Wintertime savory pies

Whether you make your own pie dough or use packaged pastry, pies will add a festive note to winter dinners.

PUMPKIN AND ONION PIE 521 (photo credit: MCT)
(photo credit: MCT)
For food lovers who live in a warm weather region, the cold season is the best period to enjoy cooking classic entrees that require baking or long simmering. Such hearty dishes are obviously more tempting to eat when the weather is chilly; but they are also more appealing to prepare. As they cook, they bring warmth to the kitchen and pleasing aromas that come from the oven or the stovetop.
A special treat of this type is the main-course pie. Americans tend to think of pie as dessert but there are plenty of savory pies baked in European kitchens. The meat pies of Great Britain, for example, are well known. Less familiar outside their native countries but equally enticing are the pies of France and Spain.
Although single-crust quiche-type pies are the easiest ones to find in France, we discovered hearty double-crust pies when we toured the country doing research for the La Varenne book French Regional Cooking. In northern France there are leek and onion pies, with rich, creamy fillings enclosed in buttery pie dough, and delicious pumpkin and baby onion pies baked in puff pastry. Cooks in central France make tourte de poulet, a sort of coq au vin made of chicken pieces marinated in white wine with herbs and baked between two pastry layers, then moistened with a white wine sauce poured through a hole in the top crust.
In southern France we found unusual pies, like the individual sweet mutton pies from Languedoc, flavored with brown sugar and lemon zest, and the Swiss chard and apple pie of Provence, which is both savory and sweet. Flavored with grated yellow cheese as well as raisins, pine nuts, brown sugar, red-currant jelly, lemon zest and rum, it’s an acquired taste. Easier on most palates are the region’s simple pies of chard or butternut squash flavored with only grated cheese, salt and pepper, and the spinach pie enriched with creme fraiche and baked in a butter- and olive oil-flavored pie dough.
Main-course pies are regional specialties in Spain too. “Empanadas, large savory pies, are a symbol of Galicia,” writes Claudia Roden in The Food of Spain, “while empanadillas, small turnovers, are a specialty of the Balearic Islands and Valencia.” Fillings might be made from vegetables, preserved fish or sausages with olives and pine nuts, and are rarely flavored with cheese. The individual empanadillas often have a filling of tomatoes, peppers and tuna.
Roden notes that savory pies are an Arab legacy and that the smaller ones are derived from the Arab savory pastries called sanbusak. Murcian meat pie has an Arab origin too; “The cinnamon is the clue,” she comments. This popular pie, with a filling of ground veal, chorizo (Spanish sausage), hard-boiled egg wedges and garlic, has pie dough as the bottom crust and puff pastry as the top crust.
Whether you make your own pie dough or use packaged pastry, savory pies will add a festive note to winter dinners.
Faye Levy was the lead researcher of the awardwinning book French Regional Cooking by Anne Willan and l’Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne.
This pie is based on one I learned to make at La Varenne cooking school in Paris. It has a buttery pumpkin filling and is easy to make using purchased puff pastry. If you don’t have baby onions, you can substitute one large sliced onion.
Makes 8 servings
1 kg. (2.2 lb) pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cut in small cubes 2⁄3 cup water 25 to 30 baby onions, peeled (see note below) salt and pepper pinch of nutmeg 85 to 110 gr. (3 to 4 ounces) butter
500 gr. (17.5 ounces) puff pastry, chilled 1 egg, beaten with 1⁄2 tsp. salt (for glaze)
Put pumpkin cubes in a shallow saucepan with the water, onions, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Cover, bring to a boil and simmer over low heat for 20 minutes or until pumpkin and onions are tender; drain thoroughly. While mixture is still warm, add butter and taste for seasoning. Let cool.
Butter a 25-28 cm. (10-11 inch) tart or pie pan. Roll out half the puff pastry to about 3 mm. (1⁄8 inch) thickness.
Using a pan lid as a guide, cut a circle about 5 cm. (2 inches) larger in diameter than tart pan. Gather up dough on rolling pin and slide it carefully into pan. Press dough lightly into corners of pan without stretching it. Roll out remaining pastry to same thickness and cut another circle about 2.5 cm. (1 inch) larger in diameter than the pan. Fill lined pan with pumpkin mixture and cover with second circle, pressing to seal edges. Flute edges to decorate. Chill for 15-20 min. Preheat oven to 220ºC (425ºF).
Brush chilled pie with egg glaze and cut a few slits in top to let steam escape. Bake in heated oven for 20 minutes or until pastry begins to brown; then lower heat to 175ºC (350ºF) and bake for another 15 minutes or until pastry is puffed, well browned and firm.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
Note: To peel baby onions, put onions in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook 1 minute, rinse under cold water, drain well, and peel.
ANGELITA’S TUNA PIE Empanada de atun
This recipe, given to Claudia Roden by a Franciscan nun who lives in Seville, is from Roden’s book The Food of Spain. The filling of tuna, black olives and hard-boiled eggs in tomato-pepper sauce is baked in pastry flavored with dry white wine and olive oil.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
1 large egg
1 tsp. baking soda
1⁄2 cup olive oil
1⁄2 cup dry white wine or hard cider
1⁄2 tsp. salt
About 21⁄4 cups all-purpose flour
1 egg, separated
1 large onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded and cut into small pieces
2 Tbsp. olive oil
a 400-gr. (14-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
1 tsp. sugar
About 400 gr. (14 ounces) canned tuna in oil, drained and flaked
20 to 24 olives, such as Kalamata, pitted and chopped
2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped
For the pastry, beat the egg lightly with a fork in a large bowl. Beat in the baking soda, oil, wine and salt. Gradually work in enough flour to make a soft, malleable dough, stirring it in with a fork to begin with and then working it in with your hands. Roll the dough into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for an hour.
For the filling, fry the onion and red pepper in the oil in a large skillet, stirring often, until soft. Add the tomatoes, sugar and a little salt and cook over medium heat for about 15 minutes, until the sauce is jammy. Stir in the tuna, olives and chopped eggs.
Grease a pie pan about 28 cm. (11 inches) in diameter with oil. Divide dough into 2 pieces, one slightly less than twice as big as the other. Roll out the larger piece (keep the remaining dough in plastic wrap) on a smooth work surface – do not flour the surface or the rolling pin; the dough will not stick because it is oil-based. Roll it out so that it is large enough to come over the edges of the pan. Carefully transfer the dough to the pan by rolling it up onto the rolling pin, then unrolling it gently into the pan. Without stretching the dough, ease it into the corners. Trim the edges to a 1-cm. (1⁄2-inch) border. Lightly beat the egg white and brush it all over the dough. Bake in a preheated 175ºC (350ºF) oven for 10 minutes, then let cool. (Leave the oven on.)
Spread the filling evenly in the pie shell. Roll out remaining dough to a large circle and lay it carefully on top of the filling so that it covers the edges of the bottom crust. Brush with egg yolk mixed with 1 teaspoon water. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the crust is lightly browned. It is good hot or cold.