Aug 30, 2017
by Ron Skaar
Photo by Jon Russo
Ancient Greeks created the first savory pies by baking meats in open pastry shells. It was the Romans who added the top crust and served these laden pastries at their feasts. One of these treats featured a decadent rye dough filled with goat cheese and honey.
By the Middle Ages pastry was used has a method of keeping meats moist during cooking and a way to seal oﬀ the cooking container. The meat was protected against air contamination and would store well in a cool place for many days. These hardened pastry packages had to be cracked open and were culinary staples by the 12th century.
A century later, Crusaders returning from the Middle East brought back recipes for festive meat pies containing fruits and spices. In the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance pastry making bloomed in the Mediterranean region. The use of solid fats in Northern European baking created a more pliable dough that could be rolled and molded.
By the Elizabethan era the humble potpie became the height of culinary style. These savory pastries were served at banquets to the nobility and aristocrats. The pies were decorated with flowers, fancy cut-out designs and heraldic devices to show case the skills of the royal chefs, throughout England and France. The savory inside was served upstairs while the discarded pastry shell was consumed downstairs.
The word pie likely derives from the magpie, a bird known for collecting odds and ends in its nest. “Eat crow” is a hold over from the days when this bird was a common pie filling. English peasants modified the pot pie recipe to make use of leftover food. Baking them all together inside a pie crust created a stomach-filling meal for a large family.
“Our English housewife must be skilled in pastry, and know how and in what manner to bake all sorts of meat, and what paste is fit for every meat…” is from a 1615 British cookbook.
Fondness for meat pies soon crossed the Atlantic to the new world. With influences from the native Americans, settlers adapted their traditional pastry making to their new homeland.
An American cookbook, published in 1796, includes recipes for chicken and beef potpies plus something called a “sea pie” which called for pigeons, turkey, veal and mutton. This version was developed aboard a ship making use of whichever preserved meats were available!
The Pennsylvania Dutch prepare a chicken potpie, sans pastry, with “pot pie noodles,” squares of dough cooked in broth. In 1938 Harold Morton began preparing what became his signature chicken and noodle dish, which was peddled in glass jars. The bottom fell out for Morton after the war when his product was no longer desirable to new consumer tastes.
In 1946, during a chance luncheon meeting between two food trade executives, one stated “the pot pie is the oldest of our traditional dishes, it’s to bad that some food company doesn’t turn out a tasty chicken pie.” The guy he was speaking to was soon brought on to revive the floundering Morton food company. He turned the companies fortunes around with the first commercially viable chicken potpie with the “old Kentucky recipe.”
Chicken potpie has became a staple comfort food for many people who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The aroma of a fresh baked pie brightened a cold days lunch or on those weekend nights when the parents went out.
September 23rd is our national celebration of the chicken potpie.
Fortunately the resurgence in so-called retro foods has brought the humble pie back to the table, mainly in restaurants. Enjoy preparing and EATING this old “tastes like home”American Restaurant Hall of Fame awarded recipe.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 fat (butter or shortening) Cold water
1. chicken breasts, roasted or boiled, meat cut into cubes 1/2 cup chicken fat or butter
1/4 cup minced onion 3/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon celery salt
2 1/4 cups chicken stock, heated to boiling 1 1/2 cups hot milk
1 egg yolk
Crust: Whisk the flour, baking powder and salt together in large bowl. Work in the fat with pastry cutter or fingertips (I used butter and the food processor). Add water, about 1/4 cup, a little at a time until pastry comes together. Chill dough. Roll out 2/3 of dough to 1/4-inch thickness. Cut to fit six shallow 8-ounce casserole dishes or one large casserole and press dough rounds into casseroles.
Filling: Melt chicken fat or butter in a saucepan. Add the onion and cook until golden brown. Stir in flour and celery salt, blending well. Add boiling chicken stock, mixing rapidly with a wire whip. Cook over medium heat for 7 to 10 minutes. Mix egg yolk into the hot milk, add this to hot stock and cook until thickened.
Finish: Divide cubed chicken amount casseroles. Add 3/4 cup hot gravy to each casserole (hot gravy assures the bottom crusts don’t become soggy when baked). Roll out remaining crust and place atop the casserole, cutting slits in the top crust to allow steam to escape. Crimp edges to seal. Brush with egg beaten a tablespoon of milk for golden crust. Bake in a 375 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes.
Note: For more colorful, nutritious potpie add sautéed mushrooms, carrots, celery, green beans, spinach, corn, fresh or frozen peas.