The life of pie

Peacock pie was eaten at Christmas in wealthy households in the 19th century. This illustration by Randolph Caldecott appeared in The Sketch Book by American author Washington Irving, which chronicles Christmas customs in England

The humble pie has a long and fascinating history that can be traced back to ancient Egypt – a recipe for a chicken pie was discovered on a tablet carved prior to 2,000 BC. Sweet-toothed Egyptians made their pies from ground oats, wheat, rye or barley and filled them with honey. Evidence of their fondness for these honey-filled delights can be found on the tomb walls of Pharaoh Ramesses II in the Valley of the Kings. Fast forward to the fifth century BC, and it was the ancient Greeks who invented pastry as we know it, which popped up in the plays of Aristophanes.

The Greeks were the first to recognise the trade of the pastry cook as separate from that of a baker. Picking up where the Greeks left off, the Romans evolved the concept of the pie, using a pastry shell made from flour, oil and water to preserve the meat inside. A Roman cookbook called Apicius references pie cases, and includes a recipe similar to that of a cheesecake with a pastry base, called, rather unappetisingly, ‘placenta’, which was often used as an offering to the gods.

Detail from the painting Taste by Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel featuring an elaborate array of pies

The word pastry was in use in Britain by the mid-14th century. Like the Romans, the first pies to be made on our shores were filled with meat, with the pastry serving to preserve and protect the meat inside it rather than doubling as a tasty treat. Known as ‘pyes’ in Medieval times, the pastry cases were (rather ominously) called ‘coffyns’, into which all manner of bird and beast were flung. Bird pies would often be made with the legs left dangling out of them – allowing for easy scoffing.

Meat pies spiced with pepper, currants and dates were the centrepieces of many a Medieval banquet, where chefs would try to outdo one another with ever more elaborate creations. An eight-year-old Henry VI was served a peacock pie at his coronation, while Elizabeth I was said to have been served the first cherry pie ever created. The pie is thought to get its name from the word ‘magpie’ – the curious collector of odds and ends – as the early British versions were filled with a medley of meats, from chicken, crow and pigeon to rabbit, mallard and woodcock.

My chicken and mushroom pie before it went in the oven

At the time, open top pies were called ‘traps’. The dish was even used by Shakespeare as a device to kill off two characters in Titus Andronicus by having them baked into a pie for attacking Titus’s daughter. In the ultimate act of revenge, Titus served the pie to the victims’ mother. While apple pie is as American as the Star-Spangled Banner, the first printed recipe for the dish was penned by English author Geoffrey Chaucer, while the term ‘eating humble pie’ derives from ‘umble’ pies, which were filled with minced liver, lungs and kidneys, and eaten by the poor.

Continuing my comfort food drive, last week I cooked my first ever pie. They always seemed too complex and fiddly to tackle, but I adore pastry, so felt the time had come to give one a go. With the snow falling outside, I opted for the most decadent recipe I could find online, which substitutes milk for cream and includes a generous glug of white wine – Kylie Minogue’s new Aussie Chardonnay from Margaret River worked a treat. As with many classic recipes, the pie begins by frying onions until meltingly soft, then adding mushrooms, garlic and thyme.

Fresh from the oven before I was let loose on it….

After thickening the mixture with flour, chicken stock and white wine are added, followed by cooked chicken breasts. Before adding the cream it’s worth allowing the ingredients the chance to mingle on a low heat for at least 10 minutes. Cheating with shop bought puff pastry, affixing the pie lid was a bit fiddly, but I enjoyed pretending to be a professional baker by pinching the sides, crafting a trio of leaves from the offcuts, and brushing my creation with an egg wash. After half an hour in the oven it emerged as a joyously puffed up golden wonder, glossy from its egg glaze like a painted pot fresh from the kiln.

With England in the midst of our third national lockdown, it felt rather sad taking my piping hot pie out of the oven to an empty table. It made me yearn for hungry mouths to feed. My disappointment didn’t last long, however, as I soon began devouring it with greedy delight, being careful to leave the leaves in tact for as long as I could. Nothing could have tasted more comforting to me on that snowy Sunday afternoon – the buttery pastry soaking up the creamy, wine-spiked sauce that spoke both of sophistication and indulgence. It was my first but certainly won’t be my last pie. I only hope I have others to share my next one with.

Some like it hot

My first taste of hot sauce was a revelation. The ordeal leading up to it may have played a part in why it blew my mind, though I can’t be sure. The year was 2011 and I was a young foolish foodie in search of cheap kicks. Having heard whisperings of a hip new burger joint in town, suffering from FOMO before the phrase had been coined, three friends and I headed down to a disused carpark behind Selfridges (the glamour) and took our place in the queue snaking down the street.

On a sunny day this would have been fine, but we’d rocked up on the coldest night of the year. Mother nature was in a particularly spiteful mood. An icy wind stung our cheeks as we huddled together like penguins protecting their young. After an hour we were no longer able to feel our feet and were so cold we’d lost the ability to speak. The queue had barely moved. As the minutes ticked by and the snow began to fall we wondered whether to give up and go home. But the longer we stood there and the hungrier we got, the more determined we became to stick it out.

Two hours later we were finally inside the graffiti filled meat Mecca and took our places around a small circular table, still shivering and unable to remove our coats. I don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry or desirous of food. Giant silver trays piled high with Dead Hippie burgers and chilli cheese fries paraded passed us tauntingly. I toyed with the idea of ordering the entire menu but kept it simple, settling on a buffalo chicken burger. The wait was excruciating and talk seemed futile.

Hot sauce fans will go wild for this dip – peachy perfection

And then it arrived. A gargantuan deep fried chicken breast drenched in hot sauce cascading audaciously from its brioche bun, finished with a generous dollop of mayo and a few token wisps of lettuce. There was no way of eating it elegantly, but I was too ravenous to care. Opening my jaws as wide as I could, the first peppery bite of that burger is one of the most satisfying mouthfuls of food I have ever had, and one I return to in dreams. The warming tang of the buffalo sauce was an entirely new experience for me, and a flavour I instantly adored.

Hot but not aggressively spicy, it cut through the the fattiness of the fried chicken with its vinegary kick. I’ve been a Frank’s fanatic ever since. Made from a mixture of cayenne peppers, vinegar, salt and garlic powder, Frank’s RedHot is over 100 years old, first hitting the shelves back in 1920. The original recipe used Louisiana peppers, which have since been replaced with Mexican-grown chillies. I was recently introduced to a decadent dip that makes a hero of the hot sauce by an American friend who likes to whip out a bubbling platter of it at dinner parties.

Fresh out of the oven and ready to be devoured

There are various riffs on the recipe, but all combine cooked chicken breasts, a tub of Philadelphia, a bottle of Frank’s, a cup of soured cream or ranch dressing (or a mixture of both) and a generous sprinkling of cheese – I used Cheddar. Making the magnificent melting mess couldn’t be easier – all you have to do is shred the chicken, pour over the hot sauce and soured cream, spoon in the Philly and stir until it turns peachy pink. Once the flavours have had a minute to marinate, transfer it to a dish, blanket it in grated cheese and bake at 200° for half an hour.

Avoid using mozzarella as it turns to rubber when it cools. Hard cheeses like Cheddar and Monterey Jack work a treat. Those who like it really hot can ramp up the spice by using the Frank’s more liberally – I found a bottle the ideal amount for an assertive tang without it overpowering the rest of the flavours, which mingle so seamlessly with one another it’s hard to tell when one ingredient ends and another begins. The dip is best enjoyed with a huge bowl of nachos, and tastes equally delicious cold the next day. I look forward to making it for friends when we’re allowed to break bread again.

The thighs have it

I can’t, sadly, claim these thighs as my own…

Until last week I had never cooked a chicken thigh. I have nothing against them, they’d just never entered my culinary orbit. Keen to try out a few recipes from Nigella Lawson’s latest tome, Cook, Eat Repeat, I jotted down all the ingredients required to make two of her most comforting dishes: fennel gratin and chicken in a garlic cream sauce, and off to the shops I went. With the pandemic still raging, a trip to the supermarket feels like a reckless, high risk act in the name of good food; the supermarket aisles a battlefield filled with (potentially) deadly combatants.

My strategy is to shop at antisocial hours in the hope that it will be all quiet on the West London front. Not so on my latest visit – the place was rammed and my shop turned into an unwelcome game of dodge. Like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep, I sped through the aisles flinging linguine and loo roll into my trolley like my life depended on it. In my haste I made a fundamental error in my ingredient hunt. Having lugged an inordinate amount of food home in the rain, on unpacking I discovered, like a character in a Nick Park animation, that I’d bought the wrong thighs. Rather than the required skin-on thighs, I’d picked up the fillets.

My fennel gratin before I left it in the oven too long…

Drenched and exhausted, my heart sank. I’d been looking forward to making the recipe for days, and it depended on gloriously golden crispy skin. The fillets wouldn’t fly. I abandoned my unpacking, put the thighs in my handbag and rushed back to Sainsbury’s. The customer service clerk took mercy on me, allowing me to exchange my thighs, checking the receipt to make sure I’d just bought them. You only have half an hour to return fresh goods and I’d snuck back in the nick of time.

One of the downsides to living alone and experimenting in dinner party-style cooking is that you will always cook too much. With an ice box rather than a freezer, I opted to cook seven of the ten thighs, if only for them to look good in their glamour shot. Their preparation coincided with Boris’ bleak announcement that England would be going into lockdown for a third time with no determined end date. The only way to deal with the news was to drown my sorrows in cream.

My lavish lockdown feast

It probably wasn’t wise to cook two of Nigella’s richest dishes side by side with only my furry friend Florence to share them with, but I rather liked the idea of whipping up such a lavish feast on a Monday night. Sadly, the fennel gratin wasn’t a triumph. It had all the makings of a great dish, but my timings were off, and, in a bid to coincide its release from the oven with the thighs, what had been a beautiful, bubbling celebration of the aniseed-scented veg emerged caramelised and overcooked, ten minutes too long in the oven taking it beyond the realms of civility.

It tasted good, but was so rich I could only manage a few mouthfuls. The thighs, thankfully, were more successful. Between the gratin and the thighs I used a pot-and-a-half of double cream and a 375ml bottle of dry vermouth from Charante. The recipe begins by frying the thighs, skin side down on a medium heat, for 10 minutes until the skin crisps up. Once golden, you have to drown the thighs in vermouth, with a dash of water, then fling them in the oven to roast for half an hour.

The retro garlic cream sauce couldn’t be easier – you need to warm 250ml of double cream with three fat cloves of minced garlic and a confident grinding of pepper in a saucepan and stir until it thickens. When the thighs are done you can make the most of the vermouth-soused cooking juices by adding a generous glug to the cream sauce for added depth of flavour. Once it has thickened, fling in a handful of parsley then pour liberally over the chicken and dive in. Defeated after three thighs, Florence was happy to devour the leftovers. She’ll be demanding foie gras soon…

Return of the mac

Love her or loathe her, you’ve got to admire Nigella Lawson. From her flirtatious sideways glances at the camera to her sensuous spoon licking, she has single-handedly made home cooking sexy. I’ve long been a fan of the domestic goddess and her unapologetic pursuit of pleasure. “No one should feel guilty about what they eat, or the pleasure they get from eating; the only thing to feel guilty about is the failure to feel grateful for that pleasure”, she writes in her latest culinary tome, Cook, Eat Repeat. “I see every mealtime, every mouthful, as a celebration of life.”

In our current climate of clean eating and mindful drinking, Nigella’s approach – in viewing food as a passport to pleasure rather than a necessary source of fuel – is reassuring, particularly now, when food is one of the few pleasures left available to us as the nation, once again, goes into a lockdown. January is a bleak month at the best of times. Throw in a pandemic spiralling out of control and it’s easy to feel desolate. To help me get through the month, I’m going to be focusing on comfort food, cooking carb-laden dishes that satiate and soothe.

Aiding me in my quest for comfort is Nigella’s new cookbook, which I gave to my stepmother for Christmas and received two copies in return. She touches on the pleasure of food in her introduction: “Food is a constant source of pleasure: I like to think greedily about it, reflect deeply on it, learn from it; it provides comfort, inspiration, meaning and beauty, as well as sustenance and structure.” Oscar Wilde believed that people were either charming or tedious. I tend to think that, when it comes to food, people fall into two camps: those that live to eat and those who eat to live. I’m firmly in the former and find those in the latter hard to relate to.

Nigella’s new culinary tome, Cook, Eat, Repeat

Like restaurants, all cookbooks have their signature dishes, and Nigella’s crab mac and cheese is likely to emerge as the must-make plate within Cook, Eat, Repeat. It first entered my consciousness when my friend Phoebe French, a fiercely talented young cook, sent me a photo of her version, which I spent minutes drooling over. Rather than macaroni, the dish is made with the more sophisticated, and beautiful, conchiglie rigati – their shell shape is perfectly suited to cradling pools of the rich, crab-laced sauce. It also features lashings of one of my favourite cheeses – Gruyère.

Lawson’s recipe riffs on a modern restaurant classic – lobster mac and cheese – one of the signature dishes at diner deluxe Bob Bob Ricard in Soho. In order for it to work, she insists on equal amounts of white and brown crab meat, the former offering subtle sweetness and the latter the intense briny taste of the sea. Rather than being drowned out by the tang of the cheese or the heat of the paprika, the flavour of the crab remains defiantly (albeit discreetly) in the foreground, giving the sauce an alluring depth and richness beyond its crowd-pleasing cheesiness.

The pairing of baked pasta and cheese dates back to the 14th century, when a pasta and Parmesan dish appeared in the Italian cookbook Liber de Coquina. At the same time a pasta and cheese casserole, crafted from hand-cut pasta sandwiched between a layer of melted butter and cheese, made a cameo in the English culinary tome Forme of Cury. The first modern recipe for macaroni cheese appeared in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1770 cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper, and featured a mornay sauce made by marrying béchamel with Cheddar.

Nigella’s crab mac and cheese is both opulent and elegant

With only white crabmeat to hand, I made the dish the day after Boxing Day and hoped the lack of briny brown crab wouldn’t detract from the enjoyment of it. I’ve always loved the lull between Christmas and New Year when the architecture of your days is shaped around your next meal. If only life could always be like that. I added more Gruyère than the recipe required – I always do with cheese – and was happy with how it turned out for a first attempt, the smokiness of the paprika working well with the nutty tang of the cheese and the salty sweetness of the crab.

Nigella suggests pouring any leftover sauce over a pile of nachos – an inspired idea I’m keen to try if I haven’t hoovered it all up first. The beauty of this dish is its ability to deliver on the comfort front while also being sophisticated enough to serve to a lover you’re trying to impress. It’s both opulent and elegant, and has already become a firm favourite of mine. You can find a link to the recipe here – I urge you to give it a go. Nigella recommends enjoying it with a flinty white or Provence rosé. Mine paired a treat with Gusbourne’s glorious 2018 Guinevere Chardonnay.

When life gives you lemons

Hope is something we’re in short supply of at the moment, at a time when we need it most. I’ve never been so aware of the power of light as during the pandemic. The long, light-filled summer days were like a balm that soothed the wounds inflicted by months of self isolation, making a difficult situation more bearable. Spending months on my own, I became acutely aware of the passing of time, and with it the changing seasons. As spring unfurled into summer, the warmth and abundance of light seemed like a symbol of hope; a reminder of brighter days ahead.

The clocks went back today and by 5pm the sky had turned to ink. As our days get shorter and light more scarce, the need to cling to hope becomes ever more important. For those feeling blue, solace can be sought in the simplest of ingredients – the lemon – the ultimate symbol of hope. Its vivid yellow hue and delightfully dimpled skin is enough to lift the spirits. There’s something inherently optimistic about lemons. They embody all that is wonderful about the world – a distillation of sunlight and warmth. Ripening slowly, like a photograph they capture a moment in time, expressing the essence of summer in their bracing juice.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s Girl Holding Lemons

I find it hard to imagine life without lemons – it would be like living without sleep or sunlight. While we regularly cook with them, we almost never enjoy them as a solo act, but their power cannot be underestimated. A spritz can enliven all manner of dishes, from a delicate piece of fish or a simple salad to a decadent dessert. The lemon is as fundamental and important to cooking as salt for enhancing flavour.

My love of lemons is entwined with my love of Italy. I remember being beguiled the first time I saw the size of the lemons growing on the Amalfi coast. They looked like colossal mutant cousins of the dainty citrus fruit we get in the UK. Staying true to his Italian roots, Alessandro Palazzi uses Amalfi lemons in his lethally strong Martinis at Dukes Bar, pinching the lemon peel so its essential oils infuse into the gin, meaning before you take your first sip, you’re treated to its potent perfume.

The word lemon comes from the Persian word ‘limu’. The origin of the fruit is disputed, though citrus trees have flourished in the foothills of the Himalayas for centuries. The lemon is thought to have first grown in Assam in northeastern India, entering Europe via southern Italy in the second century AD, though it would be a long time before the fruit was widely cultivated. Considered a rare luxury in ancient Rome, before being used in food, lemon trees served as ornamental plants and were used in medicine. It wasn’t until the 15th century that they were widely cultivated, with Genoa, rather than Sicily or Amalfi, serving as the production hub.

My ultra zingy lemon drizzle cake

What better way to let the lemon express itself in all its mouth-puckering glory than in a lemon drizzle cake? I’m often bitterly disappointed by the whispering suggestion of lemon in shop bought versions, as if us Brits might not be able to cope with the zingy onslaught of the real deal. Citrus fiends looking for a confident hit of lemon in their drizzle cake, should give this recipe a go. It bills itself as ‘the world’s best lemon drizzle cake’, and, having made it five times, I’m inclined to agree.

I go one step further and add the juice of two lemons to the batter, in addition to using two lemons in the syrup. This pushes the cake to its lemony limit, weeding out all but the most ardent of citrus lovers. It’s a celebration of sourness and the high juice content means it stays marvellously moist for days. As the nights draw in and sunshine becomes more scarce, the lemon serves as a reminder of brighter days ahead. That this too shall pass. That spring will return and life will renew itself. That however dark it may feel right now, there is reason for hope.