Saturday, September 1, 2012

chicken pot pie: a journey to the ultimate

I'm fairly obsessed with Chicken Pot Pie. I've loved it ever since I was a small child and my mom would heat up a couple of those frozen Swanson's for a Friday night treat for me and my sister. My favorite part was the crust. I would eat that first, cracking off pieces of the crusty edge first, then sliding my fork between the crust and aluminum pie tin to pull out pieces of soggy crust, moving around the filling until every bit of gravy soaked pastry was consumed, then I would gingerly pick around what was going on inside. Only the bits of white meat and peas interested me. I have always been highly suspect of stews and soups shrouding shredded chicken and mysterious bits of dark meat, stringy tendons and cartilege that sometimes managed to sneak their way into my mouth.
Fast forward to the ironic bit: in the last year and a half, I've made about 20 chicken pot pies  using everything but pastry and only using the dark meat (but picked over very meticulously for stringy bits and fatty bits). No two pies ever turn out the same.
My go-to finish is an herb biscuit topping, with polenta and puff pastry on occasion, but I've never made it the old fashioned way because pastry vexes me at every turn. I have yet to process cold butter, ice water and flour/salt/sugar until it resembles peas in 3-5 pulses, then as I manage it into discs there's the anxiety that maybe I didn't add enough water "...until pastry is the desired consistency". Whatever that means. All that butter. Did I pulse too much? Will the pastry be tough?...Sigh...
Then, of course, comes the really vexing part: rolling out the pastry. Flouring, rolling, sticking, to re-chill or not? and yet more sticking and cracking, layers of plastic wrap. Gah! Why bother?
Here's what happened:
I was house sitting a little while back, enjoying the adventure of a new and well-outfitted kitchen. My friends were returning from Paris the following day and I had to work. I wanted to leave them with some good old American comfort food that could be reheated easily.
Whilst perusing some back issues of Cooks Illustrated I came across this pretty pie crust. Then I looked at the big slab  of green marble on the counter and the marble rolling pin and thought: " Why not?"
I had a pound of pre-cooked chicken breast pieces I'd originally purchased for lunch box sandwiches (but went all OCD on the fried rice) that needed to find it's greater purpose. I had potatoes, onions , garlic and white wine on hand as well as some leftover bacon crumbles. I sauteed the vegetables in olive oil and a mixture of spices and dried herbs. Cumin, coriander and cayenne then added dried oregano and tarragon. I bought a bag of frozen mixed vegetables, a box of chicken stock, and a carton of heavy cream and this pie came together (once the pastry was rolled and chilling) in about 30 minutes. The last thing added to the giant pot of stewy-ness (after the butter and flour roux) was several dollops of dijon mustard, tasting after each dollop was stirred in and finding the taste improved after each addition. I think I ended up somewhere around 5 tablespoons.
The key is to roll the top layer of pastry on a piece of parchment then transfer the whole thing onto a baking sheet. Cut out the 4 leaf shapes and crimp the edges (making sure your finished top is the same diameter as your pie dish. Then put it in the freezer while you cook up the pie filling for about 30 minutes. Once the mix is in the baking dish (there was no bottom crust), transfer the solid pie crust to the top of your dish and bake until the crust begins to brown, about 30 minutes at 350 degrees.
Success without pastry anxiety! Note to self: acquire a marble slab Stat!

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