A universally convenient meat pie with history; and how to make traditional hot water crust pastry

“Now you’ll have to take what we’ve got. I’m busy today and haven’t had time for cooking. You can have a bit of homemade meat pie, or a slice or two of ham or tongue, or hard-boiled eggs and salad. Bless you, you look as pleased as Punch! I’ll put the lot on the table for you and you can help yourselves! Will that do? There’s no vegetables though. You’ll have to make do with pickled cabbage and my own pickled onions and beetroot in vinegar.”

Enid Blyton, Five on a Hike Together

This pie is known in my family as ‘the as and when’ pie. We make it every Christmas and it sees us through those lunches when you really don’t want to cook (most of them!). As Aunt Fanny does in the Famous Five, we too serve it with brined vegetables, also made ahead of time and ready to eat ‘as and when’, and chutney. For how to brine vegetables, go to the last recipe, Festive Spiced Winter Vegetable Ferment, in this post.

The brined vegetable, I understand (I have never tried this personally), keep for up to two years. Certainly, this type of meat pie keeps for a long time. I wouldn’t guarantee this for anyone else, but we have happily eaten ours up to a month post-creation – refrigerated, of course, once cut open.

In any case, although it may look like a lot of steps, in fact this pie is easy to make – take five minutes and sit down with a cup of coffee and read through the recipe, you will see what I mean.

It goes well with a real ale or a dry cider.

THE PIE IS EASY, BUT ALLOW A DAY TO MAKE IT, IT NEEDS TO BE LEFT TO SET OVERNIGHT. HOT WATER CRUST PIES DO NOT FREEZE WELL.

Why do these pies keep so long?

The secret is the absence of air, and the resilience of the pastry as a sealing agent. The air is eliminated by:

  • Carefully filling the pie right to the top with liquid which sets, thanks to the gelatine
  • Making a tough, dense pastry to enclose the meat
  • Ensuring that the pastry is well sealed where the edges connect

History of the meat pie

People have been benefitting from the ability of these pies to remain safe to eat for centuries. Medieval (possibly even Roman) sailors have used them – for them it wasn’t just a matter of the length of time they keep, but also the fact that they don’t take up much space…. at least not as much as a live cook, and a live set of animals.

Experiment with different fillings

You can experiment with all kinds of filling. Dried fruit (apricots, dried sour cherries, dried cranberries and so on) will keep well, but prunes give a slimey texture. You can include nuts – pistachio nuts lend themselves well to this sort of pie. You can also include fresh cranberries, onions, asparagus or apples, for example, but these don’t keep as well particularly once the pie is cut open. Frances Jones-Davies suggests, “I make one with thick slices of chicken layered with well seasoned sausage meat and crab apple jelly, it is a picnic treat.”

For the meat, you can use sausage meat, bacon, ham (any leftovers from your Christmas gammon perhaps), chicken breasts. If you feel fancy, you can make a layered pie with a number of the above.

For this particular recipe you will need a 20-23 cm/8”-9” loose bottomed, non-stick cake tin.

hot water crust pie
pouring liquid into a hot water crust pie
Pouring the liquid into the pie is easier using a piping bag nozzle and a small funnel.

For the best seal, ‘divot’ making

In order to ensure a really strong seal where the pastry sheets meet you need to create ‘divots’. This is done by crimping the edge of the pastry with your index finger, making hollows, pushing towards the edge of the cake tin as you go around the pie, whilst at the same time pushing the pastry around the index finger with two fingers from your other hand. This has the additional advantage of making the pie look very professional and attractive.

How to seal two edges of pastry together
How to seal two edges of pastry together

“Any kitchen normally has a residual warmth, but this one …. Was distinctly cool. But that was her fault perhaps, for wearing no clothes…..The pie, with a knife for cutting it, was on the table, beneath a blue-and-white tea towel. Beside it was a tray with cutlery, napkin, condiments, a bottle of beer and a glass, a bottle opener…..It was a very good pie. She opened the bottle of beer and drank, if only to wash down the food. It tasted as beer had always tasted the few times she’d drunk it, like brown autumn leaves.”

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday
meat pie recipe
A selection of pies at Les Halles de Lyon

“The closest living relative of the venison pasty is the game pie. There are some impressive examples raised from a hot-water crust pastry and imbued with the spirit of its noble ancestor, such as the ‘game pie decorated musically and inscribed with the words of Così Fan Tutte’ made for a Glyndebourne picnic.”

Pen Vogler, Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain

Music to cook to

After the quote, above, it has to be….

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