Practically perfect pork pie

Now that the Jewish high holidays are over, I feel it’s ok for me to reintroduce some trief into the house … so I thought I’d whip up some pork pies.

I don’t know what it is with me and English-style pork pies … I’ve always loved them. Not only are they tasty – for me, they’re downright addictive, dangerously so, given that they are hardly diet food – they’re just so, well, cute.

They are the perfect thing to take along for a picnic, because they are eaten cool, or at room temperature, at most; they are sturdy, and won’t fall apart if you are travelling with them — they were originally designed so that farmers could wrap them in a handkerchief, and toss them into their horse’s saddlebag for a meal while out in the fields.

They’re also great for a cold lunch comprising a salad, hard boiled eggs, some pickles and a piece of cheese.  And maybe a glass of ale.

I’ve tried for years to perfect the recipe and the technique … it’s harder than you might think. First, there’s the pastry. Pies of this type call for hot-water pastry. It’s an oddball recipe: you melt the fat in boiling water and add it to the flour. What you end up with is a slithery, slippery mess that seems impossible to work with … until you let it cool somewhat. Then, if you’ve got the proportions of everything right (and you chill it further, overnight) you can even shape it into a self-supporting (i.e. no pie tin required) pie case. If the ratios are off, however, you have a mess of crumbly, fussy dough that is impossible to work with.

The recipes for the filling are all over the map too … it really depends on what part of the England you take your cues from. Pies made in the vicinity of Melton Mobray, Leicestershire, use only fresh pork, and a minimum of other seasonings. Pies made elsewhere have a mix of fresh and cured pork (in the form of bacon), and seasonings ranging from sage, to mace, to anchovy.

Pies from Melton Mobray actually have a protected designation, sort of like “Champagne” is to the bubbly wine made in Champagne, France. A Melton Mobray pie is identifiable in the following ways:

The sides of a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie are bow-shaped as they are baked free-standing, whereas most other pork pies are straight-sided being baked in hoops. The meat used is fresh pork, which is naturally grey when cooked, liked roast pork, not pink like other pork pies which use cured pork. The meat must be particulate, as we use chopped pork, not smooth on the palate as most other pork pies are because they used minced meat. The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie is also well jellied and the meat seasoned with salt and pepper.

The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association

Also, to have the Melton Mobray designation, the pie must be produced within a 28 square km zone around the town.

For this batch, I didn’t do self-standing pies.  The method you need to follow for doing this takes 3 days, and I didn’t have the time.  Though I do describe it  below. Also, I have a beautiful oval pie mould that I wanted to use to make a larger pie for a visit to my parent’s place this weekend.  I used an adapted version of this recipe and did everything in one day. (With the exception of the pork stock … I made that several days ago, and strained and chilled it, just to make sure it would gel into an aspic when cold.)

Here’s what you need:

(I always double the recipe, at least, because it’s really not that much more effort, and I often give them away to friends.)

For the jellied stock/aspic

Note: don’t be tempted to omit this.  The aspic adds moisture and flavour to the pies.  If you don’t like aspic, well, grow up.

  • 2 split pig’s trotters (pig’s feet). You can find these in many supermarkets and most butchers
  • 900g/2 lbs fresh pork bones. I used a fresh pork hock and the bone out of a pork shoulder roast.
  • 1 onions, split in half
  • 2 carrots, roughly chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
  • 2 sprigs thyme
  • 6 sprigs parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tsp. peppercorns
  • 1 tsp. salt
For the pastry case:
  • 50g/7 oz lard
  • 50ml/2 fl oz milk
  • 50ml/2 fl oz water
  • 450g/1 lb unbleached, all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 free-range egg, beaten, for brushing
For the filling:

IMG_2510
From the top left, clockwise: pork shoulder, salt, pepper, mace and nutmeg, sage leaves, anchovy fillets.
You need about 500g or 16 oz of pork. I use a mix of pork shoulder and pork belly; the belly adds richness.  You can use all shoulder, if you like to keep things on the lean side, or you can add 2 oz cured bacon and reduce one of the other meats by 2 oz.  Bacon adds flavour. The nitrates in the bacon will also keep the filling a light pink colour when the pie is cooked, which some find appealing.

  • 450g/1 lb well-trimmed pork shoulder
  • 55g/2 0z pork belly
  • 2 sage leaves, very finely chopped
  • 1 anchovy, very finely chopped, OR 2 tsp Asian fish sauce
  • ¼ teaspoon mace
  • ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
  • salt
  • pepper
For shaping and baking the pies:
  • A pork pie tin.
    IMG_2517
    If you can find one, that is.  They are about 4″ wide by 4″ high.  I bought mine in England.  You can substitute a small (e.g. 2″ x 4″) loaf pan if you don’t have a round tin the right size.  Or, you can make mini-pies in a muffin pan … though I found pies made made this way have too much pastry and not enough filling.
  • Alternatively, if you want to shape your pies the old-school way, without using a tin, you’ll need a pie dolly. Now, I’ve never seen these for sale outside of England, and I don’t have one myself (though I have put a request in to my woodworking father to make me one).  If you don’t have a pie dolly, you can use a  jam jar that is about 3″ – 4″ round, and 4″ – 6″ tall, and some plastic wrap.  You’ll also need to spread the whole pie-making process over 2-3 days.

Here’s what you do:

1. Make the pork stock

I start with the pork stock. I like to do it several days ahead, so I have time to degrease it and make sure that it will gel properly in the fridge.

  1. Put pork feet and other porky bits into a stock pot or pressure cooker. Add water to cover by 2″.
    Split pigs trotters in the stock pot.
    Split pigs trotters in the stock pot.
  2. Put the pot onto a high flame, and bring the water to the boil. Skim off any froth or scum that forms for about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients to the pot.
    Stock ingredients, ready for a long simmer.
    Stock ingredients, ready for a long simmer.
  4. Allow the stock to return to the boil, then cover partially, and reduce the heat so that the stock simmers gently. If you are using a pressure cooker, put the lid on, and bring the cooker to pressure.
  5. Allow the stock to simmer for at least 3 hours, if you are using a stock pot, 1 hour in a pressure cooker.  If you don’t cook it long enough, your stock won’t gel when cool.
  6. Strain the stock through a fine sieve, and discard the solids.
  7. Chill the stock overnight, and then remove the layer of fat on top.
  8. Taste a small spoonful of the chilled stock for seasoning.  You want it to be well-seasoned; if it needs salt or pepper you will need to add some. You’ll have a chance to to that later on.
2. Make the pastry
  1. Next, make the pastry.  Put the liquids and the lard into a saucepan, and bring the mixture to a boil.
  2. While the lard is heating, put all of the dry ingredients into a large bowl, and mix them thoroughly.  I use the bowl of my stand mixer and mix with the flat beater.
  3. When the liquid/lard mixture has come to a boil, and the lard has melted, carefully pour the hot liquid into the dry ingredients.
  4. Gently mix everything until it starts to come together, and then mix more vigorously until everything is well-combined. Again, a stand mixer is useful here – I mix everything for about a minute using the flat beater.
  5. Form the dough into a ball as best you can. The dough is very loose and greasy while warm, but it does firm up as it cools.  Set it aside for about 3o minutes.
    Note: If you are making a free-form pie, without a tin or mould, you need to chill the dough thoroughly, ideally, overnight.
3. Make the filling
  1. Make sure you have a very sharp knife, because you are going to chop the meat into small pieces, about ½” in size.  Don’t use ground pork!  You want the filling to have a bit of texture to it.  Start by slicing the meat into ½” slices.  Then, stack the slices, and cut them into ½” strips.  Finally, cut the strips cross-wise into ½” pieces.  It helps if your meat is very cold, almost frozen.
  2. Toss the meat and all the seasonings except the salt and pepper into a large bowl, and combine thoroughly.
    IMG_2511
    Pork cut into small pieces and mixed with seasonings.
  3. Now, the salt and pepper: again, as with the stock, you want the mixture to be fairly highly seasoned.  The flavours will be attenuated when the pie is cold. Start with about a ½ teaspoon of salt, and the same amount of pepper. Mix them in well. Then, take a small spoonful of the mixture, and microwave it (or fry it, if you don’t have a microwave) until the meat is no longer pink.  Taste it.  It should pleasantly salty, and just on the verge of being too peppery.  If it’s not, add more salt and pepper, and repeat the mixing/tasting process.  It’s important that you don’t under-season in this step; if you do,  the pie will be very bland when it’s eaten cold.
4. Assemble the pies
  • If you’re using a pie tin or mould:
    1. Pinch off about ¼ of the dough for the top of the pie, and another ¼ for the bottom.
    2. Roll out the piece for the bottom on a well-floured counter so that it’s about ⅛ – ¼” thick, and just slightly larger than the tin.  Then, using the tin as a template, cut out the bottom of the pie. Place the cut piece of dough into the tin and press it gently into place.
    3. Using the ½ portion of dough that’s left, roll out a long, narrow piece to form the sides of the pie.  You can do this in segments if you want.  The rolled piece should be about ¼” thick, and about ½” wider than the tin is tall.
    4. Fit the side piece into the tin, pressing it gently against the sides, and more firmly along the bottom.  You want to make sure that the sides and bottom of the pie are sealed completely.  The top edge of the side can hang over the edge of the tin. If you made your pastry within the last hour, it’s still somewhat warm, sealing the side pieces to the bottom should be very easy. If it’s too slippery and floppy to work with, let it cool some more, or put it in the fridge for 20 minutes or so.  If it’s too cold and firm, you’ll need to let it warm up to room temperature, and/or knead it for a few minutes until it is more pliable.
    5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until you’ve lined the entire tin.  The dough should be well-sealed where the sides meet the bottom, and there should be no gaps in the sides of the pastry.
      The pastry is lining pressed into the mould.
      The pastry is lining pressed into the mould. I’m using my fancy raised pie mould.
    6. Now, fill the pie with your meat filling, pressing it gently into the pastry case so that there are no air gaps.  The filling should come to the top of the tin, ½” below the top o the pastry.
      IMG_2512
    7. Roll out the piece of dough you reserved for the top and trim it so that it is just slightly larger than the top of the pie.
    8. Lay the top piece onto of the meat filling, and carefully seal the pastry top to the sides of the pie, either by pinching firmly, or by pressing the edges together with the tines of a fork.
  • If you are doing a free-form pie:
    1. Remove the chilled dough from the fridge about 30 minutes before you plan to work with it.
    2. Cut about ¼ of the dough off for the lid.
    3. On a well-floured counter, use your hands to shape the remaining dough into a neat, round ball, and then gently flatten it out into a thick disk.
    4. Invert your jam jar, and cover it it with a sheet of plastic wrap.
    5. Invert the jar again, so that that bottom is down, and making sure the plastic wrap is tight against the jar, press the jar firmly into the disk of dough.
    6. Now comes the tricky part. You need to draw the dough up the sides of the jar.  I find the best way to do this is to clasp the dough and the jar with both hands, and rotate the jar and the dough together, pressing firmly with the flat of my hands. The idea is the squeeze and draw the dough up the sides of the jar as evenly as you can.  This video gives you a sense of what’s involved.  When you’re done, you should have a pie case that’s about 4″ – 5″ high.  Don’t worry if the top edge is not perfectly straight; you can trim it later.  But do make sure that the top edge doesn’t dip below 4″ in height.  Also, make sure you don’t stretch the dough; it’s  a squeezing, pressing action you’re going for. If you try to stretch it upwards, the dough will tear at the base, and you’ll have a hole in the pastry case, which is no good.  If this happens, press the dough down the sides of the jar again, seal the hole, and start again.
    7. Now, invert the jar again, cover with plastic wrap, and put the whole thing in the fridge for at least an hour.  This will help the pie case firm up.
    8. After the pie case has firmed up, remove it from the fridge, then carefully remove the jam jar and the plastic wrap.
    9. Fill the pie case with the filling up to the edge of the lowest part of the side of the pie case.  (The top edge of the sides of the pie is likely to be an undulating line, as opposed to a straight edge … you can fill the pie only as high as the lowest part of the sides of the pie case.)
    10. Roll out the piece of dough you reserved for the top, trim to a circle just slightly wider than the pie, and then brush the underside of it with beaten egg.  Seal the top piece of dough to the sides of the pie, pinching it tightly so that it is well-sealed.  Trim the excess dough from the edges with a pair of scissors, and check your seal again.
    11. Place the pie onto a plate, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for at least 4 hours, or overnight.  This is essential for free-form pies. The pastry needs to be very firm before going into the oven, or the whole thing will collapse.
Bake the pies
  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Brush the top of the pie with the beaten egg, being careful not to go right to the crimped edge.  The crimp will burn if it’s glazed.
  3. Place the pie on a baking sheet.
    IMG_2514
    Two moulded pies, one large, one small, glazed with egg and ready for the oven.
  4. With the point of a sharp knife, cut a ½” hole in the centre of the top of the pie for the steam to escape.
  5. If you have made a free-form pie, gently squeeze the top edges toward the centre at 12 and 6 o’clock, to form a slight indent in the top rim.  Repeat at 2 and 8 o’clock, and again at 4 and 10 o’clock.
    Pies ready for the oven. Note how the pies have been shaped by gently squeezing the top edges toward the centre in several places. The foil "chimneys" you see are stuck through the vent in the pastry at the top of the pie. These are not essential.
    Free-form pies ready for the oven. Note how the pies have been shaped by gently squeezing the top edges toward the centre in several places. The foil “chimneys” you see are stuck through the vent in the pastry at the top of the pie. They are not essential, though they do help prevent the hot juices from the meat from spilling over the top of the pie as it bakes.
  6. Slide the baking sheet into the oven.
  7. After 15 minutes, turn the heat down to 350 degrees, and continue baking until the juices bubbling through the vent hole in the pastry are no longer pink, about 45-50 minutes. for pies of this size. An instant-read thermometer stuck into the middle of the filling should read at least 160 degrees.
  8. Remove the pie from the oven, and allow it to cool on the baking sheet at room temperature.
  9. While the pie is cooling, pour about 1 cup of the pork stock into a small saucepan. Warm it over a low heat until it turns from a gel to a liquid. If it needs seasoning, add salt until the stock is just at the point of being slightly too salty. Adjust the pepper as well.
  10. When the pies are almost cool, place a narrow funnel in the top vent, and slowly pour the liquid stock into the pie through the funnel, allowing time for the stock to trickle it’s way through the nooks and crevices in the filling. The goal is to completely encapsulate the cooked meat filling, which will have shrunk slightly during cooking, with stock, all the way to the top crust.  You may need to do it in stages; as the pie continues to cool, the filling will continue to shrink, making more room for stock.  When it seems like the pie has taken as much stock as you can add, put it in the fridge to chill overnight.

To serve the pie, cut it into wedges with a serrated knife, and serve with a salad, some pickles of some kind, and hot mustard for those that like it.

2 thoughts on “Practically perfect pork pie

  1. As the grateful recipients of one of these wonders we can attest that the pies were every bit as good as they looked and better. Perfect crust and the filling was just the right texture. Best of all, that lovely even layer of aspic between the crust and the filling. THANK YOU ALLAN! oxo Alberta and Guy

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