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A new take on the Cape chicken pie tradition

A non-traditional Cape chicken pie

Chicken pie is as Cape as bobotie, waterblommetjiebredie and the Cape Doctor. Made in the old Cape Dutch tradition, it contains sago, diced ham, hardboiled egg, mace, allspice and other flavourings typical of the cuisine. Altogether an odd recipe, if you think about it, but seriously good and a perfect hearty winter meal.

A Cape Malay version would be likely to include potato. My mom used to use potato in her beef pies, but I’ve never really seen the point of potatoes in a meat pie. They don’t seem to me to belong in a pie, don’t really contribute anything. And they take up space where there could be more meat. I suspect this may have something to do with my objection to potatoes in pies.

The sago in the Cape Dutch version, however, helps to give the ‘pastei’ a lovely soft texture. I’ve been known to make it as part of a traditional Cape buffet including such dishes as smoorsnoek, bobotie and slaphaksteentjies. Not all on one plate, Daisy.

But let’s press pause on that and skip to the channel where they make the kind of pies you buy at your local café. What is that mush? What kind of self-respecting producer of anything supposedly edible is able to sleep at night having spent the day making vaguely chicken-flavoured slosh to put into a pie crust and call it a ‘chicken pie’. And have the gall to charge money for it. It is no more a chicken pie than a dessicated dish rag soaked in chicken stock and baked in a pastry case is a chicken pie, although the latter may be
arguably more flavourful.

But there is another product in the commercial marketplace which I think has an unfair and undeserved reputation. I’m talking about commercial ready-made pastries such as the ubiquitous puff, and more recently, shortcrust pastries available frozen at your supermarket.

The average response to these is somewhat knee-jerk. They really aren’t bad at all – and I can vouch for the South African variety being much better than the ones I used to buy in the UK. I have used them many times, and it’s just a question of reworking the pastry a little, obeying the basic rules of pie-making, and remembering to give it an eggwash before baking, followed of course by baking until perfectly golden brown. Do that, and set it and several other pies made with homemade pastry before a panel of discerning blindfolded judges, and I’m willing to bet that they’d be hardpressed to identify the commercial variety.

I’m not alone in this opinion, by the way. There are many world-class chefs who hold that commercial pastries are perfectly good enough, at least for home pie-making.

Having said that, feel free to make your own shortcrust or puff pastry for the recipe below, or use a packet of pastry from the supermarket freezer. Just don’t buy whole chicken pies from the same source – much better to make your own.

For this, use chicken thighs, or thighs and legs, and cook them on the bone. This brings out the gelatinous juices that give the pie filling its sensuous, saucy nature. Start with ghee (clarified butter) or butter, melted over a low heat, to which add whole coriander seeds, jeera (cumin) seeds, black mustard seeds, a cinnamon or cassia stick, and leave them to simmer until the seeds just start to crackle. Add roughly chopped onion, celery and finely chopped garlic, sauté until translucent. Add the chicken pieces and toss in the veg. Separately, heat chicken stock and dry or off-dry white wine to which add several sprigs of sage and leave to steep for five minutes. Discard the sage and pour the stock into the chicken pot to cover. Add mace, or grated nutmeg, salt and pepper and finely diced carrot, and simmer for 40-50 minutes until the chicken is falling off the bone. Leave to cool to
room temperature. (You don’t want the hot filling to mush up the
pastry, Daisy.)

The pastry needs to be defrosted, of course, and brought to room temperature. Too risky to try doing this in the microwave, Daisy, as it’s likely to start cooking into a doughy mess, so give it enough time to defrost naturally.

Flour a working surface, flour a rolling pin, and flour your hands. Lay out the pastry, and roll it so that it is a little thinner than rolled as bought. I find that glasses and bowls make good cutters for pastry, so ransack your cupboards to find the one that’s the right size for your needs. I use large muffin pans for pies – they’re perfect for a good, man-sized pie as a main course. Butter the muffin cavities, press a round of pastry in and up the sides, use a fork to prick holes in the bottom, and brush the edge of the perimeter with eggwash (a beaten egg, Daisy). Fill with your room temperature chicken filling, place a round of pastry on top, pinch the edges all round, make an incision in the middle and brush the top with eggwash.

Cook in a 200° oven for 30 to 40 minutes. Keep an eye on it, as ovens are likely grumpy people, and prone to be difficult and behave in unexpected ways.

First published in Weekend Argus September 2011

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