Shortcrust Pastry for Hand Pies

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

My very first take on meat pies was as an eighteen year old, back home recovering from a disastrous freshman year of college. I retreated to the kitchen for months, attempting to make any and everything that caught my attention on Food Network. (This was in the early 00's, when they still featured real cooking shows!) It would be the first time in my life that the kitchen became a place for healing and reflection. I used to throw myself into recipes more complicated than my skill set dictated, but that was half the fun. One of the things I ended up getting pretty good at making were these spicy ground beef and black bean hand pies. My mother even had me make a batch to take to a concert and swore her coworkers would pay me to put picnic baskets together. Sadly, I never ended up pursuing the idea but it's crazy to think about what could have become of a catering career had I given it a try back then. Most of these memories are fuzzy, but as they come back to me it's so interesting to realize how some signs of my true calling were always there. 

Sixteen years later, I would finally end up working as a personal chef, as you probably know by now! My first client in DC often wanted me to prepare Nigerian food. When he asked me to make meat pies to take on a trip, I was happy to oblige even though I had never attempted that specific version before. My only point of reference had been the meat & bean pies of my teenage years, and a more recent stab at a version inspired by Jamaican beef patties. It can be challenging to cook something you've never tasted, but after a little research I felt like I knew enough to create my best interpretation.  A video tutorial by Ivonne Ijayi helped me to visualize the technique and identify which parts were a little different than my usual process. The filling was very similar to that of a Shepherd's Pie or picadillo, with browned ground beef bulked up with diced carrots and potatoes. At the time I had lots of homemade pie crusts already prepared in the freezer, so I went ahead and used that for the meat pies. The crust held up that day for my client's pies, but just barely. I knew that I would have to play around with a different dough to really lock down this recipe.

My buttermilk dough is a dream to work with for pies, and makes for a super tender, flaky crust. However I found it to be a little too tender for meat pies, which you should be able to grab and hold onto without falling apart. That was first remedied by going back to my original pie crust made with ice water, minus the vinegar. Lately I've been skipping shortening in lieu of all butter, so I stuck with it (butter also yields a crisper crust, which works in my favor here.) Instead of mixing two cups of all-purpose flour with a cup of cake flour, I used a cup of bread flour, which has a higher gluten content and would help give the crust more structure. It was a tip I picked up from Lois at Yummy Medley, adapted to the proportions of my own pie crust recipe. Like Lois, I wanted to keep the flakiness of my crust, but create a bit more stability for a hand pie.

One of the other things I needed to modify was my technique for rolling out the dough and cutting it into circles to make the pies. Typically by the time I get them all cut out, they were warming up too quickly to handle and the small size made them difficult to fill and seal. It also seemed like a hell of a lot of dough got wasted in the process of cutting circles out, and butter is too expensive for all that! (The alternative, gathering up scraps and rolling them out a second or third time, makes for a tougher crust.) This wasn't a new problem - it's a big reason I have not really enjoyed making hand pies in the past. Going back to Ivonne Ijayi's video tutorial, I noticed that she divided the dough into equal parts first before rolling them out into individual circles. It reminded me of the way you'd roll out a batch of tortillas. I adapted her process, which solved both of my problems. It was easier to keep more of the dough in the fridge until I was ready to work with it, where it stayed cold. Dividing the dough up first made for less scraps, so there was no need to gather up the dough again and re-roll it out. 

The final adjustment was swapping out the whole egg in my last recipe for two egg yolks, which would add some flavor and fat without the additional liquid of the whites. Armed with the modified pie crust recipe, I was ready to give meat pies another shot! I'm really happy with the results. I've separated my recipe into two posts to cut down on the length, so this first part just focuses on making the shortcrust pastry which can be used for sweet or savory hand pies. The following post will cover the process of making the spiced lamb filling and assembly. 

Shortcrust Pastry for Hand Pies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups chilled butter (preferably European style)
2 egg yolks 
1/2 cup ice water, more or less as needed

Serves: Makes enough dough for 12 to 16 hand pies
Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours
Special Equipment: Plastic wrap and/or freezer bags for storage, dough scraper

If you've made my other crusts, this process will be familiar. The main thing to remember is that the butter needs to stay as cold as possible, so if at any time you feel it melting just stop where you are and transfer things to the fridge for a few minutes. For that reason, it's easier to make the pie crust in a very large bowl or sheet pan to contain the mess. Even though we've added bread flour for additional structure, you'll still want to avoid overworking the dough or your pastry could come out too tough.

Mix both flours together with the salt. Add all of the butter, cut into pats.

Toss the butter until it's all coated with flour, then use your hands or fingers to smash the butter pieces into the flour. I find it easiest to either smash it down with the heel of my hand, or squeeze it between my fingers into flattened pieces. Keep working the butter into the flour until you've got a mixture of pea-sized crumbles and flat discs. Work quickly so that you aren't warming things up too much.

Make a well in the flour and pour in the two egg yolks and a few tablespoons of ice cold water. Use your hands, a fork, or a dough scraper to gently work the liquid into the flour. As areas of the dough start to form, move them out of the way and sprinkle additional water over dry pockets of flour. Stop when you can press the dough together into a shaggy mass. It shouldn't feel too sticky at this point, but it shouldn't be crumbly either. The goal is to use as little liquid as possible. That's a balance you'll get better at sensing by touch the more you continue to work with pie crust dough.

Wrap the dough tightly with plastic or transfer it to a freezer bag. Place in the freezer for thirty minutes to firm up the butter again. The time will also give all the flour a chance to hydrate. Dump the chilled dough out onto a floured surface.

The next steps will strengthen the dough to make it easier to roll out later, and help create more flaky layers. It's kind of like what I'd do to biscuit dough. Using your hands or a rolling pin, flatten the dough into a large rectangle. Dust it lightly with flour. Fold it into thirds, then fold it onto itself again. Don't worry too much about how precisely it's folded or in what direction, this isn't puff pastry so you can relax a little bit.

Now, flatten this stack of dough out again into a large rectangle. Dust it with flour, and repeat the folding process. Flatten it back out, and repeat the folding process again, for a total of three times.
With each turn you should see and feel the dough become more pliable. 

When you're done, pat it into a large block that's about an inch and a half high. Wrap it in plastic again, or place inside a freezer bag. Refrigerate for at least an hour before attempting to roll out the dough. You can leave it in the fridge for a day or two, but I do recommend wrapping it tightly to avoid drying out. If you're prepping this further in advance, you can freeze the dough instead. Just transfer it to the fridge to thaw the day before you plan to use it.

Once your filling for the hand pies is ready, cut the slab of dough into equal sections. I did twelve, which rolled out to about six inch circles for meat pies. If you planned to do slightly smaller pastries, you can stretch that to sixteen portions. It's easiest to keep these on a sheet pan and move them back to the fridge so they stay cold. The streaks of butter throughout the dough are what will help puff up the pastry and create layers, so don't let it melt before it gets to the oven! Only keep on or two portions of dough out on the counter at a time as you roll and fill them.

If you're ready to learn how I created these delicious meat pies, read on for the next post!

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