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Weird but Wonderful: Potato Pie

February 20, 2011
Cold potato pie

The heavy pastry crust is a hangover from the earlier pastry 'coffins' which were used as containers for interesting fillings

Potatoes are nowadays such a staple ingredient in the U.K. that it’s difficult to imagine life – or traditional English meals -without them. There’s a huge variety nowadays, offering different colours, flavours and textures (floury, waxy) and availability all through the year. So it’s even more surprising to discover that when they were first brought back to England they weren’t an overnight success. When they first made their appearance in the latter part of the 16th century people were used to cereals cooked in their pottage, and bread of varying qualities with their meals. This was either served to accompany dishes, or sliced and served under meaty dishes as sippets which could absorb the meaty juices. So the poor potato had no clear role or position to fill, and chips were yet to be invented…

In addition, it belongs to the Solanaceae family (as do tomatoes), and its flowers bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the nightshade family which were well known to be poisonous. Consequently, it was viewed with deep suspicion and the fact that the strains were neither robust nor generous croppers meant that it took until well into the eighteenth century to achieve a degree of acceptance.

Fortunately for the potato, at this point in  our culinary tastes it was still quite usual to serve a mixture of sweet and savoury dishes at the dinners of the gentry. If you look at suggested ways of presenting a dinner, symmetry seems to be a priority, closely followed by the number and variety of dishes available and the redoubtable Hannah Glasse sails to the rescue with a novel presentation for the potato which has to be tasted to be believed.

All the ingredients are kitchen staples today, but like so many eighteenth century dishes, the fact that this includes cream, spices, eggs, sugar and either alcohol or lemons means that once it was a dish which proclaimed ‘status’.

1/ Thoroughly grease a reasonably deep 9 inch tin and then line it with puff pastry. Fortunately for us, that’s easily available commercially. This can be baked blind (i.e. using baking beans to help it keep its shape), but it isn’t necessary.

2/ Peel and dice approximately 1lb of floury potatoes such as King Edwards, boil till soft, drain and dry mash

3/ To the mashed potatoes, add 4oz of sweet (unsalted) butter, the same amount of pounded (caster) sugar, 4 well beaten egg yolks and the whites, well whisked, of 2. These bind the mixture when cooked, and the whites make the filling lighter in texture. Also add just under 1/4 pint of double cream and 4 oz. of well washed currants.

4/ At this point, I’m going to suggest a divergence from Hannah Glasse. Add as she suggests, about a teaspoonful of fresh grated nutmeg (the oils in nutmeg are volatile or transient, so using pre powdered nutmeg means that there is no freshness of flavour), but instead of her 4 tablespoonsful of sherry or brandy, add the grated rind and juice of a lemon. Beat all these ingredients together thoroughly and pour into the pastry lining.

5/ Bake in a medium oven, which is around 180c, or about 165-170c for a fan oven until the pastry is cooked and the filling well risen and golden. this can take up to an hour depending on how fast your oven happens to be. It will puff up quite a bit as it cooks, though this subsides again as it cools.

And enjoy. It tastes quite unlike anything else. Although you know that you are basically eating a potato flan, it will take on the flavour of the nutmeg and the lemon, whilst the cream and eggs lend it a richness and smothness missing from plain mashes potato. It doesn’t fit neatly into meal planning today, but it does transport well, covered with foil, and certainly makes a change at summer picnics where it can be eaten at any stage of the proceedings. Hannah Glasse suggests serving it with a hot wine sauce, but this rather muddies the flavours.

Potato Pie as part of an eighteenth century table setting

Potato Pie as part of an eighteenth century table setting

From → Food, georgian food

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