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Throwback Thursday: An old-fashioned chicken and mushroom pie

Throwback Thursday: An old-fashioned chicken and mushroom pie
Soul food: Tony Jackman’s chicken and mushroom pie. June 2024. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Let’s talk about pies. Traditional pies, made the way a pie should be made. Pastry that flakes and crunches. And a filling that warms the heart and soul all the way down to your cotton socks.

Does anything say Baby It’s Cold Outside better than a big slice of chicken and mushroom pie straight from the oven? A warm hug that reminds you of your mom’s good night kiss on the forehead, the smile you smile as she closes your bedroom door and you nod off to sleep.

“Bless your little cotton socks,” my mother used to say to me when I was a little boy. An alternative to the “sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite” narrative. Remembering that got me thinking about the pies she used to make us for supper, and that took me on a meander down the valley of memory lane devoted to all the pies I’ve ever eaten.

And this is the thing about pies: they have to be like that warm hug, and have to be just right. 

We all hate those commercial pies that just don’t get the filling right. Often the crust of a commercial pie looks marvellous. They look right because that’s how they sell them to us. You’ve just got to bite into the pie, look at that pastry! 

And then you buy it, and bite into it, and… thud. Slop. Gloopy sort-of-sauce where the chicken or beef should be. Gristly something or other. What part of the chicken does that chewy thing come from? All I can guarantee is that it’s a part of the chicken that should have been cut off and thrown away before cooking or serving it. Or putting in, say, a pie.

The only commercial brand of pie I buy is called Shamrock and comes from East London. But at my local Karoo Express petrol station shop in Cradock, which sells them, I ask them what their Shamrock fillings are. And the inevitable answer is: “Steak. Pepper steak. Steak en kidney. Curry steak. En Steak Surprise.” Okay, I made up the last one. So, the choice is steak, steak, steak, steak or steak. Drives me absolutely nuts, and every time I’m there I ask them to PLEASE offer us more choice of fillings. It falls on deaf ears. Every time. 🤯

Having said that, the steak in all of them is tender and well-seasoned. So, once a week, that’s breakfast. Now and then they also have chicken, Cornish pasty, and a decent Shamrock sausage roll. But mostly not. I see online that they also have a factory shop in Cape Town now. They used to have a Shamrock chicken curry pie at my local, but that seems to have been cancelled for lack of interest. A pity: it was my favourite Shamrock filling.

I don’t know the Shamrock people, for the record, I’m just giving credit where it’s due.

Read more in Daily Maverick: What’s cooking today: Kreatopita (Greek country pie)

But there’s another way to guarantee that your pie will be just right: make it yourself. Make it the way mom or gran used to make it. But how?

The pastry part is easy: make it yourself, but there’s no need to be ashamed of using commercial frozen pastry. They are products to be trusted, and even world-famous rock-star chefs will tell you the same.

It’s the filling that you need to pay attention to. That’s the part of a pie that you make from scratch. By cooking the beef, or the chicken, the pork  or the lamb or even the mutton, until it is richly flavoured and the meat perfectly tender.

That is how I approached my pie for this Throwback Thursday: it would be a chicken and mushroom with the kind of filling you hope to find when you buy that commercial pie with its beautiful pastry that does not deliver when you bite into it. No thud here.

Some key points:

  • There’s wine in the filling: white and of decent quality;
  • The mushrooms must be cooked down until they release their juices, then those juices must be cooked away. This is the point at which the mushrooms will be nutty and at their flavour peak. And that, in one paragraph, is the key to cooking a mushroom.
  • A pie filling needs herbs and/or spices. Or both: and this one has both thyme and nutmeg.
  • Finally, the result in this case was that the sauce aspect of the filling (which carries all the flavour) was deeply delicious yet, interestingly, its taste was an amalgam of everything in it. As Marcella Hazan said of the perfect minestrone: you should taste none of the individual aromatics, only the composite taste of them all. I was so chuffed with this result.

This is a pie with only a pastry crust, or what in America is called a pot pie.

Tony’s chicken and mushroom pie

(Makes the equivalent of 6 to 8 servings)

Ingredients

Butter and olive oil, as needed

1 large onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, chopped

2 bay leaves

3 thyme sprigs

A punnet of button mushrooms, sliced

Nutmeg

Salt and black pepper

6 plump chicken breast fillets, cubed

150 ml Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc

250 ml good chicken stock

Cornflour dissolved in cold water

A standard packet of frozen puff pastry

1 egg, beaten

To serve:

Mashed potato, seasoned well and finished with butter and milk or cream

The leftover sauce

Thyme sprigs and bay leaves for garnish

Method

Make sure the frozen pastry is defrosted. Preheat the oven to 220℃.

In a heavy pot, sauté the onions in butter with the garlic, thyme and bay leaves, until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes on a low heat, stirring. Transfer all of this to a side bowl.

Add some olive oil to the same pot and add the mushrooms. Put the heat up fairly high. Add the two bay leaves from the onion mix, season with salt and black pepper and grate some nutmeg in.

Cook the mushrooms until the juices have been released and cooked away and the mushrooms have turned nutty. Stir often as you go. When done, there must be only a shiny film of the reduced juices covering the mushrooms.

Add everything to the onions in the side dish.

Add 150 ml of decent Sauvignon or Chenin Blanc and reduce for at least three minutes and until the wine is reduced by about half. Pour this into the side dish.

Add a little butter and some olive oil to the pan.

Cube the chicken breasts and fry in butter quickly, tossing them to brown all over. Remove the cooked pieces to the side bowl.

Add 250 ml of chicken stock to the pan and deglaze (stir and scrape the bottom of the pan).

Add all of the side bowl contents back to the pot and stir.

Taste and adjust seasoning as needed.

Simmer gently until the chicken is cooked but still moist, not dry. It doesn’t take long.

Thicken with cornflour dissolved in a little cold water. Stir while you add this and cook gently, stirring now and then, just until you can feel that it is starting to “catch” at the bottom. Turn the heat off and let it cool to room temperature because it should not be hot when the pastry is added.

Prepare the puff pastry: roll it into a ball, then roll it into a round big enough to cover the top of your pie dish. 

Grease the pie dish. Use a slotted spoon to scoop the filling into the greased dish, but leave some of the sauce in the pan to use as a sauce when serving. Distribute the filling around the dish evenly. (Don’t make it too soupy in there: you need that leftover sauce for serving.)

Lift the big round of pastry over the pie dish and secure it at the edges by pressing down with your fingers. Use a knife to criss-cross-cut through the middle, and insert a pie bird if using one. Trim excess pastry off the edge to turn into pastry leaves.

Form the leftover pastry into a ball and roll it out thinly. Cut four pastry leaves out and use a sharp, small knife to press little veins into it, so that they resemble the slim veins that run at an angle off the leaf’s midrib (the central “vein”). Press lightly or you’ll cut through them.

Beat an egg and brush it all over the top of the pie. Place the four pastry leaves around the centre, pointing outwards. Tap them down gently so that the egg wash “glues” them.

Bake at 220℃ (or higher) for about 20 to 25 minutes or until the crust is golden brown. I don’t take prisoners when baking a pie: it needs intense heat for that pastry to be right.

Reheat the leftover sauce.

Serve with mashed potato alongside, napped with the sauce. Garnish with thyme and/or bay.

A note on the unusual plates I’ve used for the photo: They are from Mervyn Gers’s new Gourmet Couture Collection, a tribute tied to their association with the JHP Gourmet Guide Awards. This collection was born from Mervyn’s vision to create something distinct, chic, and playful for top chefs. There are over 200 shapes, exclusively available through custom orders (link below). DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

This dish is photographed on a range of plates from the ‘Gourmet Couture Collection’ by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.

Gallery

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