Monday, March 18, 2013

Two Pies for St. Patrick


I am precisely one-quarter Irish. My late maternal grandmother, whose family hailed from County Cork, is responsible for the small amount of green blood in my veins. Likely, it is also an explanation for my love of meat, potatoes and whisky. Perhaps because of this small genetic connection to the emerald isle,  I have always enjoyed St. Patrick's day. It especially gives me an excuse to explore the culinary possibilities of this lovely island. 

Like England, Ireland suffered a long reputation of bad cooking. Some of this is likely a result of the historical cycles of poverty, famine and social unrest that this small nation has endured - it is hard to think about cuisine when you have no food to cook. Nevertheless, the British Isles, and by association, Ireland, have seen a renaissance in their indigenous cuisine and food heritage. In Ireland, a place that for years was thought of as a backwater of bad pub food and stews, has seen a resurgence in craft cheese making, fish smoking, small batch distilling and native charcuterie among many other gastronomic attractions. Small inns and pubs have raised the bar on the quality of their food. Long being something of a joke, the Irish were islanders that did not like to eat fish. Some of the world's best seafood is found in cold, clean Irish waters, and was largely exported in the past. This has all changed. Irish fish and shellfish are now embraced and cooked with deft skill by the natives. I have many Irish cookery books that really appeal to me; rustic delicious recipes with luscious photography of wee little inns by the seaside. One day perhaps I'll visit the place.

In the meantime, I embarked on what has become a bit of a tradition by hosting a dinner for this special day. No green beer or shamrocks for us, just good, honest Irish-inspired cooking with some roasty-flavoured Guinness to wash it all down.  The night is always capped off with a dram of Jamieson's.  

My menu this year, given the busy-ness of children around on what amounted to a school night, was to revisit a fuss-free dish that I've cooked many times, cottage pie. But before that, I first served up an appetizer that highlighted something that Ireland is now well known for: smoked fish. I re-jigged the starter I made at Christmas. I baked up little crispy toasts and topped them with a chive-speckled crème fraiche, lightly pickled red onions, thin slices of smoked salmon bejeweled with a delicate gratings of horseradish and more chives. Not only did this dish reflect the beautiful smoked fish of Ireland, but in an unintentional but serendipitous coincidence, it boasted the colours of the Irish flag. 

Onward to the cottage pie. Though more closely associated with England perhaps, this dish is enjoyed throughout Ireland as well; it is really solid pub food. There's no sense going into too much detail about this recipe as I have blogged about it many times here and here for example.

This time, instead of using minced beef, I seared, then braised some chunky short ribs and large pieces from the chuck in a liquid medium that consisted of Guinness and some homemade mushroom stock (made with dried porcini mushrooms, bay leaves, black pepper and boiling water). This produced something closer to a stew. I included some bay leaves, thyme, and a large whack of typical aromatic veg: carrots, onion and celery with the meat. Another approach I take that is not typical for a cottage or shepherd's pie is that I do most of the braising separately in my large dutch oven on the stove top. The pie itself is only in the oven for the few minutes required to crisp it up. Anyway, the meat bubbled gently for several hours. Once succulent and tender, I removed the short rib bones and any gristly bits, then strained the meat out of the cooking liquor, the meat was set aside and the Guinness/Mushroom gravy was reduced and thickened by boiling hard with a little bit of beurre manié to help it along. Then, I broke the meat up a bit and slightly shredded it to make for easier eating, then spread it out on a rack and lightly browned it under the broiler. I was inspired to do this by Mexican carnitas recipes for which you take shredded, slowly braised pork and then sort of re-fry it until crispy. I find this really adds depth of flavour, rich colour and a better mouth feel (especially given this meat has been submerged in liquid for so long and can get a bit 'pallid'). I like my stews to be very dark and roasty tasting. This double caramelization technique has always served me well. Once the meat was nice and dark and crisped up in places, I reintroduced it to the Guinness gravy. The stew is adjusted for seasoning and then set it aside in an oven proof vessel to cool a tiny bit. Then I topped with mash spuds while still slightly hot and made a herringbone design in the top with the tines of a fork. I put it into a 400F oven for a bare five minutes to get a bit hot in the middle and then banged on the broiler to full whack and browned the top until it was as crisp as chips. A dinner guest was gracious enough to bring a homemade soda bread to the dinner. Admittedly, her soda bread was much better than any of my previous attempts, a welcome (and humbling) delight. The bread was brilliant when warmed up and slathered with butter. Along with the wife's most excellent winter salad of hardy bitter greens we had the perfect accompaniments to this Irish feast.

As the title of this post suggests, there was a second pie for my dinner. This pie, again, doesn't appear at first glanced to be Irish, but it likely appears in a multitude of pubs across that country. This is Banoffee pie. This dessert dish was created by a English publican in the early 1970's and has since appeared in one form or another in most pubs across the greater British Isles. There are many, many ways of doing this, but I try to stick to the original recipe as it was made in the Hungry Monk Pub in 1972. The only thing that I won't do is boil an entire tin of sweetened condensed milk (part of the original recipe) to make the toffee. Besides risking life and limb with the possibility of an explosion, I also worry about things like BPA...perhaps cooking in a tin can might not be a good idea. I have adapted the recipe to caramelize the sweetened condensed milk in a less dangerous way. Also, I hate to say it, the pie was consumed before I could photograph it, so use your imagination.

Banoffee Pie

For the pastry

1.5 cups all purpose Flour
1 stick of butter, chilled and cut into chunks
1 pinch of salt
2 tbs icing sugar
2 egg yolks
a little bit of ice water

For the filling

2 300 ml tins of sweetened condensed milk
3 bananas
1 small carton of 35% heavy cream
1 tsp Maldon salt
2 tbs icing sugar


This pie is based largely on a type of toffee that is made by caramelizing sweetened condensed milk. To make this, the original recipe calls for boiling the milk in the can. It can also be done in the oven thusly: open your tins and pour the contents into some kind of oven proof vessel. Sprinkle a bit of salt over top and then cover tightly with foil. Then get the vessel into a water bath (a larger vessel that is filled with enough boiling water to come half way up the sides of the milk container). Than bake for 90 minutes at 425F, checking periodically to make sure that the water has not boiled over or dried out. Add more water as needed. Once it is done it will be brown and unctuous. Allow it to cool completely and then refrigerate to set cold (best done the night before serving).

To make the pastry, get your flour, sugar and salt into a food processor and pulse a few times. Then get the butter in and pulse it until you get a sandy consistency. Then drop in your egg yolks and run until you have something that looks like damp bread crumbs. Add a tbs or so of ice water than give it one more pulse. Than pour it out onto a surface, gather it together into a rough puck shape, wrap in cling film and then refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or until you need to use it. Once rested, roll out the pastry and get it into a spring form tart tin in one thin layer on the bottom. Prick it with a fork a few times and then re-chill for a further 15 minutes. Then blind bake it for about 15 minutes, followed by a further 10 or 15 minutes baking non-blind. Take it out and let it cool completely.

To assemble, slice the bananas up into thin disks. Put a layer of the bananas on the now cooled tart shell. Then pour over the toffee and spread on top. It will be extremely thick and difficult to work with it. Fret not, as a semi solid, it eventually settles into an even layer. You don't want more than about an inch of this toffee. It is free flowing (although slow) and too much will just start to flow everywhere. Then get a layer of the bananas on top of the toffee and sprinkle over with flakey Maldon salt. Get it back into the fridge to set firm. Before serving, whip up the cream to soft peaks along with a couple of tablespoons of the icing sugar and layer it all over the top. Server immediately. If you try to assemble the pie to early, the whip cream will start to 'fall' and the toffee may find escape routes from the pie, so time is of the essence on this one.

Possibly the best tasting trashy dessert there is, but very rich. Once a year is plenty for this one. Happy St. Patrick's day.

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