Sundance Times - Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

This Side of the Pond

Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman


January 13, 2022

This week’s column is brought to you at the request of a reader who came to visit the office last week and happened to mention a particular dish that he ate in the UK, but has never been able to make or find since his return. I promised my new friend that I’d tap into the expertise of my mother, who is something of an authority on this matter.

Steak and kidney pie has never been on my list of favorites, which is why I haven’t mentioned it before despite its status as the quintessential British entrée. Fortunately for those of us who aren’t big fans of offal, let me stress right off the bat that you can safely leave the kidney out and still create a dish my father would approve of.

(He’d probably make a few comments about it lacking the good stuff, but you’re fine to just ignore him.)

“Cooks and their knaves cried ‘Pies, hot pies! Good pork and good goose! Come, dine! Come, dine!’”

So says a poem written by William Langland somewhere around the 1370s, which tells us that the Brits have been enjoying our pies since at least the Middle Ages. Knowing my lot, it’s probably much longer – the pie, whatever its filling, is as classic a dish as you can get.

Let’s start by clearing up a language problem. If you’re wondering whether I’m referring to a pot pie: yes, but only sort of.

As best I can make out, the American term “pot pie” is meant to refer to a savory dish that’s baked in a pot (I’m with you so far) and has a pastry lid (again, I can get behind this.) To the Brits, on the other hand, everything is just a pie, whether it’s filled with meat or sugared apples, and every pie should also have a pastry base.

Back in olden times, when there was nothing to plug a refrigerator into, British cooks used pies as a way to preserve the filling. Baking your meat in pastry and then sealing it with clarified butter was a way to keep your ingredients fresh for months, whether it was pork, beef or even swan.

(Quick note: if you visit England, please don’t head to the nearest waterway to snag a swan, because these days they all belong to the Queen and she doesn’t approve of putting them in pies.)

At first, the pastry cases were not intended as part of the meal – they were just the box your food came in so it lasted long enough for decent meals on sea voyages. The case was called a “coffin” (or “coffyn” in the spelling of the times) and, if the pie contained meat from a bird, apparently its legs were left dangling over the sides to make it easier to start eating the contents.

Sweet pies appeared during the reign of Elizabeth I, when the first cherry pie ever made was presented to her. This was also the time of Shakespeare, who incidentally killed off two of the characters in Titus Andronicus by having them baked in a pie that was then served to their mother. This pie was less sweet than the cherry version.

Steak and kidney pie isn’t one of the recipes those ancestors would have enjoyed, as it doesn’t seem to have appeared until around the time of Charles Dickens. Though there’s always the possibility it simply hadn’t been featured in a cookbook yet, the first recipes didn’t appear until the 1800s.

At that time, oyster was more common than kidney as an accompaniment for steak, but that was when oysters were cheap and easy to find. In the 20th century, kidneys became the go-to accompaniment.

The steak and kidney pie began its climb to the top of the favorites list by way of none other than Winston Churchill, who was once described by a journalist as having held the bowl to his mouth so he could shovel pie into his mouth more quickly.

Prime Minister Churchill would no doubt urge you to keep the kidneys in the recipe, but that’s entirely up to you. Modern tastebuds are less keen on its texture than their older counterparts.

I’ll hand you over to my mother now, who makes a fabulous steak and kidney pie. Her first piece of advice is to use your crockpot for the filling.

You’ll want approximately one third kidneys to steak, she says, but this can be altered for taste. You’ll want enough meat to fill your pie case (approximately 1.5 lbs in total) and she recommends trimming all the “yucky bits” from the meat.

Cut into cubes of around one inch, then place it in your frying pan, sprinkle flour over the meat and quickly fry to seal it and keep the juices from escaping. Transfer to your preheated crockpot and add one chopped onion.

Sprinkle approximately one tablespoon of plain flour over the top, then add in 1.5 cups of beef broth (bouillon cubes also work well) and season to taste. Cook until the meat is tender.

Meanwhile, sift 12 oz of plain flour into a bowl and add a pinch of salt. Cut 3 oz each of shortening and butter into the flour using a knife, then rub it in with your fingertips using a light touch until the mixture is crumbly (lift up the mixture and let it fall back into the bowl while you work to incorporate air).

Sprinkle 3 tbsps of water into the mixture and start bringing the dough together with a knife, then your fingertips. Continue to gradually add water until the pastry comes together and leaves the bowl clean.

Refrigerate in a plastic bag for 30 minutes, then divide in two pieces: one slightly larger piece for the base and the other for the lid. Roll out the pieces to around an eighth of an inch in thickness and use the first to line your pie dish, then spoon the filling on top (no need to use all the gravy, the leftovers can be served with the pie.)

Add the pastry lid, seal the edges with a fork and cut two holes in the lid to allow the steam to escape. Brush the lid with beaten egg, then bake at around 350 degrees for 40 minutes, until golden brown (long enough, in my mum’s words, to avoid a soggy bottom.)

And there you have it: a pie fit for a king, a queen, a prime minister or my dad, whichever luminary you prefer. I wish you many happy mealtimes with the blessings of hundreds of years’ worth of British epicureans (and, of course, my mum.)


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