A Pie in Every Pocket - Recap

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Alton contemplates a fruit pie sitting on a window sill. An emblem of all that is good, he muses. But, in this form – the traditional pie plate – it is a tool of repression! Why? Well, you need a table, plates and forks, and even special tools to extract the pieces from the pan. And getting at that first piece is especially a challenge! It is surely not a dessert for the convenience age. But in its original form... Alton extracts a cloth wrapped lump from a pocket, and unwraps it to reveal a half-round hand-sized pastry. Southerners may be familiar with this, the original form of the pie, but most of America is not. It is convenient, tasty, and... Good Eats!

Pies like this hail from all over. Cleveland dwellers know the pierogi, which came with the Poles who settled there. In Texas, there is the empanada, originally from Spain's Galicia region. Louisiana's hot meat pies have a joint heritage from Spain, and further back, the Arabs and their sambusak, a triangular pastry. Greece has the kolokote, and Italy the calzone (according to Alton this means “pants leg.”)

Cornish housewives may have topped them all; they routinely baked meats and vegetables into pastry crusts, wrapping these in cloth or paper and stashing them in their coal miner husband's lunch box or pocket. At the mine, Alton shows how the miner unwrapped his lunch, reheating it if necessary over his lamp, and reveals that the luckiest miners' wives would place a savory filling in one end, and a sweet filling in the other! The miner next to Alton has lucked out; his wife has packed him just such a pie! But a rumble dislodges a large rock which knocks him cold – Alton takes advantage of that to snag the man's delicious pastry!

Back in the kitchen, Alton explains that these pasties were so prevalent in Cornish cooking that the Devil himself would not visit, fearing he'd be baked into a crust. Alton asks the Devil, conveniently lounging behind his counter, if this is true. The Devil denies it, until the Cornish wife and a friend appear with rolling pins in hand, causing the Devil to flee with all speed. As Alton begins to discuss what a pocket pie crust should be like, the housewives catch up the Devil and pummel him mercilessly with their rolling pins...

A successful crust, Alton says from within a giant pocket pie, must be both flexible and strong. The flexibility comes from the fact that the crust must be a foam like the foam rubber outer skin of his giant pie. The strength comes from gluten, in Alton's model represented by chicken wire. Gluten is an elastic protein when moistened, but it gets rigid when cooked. The trick is to get both in one dough. To do that, Alton thinks not of dough, but of biscuits.

From inside the giant pocket pie, Alton reviews the biscuit method: cut fat into flour, and then add milk. He'll add a little salt and baking powder to produce the bubbles that make up the foam. And the flour contributes the gluten. Alton goes searching for wire cutters to free himself so he can mix the dough: flour (measured by weight), kosher salt, and baking powder. All that goes into a food processor, a suitable substitute for sifting. A few pulses also aerates the powdered goods, which makes it easier for them to absorb milk. He extracts shortening from cold water (the water hardens it a bit, making it easier to work), and pours the dry team on top of that, then uses the tips of his fingers to work the fat into the flour. The tips don't get as hot as the palms, which means the fat stays firm longer. Alton notes that the rolling pin will complete the integration; it's not necessary to completely mix the fat at this stage. He digs a little well in the middle of the fat/flour and adds the milk. With regular biscuits, one must not over stir: too much gluten formation makes biscuits tough. Here, stirring is fine since this recipe depends on strong gluten strands. Once he has mixed it, Alton kneads his dough about twenty times before grabbing his French rolling pin – a model with tapered ends (no actual handles) and a narrow diameter that he explains give him better control. He rolls the dough to about a half inch thickness before cutting it into a number of two and a half inch diameter discs – remembering to push all the way down and then twist. He then rolls each disc until it is five to six inches in diameter (it will be very thin). Alton stashes his rounds between sheets of waxed paper in the chill chest while he contemplates the filling. The cold will solidify the fat and make the rounds easier to work later.

For filling, Alton considers fresh mangoes. Their big drawback is the difficulty of getting the flesh apart from the seeds out, and Alton considers methods of extracting them before deciding what to do. He first peels the fruit with a peeler, then spears the core with a corn cob holder. That lets him hold the now slippery fruit safely while he uses his very sharp knife to carefully remove the flesh. The bits still stuck to the core are bonus for the cook; Alton eats his with the corn cob holder as a handle.

The mango, diced, goes into a saucepan with some brown suger, cider vinegar, curry powder and fresh lime juice. Alton brings that to a boil and then covers it and simmers for a half hour or so. That goes into a metal bowl (metal conducts heat away faster) and into the refrigerator to thoroughly cool for a few hours.

Alton spoons just a bit of mango filling into one side of a round. He takes care not to use too much, since the filling contains a lot of water, and during baking that will become steam, which could blow apart the pie. He uses an egg wash (egg and water) on half of the round – the same half that has filling resting on it, and then folds the other half over, gently working the air out from around the filling. Using a folk, he carefully crimps the edge by resting the bowl on the surface and rolling the tines onto the dough, taking care not to poke holes or cut the dough. This step seals the edges together and takes a little care and practice. To vent steam, he uses kitchen shears to snip a few small holes in the top crust. Finally, he moves the finished pie to a parchment covered cooking sheet, and labels it “M” for mango.

Mango may be Alton's favorite fruit filling, but it's not his favorite of all fillings. To a zip top bag containing some softened butter he adds sugar, cocoa and just a bit of kosher salt. He seals the bag and kneads this into a paste, creating what is his favorite filling – old fashioned chocolate, and enough for fifteen pies at least. To dispense this he nips a corner off the bag and pipes it onto the rounds like he did the mango – just a little on each.

Sweet is hardly the end of pocket pie filling choices. Beef or vegetable stew works well to make a Cornish pasty. Pizza sauce, cheese and your favorite fillings makes a pizza pocket. And that's just the tip of it.

These pies could go into a simple, 350° F oven for a while, but Alton believes there are tastier ways to finish them. One is pan-frying, which Alton does with a little butter over medium low heat using a cast iron skillet. Too much heat could burn the butter, which has a low smoke point. This method gets a lot of flavor out little fuel and food, and could be “poor people workin' food.” Alton learned it from his grandmother. When the butter melts, he slides in the pies, round side out, and shakes the pan a bit to keep them from sticking in the first few minutes they cook. This method may have originated with slaves who managed to conceal bits of leftover ingredients to make their own pies. Alton cooks his pies for a few minutes on each side until they are golden brown and delicious.

Alton's favorite method is deep-fat frying. For this he uses a large, cast iron pot with several quarts of oil and a deep fat thermometer to ensure a proper temperature of 350° F. Nearby he has an inverted cooling rack resting on paper to use as a drain rack. Inverting the rack puts it in direct contact with the paper, permitting the paper to wick away the oil faster. The last tool Alton needs is a spider, a wire and wood tool for extracting food from hot oil. He prepares his pies slightly differently: instead of using shears, he docks them, poking several sets of small holes with a fork. The smaller holes prevent too much filling from escaping during cooking. Alton slides his pies gently into the oil and cooks about three at a time until they are golden brown and float – just a few minutes. He watches the thermometer closely; the pies will steal heat from the oil, so he's ready to turn up the burner if necessary. He lets the cooked pies sit for a few minutes since a burned mouth is not good eats.

Alton has made far more pies that he can eat, so he turns his thoughts to proper storage. Fruit and chocolate pies store well at room temperature and in zip top bags for about a week. Meat pies require refrigeration – he'll re-toast them before eating to ensure the dough isn't soggy. For longer term storage, Alton puts his uncooked pies on a cookie sheet until they are frozen solid, then stores them for a few months, reheating them in a 350° F oven when he is ready to eat them.

Back in 1964, the toaster pastry first appeared, changing the concept of hand pies forever. Its popularity soared, but try one today and you may be disappointed. So make your own! Alton starts with the same dough and splits it in half, rolling each half until he has a rectangle 10” x 12” which he divides into six rectangles 5” x 4”. He paints egg wash along the edges and dollops a few tablespoons of any filling into the middle – Alton chooses blueberry preserves. The other half of the dough, similarly rolled, forms lids. Alton docks each lid, sets it atop a mate, and smooths the air out before crimping. If the dough gets hard to work with, an upside down sheet pan from the freezer set atop it will draw off some heat and firm the fat. Alton's finished pies go into a 350° F oven for about 20 minutes. This only partially cooks the pastries; they must finish in the toaster. They'll keep in the freezer for up to a month.

With this dough you can enclose nearly anything savory or sweet, creating a personalized treat you can store and eat nearly anywhere and the best thing is, you need not share. It's pie enjoyment without the pie complications.