When it comes to cold-weather comfort food, few baked goods rival the pie. And, while the chunky beef pie will never go out of fashion, bakers around the country are coming up with not-so-humble versions of the Aussie staple.
The winter warmer
No one does stodgy winter comfort food quite like the Brits, who have a particular affinity with heavy meat pies.
While Australian’s gravitate towards beef, however, the English tend to look to their own backyard, filling pies with all sorts of game meats, including pheasant, ducks, deer, elk and rabbits.
In an era when game meats and nose-to-tail eating are experiencing a renaissance, rabbits are both familiar and exotic enough to enjoy wide appeal in Australia.
While the meat can scare those who are unfamiliar with cooking it, it is tender, making it perfect for stewing in pies. Rabbit also lends itself to braising in wine or stock and associates particularly well with mustard, mushrooms, prunes and olives.
Topped with flaky pastry, it’s an old-fashioned recipe that the older generation, as well as European ex-pats, will find nostalgic.
If you can get your hands on a whole rabbit, you won’t be disappointed. Having said that, the rapidly declining Australian farmed rabbit meat industry does mean it’s becoming increasingly expensive and difficult to source – prompting many bakers to save it for their gourmet pie offering.
Rabbit has a mild flavour compared with other game meats, meaning it pairs well with bright flavourings, including ginger, lemon and orange.
With 130,000 tonnes grown locally every year, pears are also an obvious choice to accompany rabbit meat.
Rich in fibre and offering long-lasting energy, grower Jimmy Kalafatis says bakers should look out for Beurre Bosc pears to add flavour to pies, tarts and pastries.
“Available from March to November, they are the best all-rounders for cooking and baking. You just need to know how to pick and store them,” he says.
“To see if a pear is ripe, simply check the neck. When ready to eat, the flesh around the neck will give when pressed gently.
“Pears soften best naturally in the fruit bowl, so, to speed the ripening process, place the pears in a brown paper bag with a banana – the natural gases the banana emits will hasten the ripening of the pear.”
Pear, rabbit and green olive pie
RECIPE: By Australian Pears
Makes four large pies
or eight small pies
1 small rabbit, broken into 8 pieces
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 golden shallots, peeled and diced
2 rashers bacon, rind removed and diced
1 carrot, sliced
1 stick celery, sliced
300ml chicken stock
300ml dry pear cider
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons thyme leaves
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
½ cup green Sicilian olives, pitted
4 Beurré Bosc pears, peeled, cored and diced
4 sheets ready rolled short crust pastry
1 egg, for egg wash
1. For the pie filling, season the rabbit pieces with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat the oil in a frying pan, then lightly fry the rabbit pieces for 3-4 minutes, or until the rabbit is beginning to brown. Remove from the pan and set aside.
2. Add the shallots, bacon, carrots and celery to the pan and lightly fry for 2-3 minutes, or until the onions begin to turn translucent. Pour in the stock and the cider and stir in the bay leaf, thyme, mustard and olives until well combined.
3. Place the rabbit pieces back into the pan and cover with a lid. Lower the heat and allow to simmer for one hour, or until the rabbit is tender.
4. Remove the rabbit pieces from the stock and, when cool to handle, remove the meat from the bones, chop roughly. In a bowl mix the rabbit meat, green olives and pear.
5. Cut the pastry into a circle large enough to fit into the selected pie dishes or muffin pans. Fill with the rabbit mixture, and add a little of the pan juices to each pie. Place a pastry circle on top of each pie and press the edges together to seal. Make a few slits in the top of the pastry to let out the steam and prevent the crust from going soggy.
6. Bake in a preheated oven, 200°C for 20-30 minutes, or until the pastry is golden-brown and crisp.
7. Serve with a crisp salad or soft mash.
Party pies for a fancy feast
Party pies aren’t only for kids; as a finger food or an entrée, bite-sized pies can be a classy and sophisticated addition to the menu.
Bakery on O’Connell, the 24/7 bakery in Adelaide that has gained a cult-like status with footy goers and late night revellers, offers its entire selection in mini-versions.
“There’s no reason you can’t put the same level of attention to detail, gourmet ingredients and creativity into party pies. Besides, there are plenty of events where your standard chunky steak just won’t do,” bakery owner Tony Greven says, pointing to his chicken parmigiana pie as a popular example.
French chef and cookery writer Stéphane Reynaud even suggests serving hot, mini pies instead of the cheese course and, when you read his brie and grape pies recipe, you’ll see why.
Brie and grape pies
RECIPE: By Stéphane Reynaud
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Total cooking time: 30 minutes
500g pâte brisée, or 2 packets shortcrust (pie)
300g raw-milk Brie de Meaux
300g white Italia grapes
3 teaspoons chestnut honey
Six 9.5cm pie tins
Brie and grape filling: Cut the brioche into small 5mm cubes and bake at 170°C for about 10 minutes until they’re dry and golden. Cut the Brie de Meaux into small cubes the same size as the brioche. Peel the grapes, cut them in half and remove the seeds. Combine the cubes of brioche and brie, the grapes and honey. Coarsely chop the pistachios.
Assembly and cooking: Grease and flour the pie tins. Cut out six rounds of pastry 2mm thick to fit the tins and place the pastry rounds inside, letting them hang over the sides by 5mm. Fill with the brie mixture. Roll out the remaining pastry dough and cut out another six rounds. Whisk the egg and use it to glaze the edges, then cover each pie with one round of pastry. Glaze again and scatter over the pistachios. Place on a pre-heated heavy-based baking tray and bake at 180°C for 20 minutes.
Keeping an eye on the pie
With Foodservice Australia’s Best Pie competition recently announced and the prestigious Official Great Aussie Pie Competition pencilled in for September, it’s safe to say bakers around the country are in the spirit of competition.
But what is the perfect pie and how can competition hopefuls ensure judges notice their prized creations?
After acting as the Official Great Aussie Pie Competition chief judge for the past eight years, Mike French knows how to spot a great pie and says the first step is to make sure it looks good.
“People buy with their eyes, so it’s imperative the colour of the bake and the flakiness of the lamination and the presentation is spot on,” he says.
Beyond looks, the pies are judged on 19 criteria, including pastry thickness, the ratio between the meat and the pastry, the quality of the pastry, the quality of the ingredients and the mixture of the products
“We get a team of about 12 to 15 judges to taste the pies and because they have been in the industry for a long time, they really know their stuff. They know to look for a nice even pastry thickness of about 3-4mm, they know to look for whether the filling falls in your lap when it’s cooked, they’ll notice if there are pockets of air inside the pie,” Mike says, acknowledging the most common mistake entrants make is not assessing their own products.
“Don’t just put some in a box and send it to the competition. Cut it up and be self-critical of your product. Test it on your staff and on your customers and heed their feedback.
“Really look at your pie; turn it upside down and make sure it’s not over-baked or under-baked, see that it doesn’t have boil out on the top where the seam occurs – make sure it’s as good as it can be.
“For those entering again, get out your feedback from last year and write down what worked and what didn’t and work on improving it. For first timers, look up The Official Great Aussie Pie Competition on YouTube and hear what the judges are looking for.”
While the trophy and glory of being named Australia’s pie champion may be the catalyst for many bakers and pastry cooks to enter the competition, Mike says the real value is in the business a win can drum up.
“Pinjarra Bakery in WA gets really creative and comes up with great names for their pies like ‘gold digger’ and ‘bush wacker’. After the competition they get back to the shop, start spruiking it and really get the customers excited,” he says.
As the competition enters its 25th year, Mike says the industry’s passion for meat pies is stronger than ever. And, as a self-professed “care-taker of a national icon”, he says Aussies will never lose their appreciation for a good pie.
“The new generation of bakers and pastry cooks still recognise pies are the backbone of their businesses. You walk into a bakery and you expect to see pies and bread, if nothing else,” Mike says.
“The pie will live on. It may not be as humble as it once was, and it may be made with beef chunks instead of mince, but billions of pies will continue to be sold in Australia every year. Some trends never change.”
Short and sweet
Savoury pies are, by and large, an Aussie thing. Around the world though, sweet, sticky and fruity pies are the norm.
Maple syrup pies are largely thought to have originated – in similar form – in France or Belgium. It’s Canada’s French province Quebec, however, that has really made it its own.
In the early settling days, Canadians in “New France” made sweet pies with local ingredients, as a way to bulk up on calories and fight the bitterly cold winters. With such bountiful supplies of maple trees, it’s no surprise Quebecians substituted brown sugar for the distinctive local syrup.
Dark or amber maple syrup gives this rich, sweet pie the best flavour, and works well when served with whipped cream or ice cream.
US pie legend
Locals in Michigan, US, have long known the power of a Grand Traverse Pie Company pie. But with the addition of a chocolate stout pie, its legend has grown.
The product has gained such a following, Alison Spiegel of the Huffington Post Taste recently wrote the baker’s multi-layered approach and remarkably light and flaky crust was worth relocating cities for.
“It contains layers: a layer of chocolate ganache and a layer of chocolate mousse, all topped with meringue drizzled with chocolate stout ganache. Both the mousse and the ganache are infused with CEO Stout beer, from Right Brain Brewery in Traverse City,” Allison says, acknowledging the pie is not overwhelmingly sweet nor too heavy.
“The beer flavour is subtle but definitely apparent – it brings depth to the already layered chocolate flavours, and a faint bitterness that is welcome with all the sweetness.”
A one-off specialty product, Grand Traverse Pie bakers estimate they will make around 2000 pies in June. The next “fusion pie” will feature a wine from Black Star Farms.
Maple syrup pie
RECIPE: By Stéphane Reynaud
Preparation time: 15 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serve this one cold, as a dessert
500g pâte sablée
1kg dry beans
50g pine nuts
4 tablespoons maple syrup
Roll out 2/3 of the pastry dough and place in the tart tin.
Cover with baking paper, then with dry beans, so the pastry holds its shape. Bake at 180°C for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and take out the beans.
Maple syrup and nut filling
Cook the sugar over a low heat in a non-stick frying pan until you have a pale caramel. Add all the dried fruit and nuts and maple syrup and mix well.
Assembly and cooking
Spread this mixture over the tart base. Cut out small circles from the remaining pastry dough, place them on the filling, then bake at 180°C for 10 minutes.