Homemade chicken pot pie should be spectacular. A creamy stew of chicken and perfectly cooked vegetables is surrounded by a beautiful pie crust. The interior is bubbling hot when served, and steam pours out with the first bite. The liquid is a thick combination of homemade stock and a heavy roux (butter and flour). Peas, potatoes, and carrots are traditional vegetables and can be combined with a variety of fresh herbs. This is serious comfort food.
In modern America the potpie comes mostly from the freezer. The inclusion of vegetables makes it “fit” as a stand alone meal in many kitchens and I remember eating it twice a month growing up. My mother had a small arsenal of frozen meals that rotated on days when putting something in the oven for an hour was all the time she had for dinner. The meal was meekly tolerated by us children and I routinely picked out the vegetables first, then ate the chicken, and finished with the crust (eating bad to good). It is hard to imagine the energy I put into strange childhood eating rituals. Then I witness my daughter inventing new procedures that she carries out with the same focused intensity. So this is either a common practice or something in my DNA.
There is no single history of the dough covered meat pie. Early examples are found in ancient Greece and more modern manifestations show up in Elizabethan England. Many one-pot meals evolved in various cultures as they solved common problems. This is a meal that stretches a bit of meat, accommodates a variety of vegetables, and is filling. The interior is a hearty chicken stew and so I included this dish in my year of soups (and stews).
I suspect that many restaurants serve “artisanal” potpies. There is a long running trend to take blasé home cooked food or even peasant food and serve it in a glorified state. I have never ordered a potpie in a restaurant and my inclusion of this dish in my blog is an attempt to rectify my experience of the frozen potpie – with it’s mushy vegetables, bland sauce, and dull color.
When tackling a new recipe I read through a variety of cookbooks and internet recipes to get a broad survey of approaches. Cooks Illustrated articulates the common challenges – keep the stew thick, the colors bright, the vegetables perfectly cooked, and the pie crust a beautiful golden brown. They recommend poaching the chicken in a homemade stock with cooking wine to maintain flavor and keep the chicken from drying out. Ina Garten uses a roux with large amounts of butter and flour, and a bit of heavy cream – this insures a thick sauce. Other recipes prescribe introducing the vegetables at different times so they are just right when served. I combined the best ideas and added my own touches. I fried up some bacon pieces and then used the bacon grease to heavily caramelize pearl onions. I also included fresh parsley which keeps a bright green and does not wilt in stews like cilantro. I also added a touch of cayenne, some cardamom, and cinnamon. I used a homemade turkey stock because I had one handy.
In my many years of pursuing home cooking I have never taken an interest in baking. The exactness, and focus on sweet dishes, does not match my temperament. I love homemade pizza dough and dream of someday picking up artisanal bread. But a piecrust far exceeds my skills or interest. My big “cheat” in my proudly homemade potpie is store bought puff pastry. I served the stew in individual soup bowls and covered the top with an egg washed puff pastry. This is foolproof, reduces the total time the dish sits in the oven (which prevents the vegetables from overcooking), and looks amazing when finished. The puff of the pastry also makes up for the lack of dough under the dish. And that first dough-piercing bite is even more dramatic. I recommend this potpie hack. It removes the most complicated and stressful aspects of the dish. Puff pastry can be bought for $4.50 for two sheets in the frozen food section (near the frozen pies). Remember to thaw the dough for an hour before you need to use it.
The dish worked well. The stew tasted delicious and matched expectations. I kept things simple and served with it a few cheeses and a dessert of strawberries and gelato drizzled with a balsamic reduction. A glamorous salad with pear or apple would be a great prelude.