In a challenge that came down to pie vs. pie in Top Chef Canada All-Stars Episode 4, the winners were most definitely the judges, who were treated to some seriously stunning dishes. Both Nicole Gomes and Connie DeSousa whipped up meat pie creations for the elimination round that challenged chefs to get inspired by cities across the country; their efforts put them both into the top three for the night.
“Holy smokes, this is the best meat pie I’ve ever had in my life,” guest judge Chef Lynn Crawford said after tucking into Gomes’ indulgent, Montreal-inspired, triple-meat pie.
Connie DeSousa’s rustic hunter’s pie, inspired by St John’s, Newfoundland, had a whimsical presentation and judges couldn’t stop raving about the bone marrow chimney. Months later, resident judge Chris Nuttall-Smith can still recall the details and the flavours of it.
“That, to me, was an example of a chef at the top of her game, making beautiful food that people can’t help themselves from eating almost compulsively,” he said. “I could have just eaten the whole thing.”
Connie’s St. John’s-inspired hunter’s meat pie with bone marrow and roasted root vegetables.
Both chefs found the formula for a compliment-earning, crave-worthy pie: a good, flaky crust; tender, well-seasoned meat; and a rich sauce.
Making a Top Chef Canada: All-Stars-worthy pie can be done by keeping a few simple tips and tricks in mind. First, though, let’s talk about the main types of meat pies. A standard meat pie typically features flaky pastry above and below, encasing tender pieces of meat, a gravy-like sauce and some vegetables for colour and flavour.
The Québec classic tourtière has a pastry crust, but is made from ground meat, warmingly flavoured with allspice, cloves or cinnamon and without much sauce to speak of.
Ina Garten’s chicken pot pie has moist chicken in a rich sauce and is topped with a tender, flaky crust.
Pot pies, typically reserved for chicken, only get pastry (puff or otherwise) lids, while shepherd’s pie foregoes pastry altogether in favour of fluffy mashed potatoes dolloped atop and then baked until the edges are crisply golden. (Technically, most people serving this dish are making cottage pie, which is made from beef, instead of shepherd’s pie that is traditionally made with lamb or mutton.)
It’s no secret that the key to a flaky dough is having a light touch; overworking the pastry will only lead to a tough crust.
A simple trick is to freeze the butter and grate it, right into the flour mixture, on the large holes of a box grater for evenly-sized pieces. You can also blitz the two together using a food processor — just make sure not to over process! The mixture should resemble coarse crumbs.
Watch this video to see how to blend the flour, butter and water in a food process to make the pastry.
Add the minimum amount of liquid and tumble it all onto the counter to press together the loose chunks to form the dough. Work quickly to keep everything cold and give the pastry a chance to chill out in the fridge before rolling out and using. Try Ina Garten’s recipe for the perfect pie crust.
Anna Olson makes her meat pies with a savoury pastry that uses cake and pastry flour, and room temperature butter to form a crust that’s sturdy enough to stand up to the filling, but still tender. For her pastry, she recommends using a mixer as opposed to a food processor. Get Anna Olson’s pie crust recipe here.
The filling needs to be rich and, well, meaty. Unlike many fruit pies where the filling is just tumbled into the crust, covered and thrown into the oven, meat pie fillings are usually cooked in a separate pot or pan before being encased in pastry and baked. This is a great way to build flavour and ensure the meat is cooked before going into the pie.
Good fillings have some sauciness to them, but they shouldn’t be overly runny; cooking it off first helps get that thick, gravy-like consistency.
A mirepoix of aromatic vegetables add flavour to a sauce made of beef stock and stout in this Lamb and Stout Pie.
For pies with bottom crusts, it’s key to let the filling cool before baking the pie, so a little organization will be necessary. That’s less of an issue for pot pies since a hot filling has no bottom crust to cook too quickly, nor for shepherd’s or cottage pies because there’s no pastry to begin with.
Save the lattice tops for fruit pies; you’ll want a fairly solid pastry lid to keep all that delicious meaty filling inside.
However, you’ll want to give the steam a chance to escape, so make cuts into the top crust or throw in a pie bird or chimney. You can certainly get creative with how you slash.
Connie decorated her chubby little pies with small pastry leaves, which were both pretty and evocative of the woods where hunters would gather game. Pretty pastry decorations are also a great way to use up any last scraps of dough.
Even if pastry isn’t the starch of choice, using the tines of the fork to create patterns in the mashed potato topping of a shepherd’s pie can be beautiful. The peaks of those striations will get deeply golden brown and stand out nicely when served.
Here are some more recipes to get you started on your efforts to make a Top Chef Canada-worthy pie:
Puff-Topped Spiced Pork and Apple Pot Pie
Alton Brown’s Shepherd’s Pie
Chuck Hughes’s Tourtiere
Mini Chicken and Broccoli Pot Pies
Mexican Beef Pie with Cheddar Crust
Tomato Slab Pie