A few months ago, we spent a weekend in Berlin, an edgy, intoxicating, graffiti-covered city tortured by its own past, the streets forming the canvas on which the horrors of the last century were played out.
It was cold.
Very cold. A type of unrelenting cold that attacked at the very core, damp, miserable, wretched, weather to match the Soviet-era concrete and gloom.
We’d tramped around Kreuzberg for a morning, and got to that point where we needed something to eat, pretty much immediately. I was at the ‘OK, I’m eating whatever the next place that sells food has, whatever it is’ stage, and that next place was a little café selling pies with either mashed potato or salad, but nobody was buying the salad, unsurprisingly. I skipped the vaguely jerk chicken option (10% off if you sung the chorus from No Woman, No Cry … I’d have happily paid double, triple even, not to have to do that) and we ate steak and Guinness pies that tasted like manna from Heaven … pure fuel, delicious beef encased in a pastry that was just soggy enough underneath, just crisp enough on top.
It was the best pie I’ve had for a long time, not least because of its magical abilities to restore some warmth to our frozen bones, but because it was simple and elegant, carefully flavoured, carefully made and unpretentious. It was a pie. A glorious pie.
As we ate, I noticed a familiar book on the shelf behind the counter – Dean Brettschneider’s Pie, of which I’ve sung the praises several times before.
Of course, on returning home, I dug that book out again straight away and set to work.
The basis of any pie – all pies – is good pastry. It’s what makes a pie a pie. Without pastry, a pie is a stew.
Good pastry need not be a problem. It’s very easy to make, and even easier to buy. There is no shame whatsoever in buying a block of commercial puff pastry. It’s generally an excellent product, and a very useful thing to have tucked away in a freezer in case of dire pie-related emergencies.
All that said, there’s something fulfilling and basic about making a decent pastry from scratch, and even a puff pastry of exceptional quality is well within the reach of most people.
So, here’s how to do it…
How to make puff pastry
Puff pastry is a lamination of dough and butter, in much the same way as a croissant is, but without the yeast. It’s made by encapsulating a block of butter in a sheet of dough, and rolling it out and folding it over so that many layers of butter and dough are formed.
To start, make a dough from 300g of strong white bread flour, with 50g of butter rubbed into it, a good pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice, and 150ml of very cold water, mixed together well, and kneaded for a few minutes until smooth. This produces a normal, plain puff pastry, but for this pie, add 15g of smoked paprika and a big tablespoon of black sesame seeds to the mix before the water goes in.
Let the dough rest for ten minutes or so, then roll it out into a 25cm square. Use a ruler to get the proportions correct.
Now for the butter. The butter must be the same consistency as the dough, so that when you put the two together and start rolling them out, they play nicely with each other.
To even things up, use a rolling-pin to smash a 225g block of butter straight from the fridge into a 17cm by 17cm square. Assault by rolling-pin should be enough to soften the butter to the same state as the dough.
Place the square of butter in the middle of the square of dough, at an angle, so that the butter looks like a diamond surrounded by four triangles of dough. Fold each of these triangles of dough in and over the butter, until the butter is entirely hidden and sealed inside a pocket of dough.
Right now, you’ve got a layer of dough, a layer of butter, and another layer of dough. You need to multiply this ratio, so roll the block out into a rectangle 1cm thick, and fold a third of the dough back on itself, and the other third right over the top, so that you’re left with a block one-third the size of the original.
I hope that makes sense.
Rest the dough in the fridge for fifteen minutes, and repeat the rolling and folding – do this five times in total, resting and chilling between each turn.
There you go – puff pastry. Leave it in the fridge until needed, or freeze it for later.
Hearty beef bourguignon pie
If the secret of a good pie lies in the pastry, the heart of it lies in the filling.
Heat some oil and a knob of butter in a large frying pan and brown 800g of braising steak cut into 2.5cm chunks in batches until the pieces start to catch a little and develop that deep, savoury crust that screams ‘flavour’. Set the browned meat aside, and sauté four slices of chopped bacon, a finely chopped onion and a finely chopped carrot in the same pan, in a little more butter if necessary, until soft.
Return the beef and any collected juices to other pan, season well, and add two tablespoons each of chopped rosemary and thyme, then two tablespoons of flour. Stir in a tablespoon of tomato purée, two tablespoons of brown sugar and a couple of bay leaves.
Continue to stir, and slowly add 400ml of red wine, letting the sauce thicken. Cover the pan, and cook on a low heat for an hour, then add five halved tomatoes and four cloves of crushed garlic and cook for another thirty minutes, until the beef is tender.
To make the pastry case, roll out two third of the pastry to about 3mm thick, and lift it into a 20cm pie dish or tin. I got away with using a spring-form cake tin.
Roll out the reserved third of dough for the lid, and rest everything in the fridge for half an hour.
To assemble the pie, spoon the filling into the pastry case, lift the lid over the top and crimp it into place to seal. Brush with beaten egg, and sprinkle sesame seeds over the top.
Finally, make a few slits for steam to escape and bake for thirty minutes in a 200c oven, until golden and brown.