Easy as pie - Top a tart, savory or sweet, and add some style

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

NEW YORK -- Don't think for a minute you haven't the time to bake a pie.

"I made every pie for the photos in the book in about six days," said Tamasin Day-Lewis recently, interviewed in Manhattan about her new book, "Tarts With Tops On: Or How To Make the Perfect Pie" (Miramax Books, 2003, $24.95).

Pies for Day-Lewis begin with apple pie, and her recipes include luscious sweet versions. But they include chicken pot pie, game pie and hunter's pie, plus instructions for pie crusts.

Day-Lewis included the option of using bought, ready-made pastry so as not to intimidate people, she said. "But pastry you make yourself is worth it. It's relatively quick. Most of the time it takes far longer to make the filling for the pie than the pastry."

Day-Lewis' recipes offer variety. A respected food writer in Britain and host of her own food television program, her choices show her relish for diverse cuisines, both European and beyond, with recipes adapted from different traditions and other cooks.

Readers will find steak and kidney pie and Lancashire potato pie, alternating with a French tourte, an Italian torta, Linzer torte and grouse en croute. A chapter on American pies includes pecan and Key lime pies.

The book, which follows her previous "The Art of the Tart" (Random House, 2001, $24.95), is written for cooks in general, not professionals, Day-Lewis said, "for people who appreciate good food ... for people of all skills." There are plenty of basics, for the beginners.

An important tip: Quality is important. Buy the best produce, even though you can mix fruits if you want. And: "Don't ever try to use margarine instead of butter. You'd never get the lovely buttery flavor."

Her preferences are for organic vegetables and meat from local sources, good cream and apples. Her favorite apple is the British Cox's, which she calls a good sharp eating apple, preferable to a "cooker."

A lot of research over time led to the varied selection of recipes in the book. Among her favorites?

"Cheese and onion pie -- it's so much better than it sounds. Use a good unpasteurized Cheddar cheese. It has a balance of seasoning. When you turn it out and cut it, as the cheese is melting, it's sensationally wonderful."

Her recipe for Sour Cream Apple Walnut Pie is inspired by a pie made at The Little Pie Co., a New York City bakery, she said. She's delighted with her version, "but they don't think it's at all like theirs," she said, laughing.

Cheddar Cheese and Onion Pie

Shortcrust pastry dough made with 3 cups all-purpose flour and 3/4 cup unsalted butter (recipe follows)

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 large onion, peeled and chopped finely

2 1/2 cups good strong Cheddar, coarsely grated

1/4 pound potatoes (about 1 medium), peeled, steamed and diced

2 large eggs

4 tablespoons heavy cream

A sprig of thyme or a bunch of flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Sea salt and black pepper, to taste

Beaten egg for glaze

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Divide the dough into two balls, keeping one a little larger than the other. Melt the butter in a pan and gently fry the onion until softened and translucent, then let cool. Throw the onions into a bowl with the grated cheese, potato, eggs, cream, thyme or parsley, and the seasoning, and mix everything together with your fingers.

Roll out the larger ball of pastry and line a shallow greased 9-inch tart pan. Tip the cheese and onion mixture into the pie crust. Moisten the edges of the crust and cover with the rolled-out top piece, crimping the edges together carefully. Brush beaten egg over the top and bake in the oven for 30 minutes until crisp and golden brown. You can use leeks instead of onions, or add buttered apple slices instead of the potato.

Makes 6 servings.

Shortcrust Pastry Dough

3 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 cup unsalted butter, cold

2 to 2 1/2 tablespoons ice-cold water

If you're using a food processor: Sift the flour and a pinch of salt into a food processor, then cut the cold butter into small pieces on top of it. Process it for 20 to 30 seconds, then add ice-cold water through the top, a tablespoon at a time -- 2 to 2 1/2 should be enough for about 10 ounces of dough -- with the machine running. If the paste is still in crumbly little bits after a minute or two, add a tablespoon more water, but remember, the more water you use, the more the crust will shrink if you bake it blind. One solution is to use a bit of cream or egg yolk instead of water. The moment the dough has cohered into a single ball, stop, remove it, wrap it in plastic wrap and put it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

If you're making pastry dough by hand: Sift the flour into a large bowl with the salt, add the chopped butter, and work as briskly as you can to rub the fat into the flour. Use the tips of your fingers only, rather like running grains of hot sand through your fingers. Add the water bit by bit as before; wrap and chill the dough.

If you're making a double-crust pie, divide the dough into roughly two-thirds and one-third. Then scatter a bit of flour on your work surface, roll your rolling pin in it, dust the palms of your hands, and start rolling. Always roll away from yourself, turning the dough as you go, and keep the rolling pin and work surface floured to prevent sticking.

Day-Lewis explained that she has added her own touches to the Torta di Porri (leek pie) recipe -- some lemon zest and juice, and a longer soaking time to ensure the rice begins leaching into the oil and softens and swells. She thinks the dish is best served warm, but it can also be made a day in advance and served it at room temperature.

La Torta di Porri

6 large eggs, preferably organic

2 1/2 pounds leeks, washed thoroughly, green parts cut away, and white parts cut into very thin discs

2/3 cup carnaroli rice (see note)

1 1/4 cups extra-virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

9 tablespoons Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

Zest from 1 lemon and juice of 1/2 lemon, preferably organic lemons

Bunch of fresh basil, leaves stripped and torn into smallish pieces

8 to 9 ounces phyllo pastry

Lightly beat the eggs and put them into a bowl with the leeks, rice, 4/5 cup of the oil, 2 teaspoons of salt, plenty of black pepper, and the Parmesan. Add the grated lemon zest and juice. Add the basil, then mix everything together with your hands. Set the bowl aside for 3 to 4 hours, the longer the better, mixing everything around every so often to keep it lubricated.

Preheat the oven to 350 F, and preheat a baking tray.

Oil a 10-inch springform pan, then pour the rest of the oil into a small bowl. Carefully unfold the phyllo pastry -- it tears easily -- and remove one leaf at a time, keeping the rest under a damp dish cloth so it doesn't dry out. Lay one leaf over the pan and work it down into the bottom, allowing the extra to hang over one side. Don't worry if it tears a little. Brush it gently all over with a little olive oil. Lay the next leaf of phyllo just overlapping the first, and covering a further bit of the pan, and oil in the same way. Do the same with another 2 leaves of phyllo, then tip the filling into the pan and spread it out to flatten the top. Fold the overhanging pieces of phyllo over the mixture into the middle of the pan and brush with oil. If you don't have enough, add another 4 leaves to cover, brushed in the same way. Cut them with scissors to fit inside the pan and fold the overlap over so that it makes a little ridge around the outside of the pan. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes on a preheated baking tray. Let the pie cool out of the oven for 10 minutes, then unclip and remove the pan and turn the torte upside down onto the baking tray, putting it back into the oven for a further 5 to 10 minutes to crisp up. Cool until it is just warm before eating.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Note: Carnaroli is a medium-grain Italian rice, similar to arborio -- which may be more easily available in food markets.

Her recipe for sour cream apple and walnut pie "is my take on the signature pie of the Little Pie Company of the Big Apple," Day-Lewis writes, "the one that made the New York company famous, the only recipe they will not give out." This is her attempt to get as close as she could to the original.

Sour Cream Apple and Walnut Pie

Shortcrust pastry dough made with 3 cups all-purpose flour and 3/4 cup unsalted butter (recipe made as before)

10 large eating apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

A little light brown sugar

2/3 cup sour cream


1/2 cup sugar, half light and half dark brown

1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold

1 tablespoon light corn syrup

1/2 cup flour

3/4 cup walnuts, crushed into small bits

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Grease a pie pan with butter, then line it with two-thirds of the rolled-out pastry dough. Let the overhang hang loose for the moment.

Toss the apple slices into a bowl with a small scattering of sugar and the sour cream, then mix with your hands until everything is well amalgamated. Pile this mixture into the pie shell, packing it tightly and mounding it up toward the center.

For the topping, process together the sugars, small bits of cold butter, syrup and flour. Add the walnuts when you have stopped the processing, and stir them in. Take lumps of the mixture on the palm of one hand and flatten them out with the other palm, so you have a flattened layer rather than a crumble top, and cover the surface of the apples bit by bit. Join the topping to the dough edge before you cut off the overhang.

Cook for 20 minutes before turning the temperature down to 350 F and cooking for another 30 to 40 minutes. Check that the top layer is not darkening too much and if it is, cover with a layer of wax paper or foil and continue cooking. The pie will smell ready when it is ready.

Day-Lewis is of the firm belief that apple pie is best when left to cool for at least 3 hours after cooking, so if you want it warm or hot, work out your cooking times accordingly and reheat very gently, she writes. Serve warm and a la mode, with homemade vanilla ice cream, she recommends.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

(All recipes from "Tarts With Tops On: Or How To Make the Perfect Pie," by Tamasin Day-Lewis, Miramax Books, 2003, $24.95.)

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