A Good-Natured Pastry for Bad-Tempered Cooks
For on-the-go pies, delicate French pastry simply doesn’t have the range. Something more assertive, like a hot-water crust, is required.
By Ruby TandohNovember 19, 2021
Recently, I’ve been going on walks with a small apple pie tucked in my anorak pocket. In some of the wilder corners of the English countryside, and usually in a tempestuous mood, I’ve scaled boulders and clambered down hills, past waterfalls and over heather-crowned moors, my pie sitting heavy in my pocket, like a talisman. When I reach some quiet place—a rock carpeted with moss, or a drystone wall—I perch for a while and eat the thing without ceremony. More often than not, the robust little pie makes it to the final destination in better shape than I do.
Pâtisserie does not, as a rule, lend itself to vigorous pursuits. In an essay last year, Bill Buford described the French apple tart as having “pastry with the texture of buttered air, and in its presentation a gift, like a painting.” In the culinary world, pastry is as much a discipline as it is an edible thing. The pastry section inside a commercial kitchen is widely understood to be a peaceful enclave amid the chaos and punishing heat. Pastry’s most skilled practitioners are revered, not just for their expertise in flour, fat, and water but for their mastery of the more diffuse arts of composure, care, and calm.
I take issue with this sequestering of pastry, I guess, because I do not—in spite of my work history, in spite of my love of dessert—see myself as a pastry person. I don’t have cool, delicate fingers for shaping a butter-rich French pâte brisée, or the finesse needed to line a fluted tart tin with baroque ruffles of dough. I am prone to fits of pique. A hot temper, like warm hands, does not ordinarily make for good pastry.
And yet I need pie. I am from a nation of pie eaters: people who will, at a football game, eat a beef-and-onion pie from a bag with their hands. Readers of the “Redwall” children’s books, which offer a fantastical vision of the English Middle Ages, populated with monastic mice and marauding stoats, might recall the animals’ fondness for pies. These delicacies—wild-cherry-and-rhubarb pasties, plump whortleberry pies, potato-and-mushroom turnovers—make an appearance at every feast, and in every traveller’s knapsack.
The promise of an ambulatory feast is, I think, what makes a hand pie so promising. Following rapid industrialization in early-twentieth-century Glasgow, “tuppeny struggles”—small, portable mutton pies—became popular because they were well suited to a working lunch. Cornish pasties, from the other end of Great Britain, have their apocryphal roots in mines and on farms, a fortifying pocket meal with no cutlery required. For these kinds of on-the-go pies, delicate French pastry simply doesn’t have the range. Something more assertive is required: a crust that can stand up for itself, that holds without crumbling and can survive intemperate handling and a long, brisk walk.
Some of the earliest documented English pies, appearing in “The Forme of Cury,” a collection of medieval recipes, were called coffyns. These proto-pies were likely made with a simple flour-and-water pastry, perhaps with a small amount of fat, designed not to delight the senses but to protect and enclose the pie filling. The thick dough would act like a sturdy casserole dish or a couple layers of kitchen foil might today: inside it, the food was shielded from the fierce and fickle heat of the oven. It’s a technique that appears to stretch as least as far back as the Romans, though a case could be made that the English perfected this stodgy art. A robust container for something precious, the dish predates the contemporary, more sombre use of the word “coffin” by a few hundred years.
This pastry would morph into hot-water pastry, most recognizable today as the crust of traditional British pork pies. Making hot-water pastry is a suitably medieval endeavor; it’s the product of molten lard, steaming water, and a rough, sleeves-rolled-up approach. Unlike shortcrust, first documented in 1575, this dough uses a comparatively small amount of fat—ordinarily lard, but butter is a fine alternative—which is melted into hot water before being poured, still warm, into the flour. The dough is then briskly worked by hand: first kneaded, then shaped free-form, usually without accoutrements such as tart tins. (As Audrey Ellis notes in “Farmhouse Kitchen,” from 1971, “an expert cook can mould the pastry around her own fist.”) The pleasure of making hot-water crust is that it’s antithetical to everything that pastry is supposed to be: this is a good-natured pastry for bad-tempered cooks.
You can consider these apple hand pies—croissant brown, filled with stewed fruit, and encrusted with sugar crystals—my English answer to Buford’s “French Answer to American Apple Pie.” I find that their durable crust makes them a reliable accomplice for adventures in and out of the kitchen, ready to be carried like a wallet, a bottle of hand sanitizer, or a lucky amulet.
Apple Hand Pies
Makes 4 small pies
Whether you use butter or lard here is up to you: the lard is arguably more traditional, but butter will be more familiar to modern palates. Indecisive cooks can use a combination of the two. I find it preferable to use my hands, instead of a rolling pin, to shape the dough for these rustic pies, and I recommend you try it, too—you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to handle, and how well it responds to touch.Ingredients
For the apple filling:
- 1 ⅓ lb. (600 g) Braeburn or Cox apples*
- ¼ cup (60 g) Demerara sugar
- 2 Tbsp. (30 g) unsalted butter
- 1 Tbsp. (10 g) all-purpose flour
*Or similar sweet-tart apples that hold their shape when cooked. Apples such as Bramley or Granny Smith, which cook to a purée consistency, don’t work as well here.
For the pastry:
- ⅓ cup (75 g) unsalted butter or lard
- 1 cup plus 3 Tbsp. (200 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp. (3 g) flaky sea salt, or ½ tsp. (3 g) fine salt
- 1 egg, lightly beaten, to glaze
- 1 Tbsp. (15 g) Demerara sugar, to decorate
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees and line a large, heavy baking sheet with baking parchment.
2. Start by preparing the apple filling: peel and core the apples, then cut the flesh into ½-inch dice.
3. In a sauté pan, combine the diced apple, sugar, and butter. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring often, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the apples are tender through. (This will minimize shrinkage when the pies go in the oven.)
4. Add the flour, stir well, and cook for a further minute or so, to thicken the juices. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
5. While the apple mixture rests, prepare the pastry. Measure the butter or lard and ⅓ cup (80 ml) water into a small saucepan and set over low heat, cooking until the fat has melted and the water is gently steaming. Don’t let the mixture boil.
6. In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt, then add the hot fat-and-water mixture. Use a wooden spoon to roughly combine, then use your hands to finish bringing the warm dough together into a cohesive mass.
7. Count as you knead the dough 20 times—that’s 20 rough stretch-and-folds.
8. Divide the dough into 4 portions, then divide each portion into 2 small pieces. Keeping the remaining dough pieces warm in the bowl under a towel, work with one piece at a time. (If this dough cools too much, it becomes stiff.)
9. Use your hands to flatten each dough piece to a circle about ½-inch thick, then set on the parchment-lined tray and gently pat, squeeze, and tease it out until the circle is thin and about 4 ½ inches in diameter. Heap a quarter of the still-warm apple mixture onto the middle of the circle, leaving at least a ½-inch border around the edge. Retrieve a second dough piece and make another 4 ½-inch circle. Drape this circle over the top of the apple mixture, press down to seal the pie, and fold the edges in, crimping with your fingers as you go. The filling should now be encased in a round, dome-like pie. Repeat with the remaining dough pieces until you have 4 pies arranged on the baking sheet.
10. Brush the pie tops with the beaten egg (you can use a pastry brush, but, if I am being honest, I used my fingers), and sprinkle with the Demerara sugar.
11. Bake for 15 minutes in the oven, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for a further 20 to 25 minutes, or until the crust has a deep golden sheen. Serve at room temperature.