Saturday, 29 October 2011

How not to make pork pies with hot crust pastry

I've never been much of a pastry cook. Everything that can go wrong, does. My pastry ends up overworked, shrunken, stodgy, undercooked and rubbery. I do it all according to the recipe, but the results are never quite right. The exception to this is choux pastry, which is made in a saucepan, and with which I have no trouble.

So, when I heard about hot crust pastry, which is made with lard melted into hot water, I thought I'd finally found the answer. A pastry which didn't need to be chilled, hurrah!

The reality turned out somewhat differently.

Lard is pig fat - something I never knew (or needed to know) before I moved to the UK. Over here, you can buy it in butter-style slabs in the supermarket. When cold, it's white and greasy, and a lot like butter, but when melted, it is clear and smells very much like pork cooking. Fatty pork, that is.

When making pork pies, it's important to make the filling first, as you don't have much time to work with the pastry. I used the following:
500g pork shoulder, including some fat
75g unsmoked bacon
one teaspoon salt
Lots of ground pepper

Most recipes also include sage, allspice and anchovy essence, none of which I had, so I added a half teaspoon of gentleman's relish, which is a disgustingly smelly spread made from anchovies. I didn't use much as I didn't actually want the flavour to get through. My theory is that it might work like fish sauce in Thai cooking, which enhances the flavour without making anything fishy.

I pulsed the meat in the food processor until it was in small chunks, mixed in the seasoning by hand and set aside. Then for the pastry...

Using various recipes for inspiration, I ended up with something like this for the pastry:
450g plain flour
pinch salt
225g lard
100 ml water and milk

Heat the lard and the liquids on a gentle heat until the lard has melted, then turn up the heat to let it boil for a bit. Try to ignore the stench of hot pig infiltrating every inch of your kitchen. when it has boiled (a rather scary splashing experience), pour the liquid over the flour and salt and mix. Knead lightly, turn out, and divide into thirds.

Two-thirds are going to be the bottom of your pie, one third will be the top.

This all sounds very well in theory but, in practice, there are dangers. For one, you have about five minutes to work with the pastry until it cools. Once cool, it gets hard and you can't work with it any more. When this happened to me, I chucked it back in the microwave for thirty seconds, and it did make it malleable again, but I'm sure I've just broken some law of cooking as the resulting pastry then became very weak.

I was trying to be clever and make lots of little pies, which was a bad, bad, bad idea. I probably just had enough time to roll out the pastry top and bottom, stuff in a load of pork filling and put the lid on. Instead, I faffed about with little tops and bottoms and the pastry cooled. It was pretty disastrous. The bottoms were ok, but the tops look pretty rubbish as the pastry was nearly cold by the time I frantically threw them on.

I then made a little hole in the top of each one to allow steam to escape and the stock jelly to go in, and painted them all with egg wash.

Into the oven they went for one and a half hours, or until golden brown. The mini ones took less time - about an hour or so.

Finally, at the end I made a jelly with leaf gelatine melted into chicken stock (I used about 1/4 pint of water to half a cube of chicken stock, I soaked one leaf of gelatine in cold water, rung it out then stirred it in). Purists boil up the bones, etc, for this part, but stock and gelatine are much simpler. This mixture is poured into the holes of the pies once they're out of the oven, then the pies are left to cool overnight.

And the taste? Quite yummy, to tell you the truth, but I'll be trying again with the hopes of ending up with a pie that doesn't look like it's been dropped on the floor.

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