- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Many parts of the country have a version of potpie, the savory, country sister of sweet deep-dish fruit pie. On the West Coast, the topping is usually a traditional, rich pie dough, while in the Midwest, it is more apt to be biscuit dough.

In James Beard’s cooking classes, we used to make Pennsylvania Dutch potpie. This was made of chicken stewed in broth with huge squares of homemade egg noodles and no top crust at all. That wonderful dish was more stew than pie, and making egg noodles without machinery was a labor of love requiring time and elbow grease.

Like a good bowl of chili, a well-made potpie is greater than the sum of its parts, and I have long said that pie of any kind brings out the best in people, turning adversaries into friends because of its commonality.

Unlike foods such as steak and lobster, potpies transcend economic boundaries.

For years, chicken potpie, along with chili, was a popular item on the menu at Los Angeles’ chic and trendy Chasen’s restaurant, the home away from home for politicos and royalty, Hollywood and otherwise. Potpie can please anybody.

If it’s the crust part of pie making that gives you the willies, relax. The potpie recipes that follow require little dough experience. The chicken pie is made with store-bought puff pastry, and the vegetable pie is topped with the previously mentioned biscuit dough.

A sheet of frozen puff pastry, thawed but chilled, is easy to roll and shape to the desired size. Biscuit topping is less intimidating than pie crust, because you don’t have to worry about overblending the fat and flour, and the dough isn’t harmed by warm fingers or handling.

As long as the leavening is potent, there’s not much that can go wrong with biscuit dough. To that end, if you’ve had your baking powder more than six months (baking soda lasts longer), toss it out and buy a new can, regardless of the expiration date.

If the only chicken pie you’ve had seemed like pale, gluey glop in pastry, this one will be a surprise. You can’t imagine how good it is until you’ve tried it.

A heavy, seasoned iron skillet is just the ticket for baking. The finished pie not only looks handsome, but the skillet holds the heat, and the pie stays warm for quite a while. Lacking an iron skillet, any ovenproof skillet of about a 3-quart capacity will do, as long as the handle won’t melt. For the requisite cooked chicken, an average-size supermarket roasted chicken, with meat pulled from the bones and cubed or shredded, works like a charm and yields about 4 cups; a little more or less is fine.

Carrots, potatoes and rutabagas have an earthy, solid quality that make vegetable potpie a meal in itself. Everything, bread and sauce included, comes from one baking dish.

I happen to like this particular combination, and when cut in relatively uniform pieces, all the vegetables cook in the same amount of time. Since produce doesn’t come in standard sizes, don’t obsess about exact weights. As long as the total amount of prepared vegetables equals about 9 cups, feel free to take liberties with proportions. Keep in mind that cutting up hard vegetables with rounded sides will be much easier if your knife is good and sharp, regardless of its size.

Only one more tip is important for potpies, which are, as you can see, extremely easy to make. The strength and saltiness of canned stock varies. Taste yours, and if it is particularly strong or salty, diluting it with water by one third to one half will temper the flavor, without sacrificing the final dish. If it still tastes salty, reduce the amount of salt in the recipe.

Chicken potpie

1 sheet (about 1/4-inch thick and 9½ inches square) frozen puff pastry (half of a 17.3-ounce package)

Flour for rolling pastry

8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter, divided

3/4 pound mushrooms, sliced or quartered (about 4 cups)

4 cups chicken stock, room temperature

3 tablespoons cornstarch

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

½ cup whipping cream

1 teaspoon dried tarragon or 2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon

½ teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

4 cups diced or shredded cooked chicken

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water

Thaw puff pastry according to package directions; pastry should be cold, but malleable enough to roll out. Have at hand an iron skillet, or other ovenproof skillet, about 11 inches across, with a 3-quart capacity.

Place pastry on a floured work surfaced, then sprinkle the top of the dough with flour. Roll into a larger square, a little more than 11 inches to a side. Using inverted skillet as a stencil, cut a circle from the rolled-out dough. Save the scraps if you wish; you can use them to make decorations for the crust. Place rolled-out dough (and any scraps) on a baking sheet, and with the point of a small, sharp knife, cut three or four slits near the center of the circle. These slits will help release steam and bubbling sauce later. Refrigerate until needed.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over moderate heat. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until softened. Pour cooked mushrooms into a bowl and set aside. In the meantime, combine chicken stock and cornstarch in a bowl and whisk until blended and no lumps of cornstarch remain.

Wipe out saucepan (no need to wash it) with paper towel and return it to heat. Add remaining 6 tablespoons butter. When melted, add flour and cook, whisking almost constantly, for about 2 minutes.

Whisk stock and cornstarch mixture again, then add it all at once to the bubbling flour. Whisk vigorously, reaching all over the bottom and sides of pan, to incorporate everything. Then cook until sauce thickens and boils, whisking or stirring frequently.

Add whipping cream and tarragon, then season with salt and pepper. Stir in reserved mushrooms, along with any of their exuded juices, the chicken and lemon juice. (Mixture may be prepared ahead of time to this point; refrigerate if the wait is more than an hour or two.) Pour chicken mixture into skillet. (It is not necessary to bring it to room temperature if it’s chilled.)

Set the chilled circle of dough on top. It doesn’t need to fit perfectly; if there is any overhang, simply fold it under itself, and if it comes up short in spots, that’s OK.

Brush surface of dough with beaten egg mixture. If you wish, cut decorations (leaves, stems, hearts, trapezoids; whatever suits you) and set them on top. Brush them with egg mixture, as well. Bake in preheated 425-degree oven for 35 to 40 minutes, or until filling is bubbling and crust is puffy and brown. Let sit about 5 minutes before serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Vegetable potpie

Nonstick cooking spray

VEGETABLE MIXTURE:

2 rutabagas, about 11/4 pounds total

4 to 6 large carrots, about 1 pound total

3 to 4 red-skinned potatoes, about 11/4 pounds total

1 yellow onion, chopped

1 cup chopped celery (2 or 3 ribs)

2 cups vegetable broth, at room temperature

4 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon pepper

1 teaspoon dried thyme

4 tablespoons butter

BUTTERMILK CHEDDAR BISCUIT DOUGH:

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling dough

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ teaspoon salt

½ cup vegetable shortening

1 cup (about 4 ounces) grated cheddar cheese

2/3 cup buttermilk, plus 1 or 2 tablespoons more if needed

Coat a 13-by-9-inch baking pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Peel rutabagas; a vegetable peeler is the best tool for this. Cut into cubes or small chunks about ½-inch across, and place in prepared baking pan.

Peel carrots, halve or quarter them lengthwise, then cut them crosswise into ½-inch pieces, as well, and add to baking pan. It is not necessary to peel the potatoes, but cut them into pieces the same size as the other vegetables and add to the pan.

At this point, the baking dish will look about two-thirds full. Scatter onion and celery on top and use your fingers to mix all the vegetables together. Set aside.

In medium saucepan, combine vegetable broth, cornstarch, salt, pepper and thyme. Stir vigorously with a whisk until cornstarch has dissolved and broth looks milky. Cook over moderately high heat, whisking frequently, until mixture boils and thickens. Add butter and stir until melted. Pour into baking dish and move vegetables around to coat them with broth mixture. Set aside.

To prepare the buttermilk cheddar biscuit dough topping, place 2 cups flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in large bowl. Using your hand or a wire whisk, stir together for several seconds to combine. Add the shortening and, using your fingers or a pastry blender, blend it into dry ingredients until you have a floury mixture that is about the texture of coarse bread crumbs.

Add cheese, and stir and toss to combine. Add buttermilk and stir briskly with a fork until dough holds together in a rough mass. If it seems dry, add more buttermilk. Scrape dough onto a generously floured surface, turn dough over to coat it with flour, then fold and knead it gently eight or 10 times, until it looks fairly smooth. (It is quite durable, so don’t worry about handling it too much.)

Using your fingers and a rolling pin and additional flour, if necessary, to keep the dough from sticking, roll and pat dough into a rectangle about 13-by-9-inches, the same size and shape as the baking dish. Lift up the dough. If it tears a little, just push it back together, and set it over the vegetables. Use the point of a small knife to cut 8 or 10 slits in top of dough to make vents for steam and bubbling juices.

Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 55 to 60 minutes, or until the topping is well-browned, the juices are bubbling and a small knife or skewer inserted through one of the slits pierces the vegetables easily. If the topping gets too brown before the vegetables are tender, drape a sheet of foil loosely over it. Let sit at room temperature about 5 minutes before serving. Makes 6 servings.

John Phillip Carroll’s latest cookbook is “Pie, Pie, Pie” (Chronicle).

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