A few months ago, my Mum came on a visit from Lancashire, bringing with her one of her good friends of more years than I’ve been alive for. They were joined – and driven – by my Uncle. Their plan was to do a bit of sight seeing and generally soak up the delights of the South West, as well as visiting me and my sister, as both of us now reside in the West Country.
The visitors all hail from good old Wigan, famous for many things: The ‘Casino‘, in which many influential bands wowed crowds of people who flocked from all over during the 60s and 70s; The pier, made famous by George Orwell’s work ‘The Road to Wigan Pier‘; An ‘ancient and loyal’ (and highly successful, not that I’m biased at all) rugby league team, the Wigan Warriors; and of course, pies.
Funny how the pies are the things that stick in most people’s minds, even when they are unlikely to understand the real reason for us Wiganers being called ‘pie eaters’. But you know what, we do like pies and there’s no shame in that! So when the Wigan three were coming over for dinner, I wanted to cook something worthy, some ‘proper’ grub.
So I decided to go all out, northern style. That’s right, I went for a pie duo, two courses of traditional tasty pastry dishes. Risky, I know. This plan had a high probability of causing indigestion/stodge overload/instant fatigue. But hey, my guests were Lancastrians: I went for it.
I started with a steak and ale beast, from the Hairy Bikers’ Perfect Pies book, the subtitle of which is ‘The Ultimate Pie Bible from the Kings of Pies‘. If that didn’t fill me with confidence nothing would!
The humble beginnings of this recipe were dicing bacon, onion and garlic then frying until brown in a heavy pan. Once the bacon was nicely cremated and the onions soft, I tipped them into a bowl and covered to keep warm.
Next it was the beef’s turn. After heating a little olive oil to stop it sticking to the pan, I left it to sizzle away, turning to make sure it browned all over.
I exercised my puny muscles by lifting my insanely heavy cast iron Le Creuset casserole dish down from on top of the cupboards, then heated it for a few minutes on the hob. In went the bacon and onion mixture, plus the beef. Once they were sizzling I added some thyme, beef stock and about half a pint of dark ale – specifically Hobgoblin, I believe. Don’t worry, the other half went to good use.
In a separate pan I gently fried some sliced mushrooms in a little olive oil until just soft, then added them to the bubbling pot. While that was reducing down, I made a start on the pastry. This really was a complex and time consuming process: I took it out of the packet and rolled it to the size I needed.
That’s right! I don’t make my own. If I didn’t have to work and spent all my time in the kitchen (my dream, by the way), I would happily make pastry from scratch, perfecting my own recipe just as I like it. But sadly this is not the case, so if buying ready rolled pastry makes it possible for me to make a pie, I’ll stick with it.
There was some effort involved though – once the filling had thickened and the meat was tender, I poured it into my pie dish then brushed the lip with milk. I laid the pastry lid on top then copying my Mum’s technique, held the dish high in one hand and turned it in a circle, cutting the excess pastry from around the edges as I went.
Then the final touches – I cut a few delicate little leaf shapes out of the left over pastry and stuck them on with milk, before brushing the whole thing over with another milky layer to give it a nice colour once cooked in the oven.
I served it with mash, carrots and broccoli and of course, gravy. It was homely and tasty, very welcoming for my guests. In fact, they were nearly too full for dessert, but given this was a special pie-fest, they succumbed and we indulged in apple pie and cream.
The apples, which came from a friend’s garden, were a mixture of yellowy greens and blushing reds, with lovely shiny skins. They were fair whoppers and made a generous filling for my apple pie, a traditional dessert that my Mum made a lot when we were little. I can still taste it now, delicious! If my creation was half as good as that I’d be happy.
After peeling the pretty skins off the apples, I cored and sliced them, then again using my trusted Le Creuset pan, I simmered them with a few tablespoons of light brown soft sugar and a sprinkling of water. To add a different texture and extra sweetness to the filling, I added a handful of raisins. I kept the mixture on a gentle heat until the apples had begun to break down, then tipped it into a pie dish to cool.
I did my same strenuous pastry making routine, then covered the dish, trimmed the excess and pressed the edges down to seal it. A neat little cross in the centre to allow steam to escape and a brushing of milk finished the dessert.
The pie had been cooking in the oven whilst we were enjoying the steak pie, so the sweet aromas had begun to drift through to the table as we were putting the world to rights and allowing the first course to go down. It didn’t take much encouragement for us to dive into pastry treat number two.
The sweetness of the raisins complimented the tang of the apples, which had caramelised slightly in the sugar. The pastry was just crunchy, giving a base for the mushy filling. Along with the delicious flavours of this dish, I also love the temperature contrast of the cool cream with the pie just hot from the oven.
So after the pie duo, we were full to the brim, buttons were straining and post-good food sluggishness was setting in. We could hardly move, but we still managed some after dinner entertainment in the form of the family classic, ‘Charades‘, or as we call it, being from the north, ‘Give us a clue‘. Our farcical gestures and guess attempts had us in absolute stitches, creating a wonderful ending to a special evening of good food and great company.
Not only that, but I think it’s safe to say we answered the age-old question, “Who ate all the pies?”