something to add to a chicken pie today. 

The recipe requires “1 chicken”. There were no packs of portions of chicken in those days. There weren’t even supermarkets. So, since Throwback Thursdays are about doing things in the old ways, don’t take the easy route. Buy a whole chicken and let’s go from there. 

I also included a glass of white wine “for Leipoldt”, because he put that in everything, and I wish I’d known the guy.

In the recipe by Renata Coetzee in her classy book The South African Culinary Tradition, first published in 1977 and reprinted many times, it is encased in what she and my mother’s generation called “flaky pastry”. I chose to honour that and made my own, which involves many dots of butter and much rolling, not unlike making puff pastry. It’s not hard to make, but you could use frozen shop-bought shortcrust if you wanted to. Or puff for that matter. 

There are food smudges all over the recipe on page 91, which suggests I’ve made it a few times before. I do remember trotting it out for a dinner party in the early Nineties. Opposite the recipe is a vintage illustration of Huguenot immigrants enjoying a picnic “while a Hottentot servant waits on them”. The Europeans, newly settled having fled turbulence abroad, look self-important and well-heeled, while the half-naked servant squats at their feet, even a little girl looking down at him. It is obvious from the demeanour of the white refugees (you’d never believe they were that to look at them) that there was not a thought that there might be anything inappropriate about their instant subjugation, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. 

The old recipe books, and especially a collection such as Coetzee’s, are invaluable in showing how things were. Lest we forget, even a simple old sketch can tell a thousand words. 

Coetzee notes that the old hoenderpastei recipe can be switched to a venison pie, and having made hoenderpastei this week I can see why. The chicken meat, once cooked and reheated (at the point at which you add the ham, egg yolk and lemon juice), is densely shredded just as you would expect the venison in a proper Karoo game pie (wildsvleispastei) to be. 

Let’s make our own flaky pastry first. 

Flaky pastry 

Dot knobs of butter over two thirds of the rolled-out dough. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Ingredients 

175 g soft butter 

225 g plain flour 

Pinch of salt 

100 ml cold water or less

Method 

Sift the flour into a bowl and stir in the salt. 

Divide the butter into four equal portions. Cut a quarter of it into smaller knobs. Add this quarter to the flour. Using a round edged knife (the kind of knife you eat with), cut through the flour repeatedly until the butter is worked in. Start working in the cold water, a little at a time, still using the knife.

Fold the third of the dough that has no butter on it over, to the middle. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Continue working with the knife until it forms a rough ball. Once it has formed a ball, stop adding more water (you don’t need to use it all). I sometimes stirred with the knife as if it were a wooden spoon, it works. In fact, doing that took me back in a flash to the Sixties and watching my mother do it. Funny how memories fly in unexpectedly like a bird that migrated to the other side of the planet and suddenly reappears. 

Turn the dough onto a floured work surface. 

Roll it out using a floured rolling pin until it is a broad rectangle about 4 mm thin. 

Fold the opposite section over towards the middle, and crimp the edges. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Place little knobs of one quarter of the butter over two thirds of the rolled-out dough; refer to the photo as a guide. 

Fold into three, starting with the third without any butter on it, towards the middle, then fold the opposite end over that. Crimp the edges and turn the dough once clockwise or anti-clockwise. 

Roll it out again until it has similar proportions to the first time you rolled it out. 

Repeat the same process twice more, i.e. until all of the butter is used up. 

Once done, roll it into three again and refrigerate it until needed, or for 30 minutes. 

Cape Colony Chicken Pie (Hoenderpastei) 

Ingredients 

1 chicken 🙂 

8 to 10 (give or take) blades of mace 

1 heaped tsp allspice or 6 whole allspice

12 peppercorns 

tsp ground cloves 

4 bay leaves 

2 sprigs of thyme 

2 medium onions, chopped 

1 glass white wine “for Leipoldt” 

2 Tbsp/ 30 g sago 

Juice of 1 lemon 

4 hard boiled eggs, sliced 

2 egg yolks 

4 slices chopped ham 

Flaky pastry (as above) 

Salt to taste 

Water to cover 

Butter for greasing the pie dish

Method 

You need time for this, a good two to three hours. 

Boil the eggs and keep them to one side. 

Divide the chicken into portions (presuming it has been gutted and cleaned) and place the portions in a large pot with the chopped onion, mace, allspice, peppercorns, cloves, bay leaves and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add water to cover. Bring to a boil and turn down to a simmer, and cook gently for 2 to 3 hours or until the chicken meat is supremely soft. 

Remove the chicken pieces and place in a colander over a bowl to drain. Retain the stock that has drained into the bowl. 

Put the sago in a small bowl with water to cover. Leave it for about 30 minutes to soften. 

Carefully remove the carcass, all the bones, the skin and any ugly bits. Pull the meat apart and keep aside. You can take out the bay leaves and peppercorns if you like, but I like to have the peppercorns in the pie for an occasional bit of fiery crunch. 

Reduce the stock down to a runny syrup-like consistency. Add the chicken back to it, with the sago, and simmer gently until the sago turns translucent. Retrieve any bits of onion and so on that might have been attached to the chicken when you took it out, and return them to the pot. 

Roll out the pastry and cut out a round 2 cm wider than the width of your pie dish. Grease the dish with butter and line the base with the flaky pastry round. Prick the base several times with a fork. 

Stir the ham into the pot, then add the wine and lemon juice, then quickly stir in one beaten egg yolk. 

Spoon the filling into the pie base, generously. You want a good, proud pie, not a shy wallflower. If there’s more filling than you need, make a second, smaller pie too. I did that, and there was enough flaky pastry left over for a top crust for the second one. It freezes well, and that’s where my second is now, waiting for a cold winter’s night when I couldn’t be bothered to cook. Not that it happens often. 

Shell the hard boiled eggs, rinse under cold water to remove any bits of shell, pat them dry and slice them. Cover the pie filling with them. 

Top your big pie with a round of pastry wider than the diameter of your dish, then tuck the edges inside and crimp them with your fingers. 

Prick a hole in the centre with a knife. 

Beat the remaining egg yolk and brush it over the top. 

Bake in a preheated 200oven for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top is golden. DM/TGIFood 

To enquire about Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau) please email him at [email protected] 

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