It's not very often your food seems to follow you around the room...
Some industrious souls in the food blogging world have just launched "WTSIM...", an initiative that encourages foodies from around the world to exchange recipes based on a common monthly theme. The full title of this month's round-up is Waiter, there's something in my... Pie and as pies are just about the best food there is (one or two people, more than once, have suggested that I have in fact tried all of them... at least I think that's what they meant) it would have been rude not to join in.
In casting around for a suitable pie I took note of the WTSIM... host's request to keep it regional but in the end couldn't resist stretching the definition just a little bit. Inspiration came from a recent meal at Scott's, the recently reopened London oyster bar and fish restaurant, where the specimen on offer was tasty enough but far from fulfilling. More on this later.
The dish in question is Stargazy Pie, a traditional pie from Mousehole (pronounced Mouzul) in Cornwall. The pie is traditionally served up on Tom Bawcock's Eve (23 December), named in honour of a Mousehole fisherman who braved fierce elements to go out fishing alone when it seemed certain the locals were destined for famine.
In researching an authentic Stargazy Pie recipe it quickly became clear that there was very little consensus on what would constitute authenticity. Some had a bechemal-style white sauce, some used breadcrumbs, others, particularly Mark Hix's amazing sounding mutton and crayfish effort, diverted from tradition altogether but are probably worth indulging in some day. All (apart from Hix) agreed the traditional central fish is pilchard, although fortunately most allowed for sardine or mackerel to be substituted. And of course all agreed on the pie's most striking detail: that the fish heads should be poking up through the pastry, gazing up at the stars.
The pie Howard sampled at Scott's was a little different. The pastry lid did incorporate fish heads, but what lay beneath was essentially a creamy fish broth. I much preferred the approach adopted by most, which keeps the fish largely intact, maximising the dramatic appeal of their pastry incarceration. In the end I went for a compromise recipe based loosely around an old Supercook listing. It seemed to cover all the right bases.
A word on the fish, if anyone else fancies giving this a go. To make serving the pie, and of course eating it, as easy as possible, the bones need to be removed. The process of deboning and gutting a fish while leaving the head and tail intact is called pocketing, and involves going in with a sharp knife down the spine, snipping it away from the head and tail and scooping everything out in one go. My fishmonger made this look ridiculously simple (and was very happy to be asked to do it), but it shouldn't be beyond anyone with a sharp knife and a bit of patience.
The recipe given below should be a useful guideline, but there will inevitably be variations. There were no pilchards available when I went to market, for instance, so I went for three quite large mackerel as I knew I had a dish they would fit quite well. I also picked up a jar of grain mustard flavoured with horseradish, which worked really well inside the fish, but I think any combination of the two would be OK. The end result was very satisfying, which would have served around six: well textured and extremely tasty.
My Stargazy Pie
For the shortcrust pastry:
200g Plain flour
50g Fridge-cold butter
50g Dripping or lard
Pinch of salt
Ice cold water
For the filling:
5 eggs (plus 1 for the glaze)
3 large mackerel (pocketed)
Mustard and/or horseradish
A generous handful of chopped fresh herbs (parsley and chives, in my case)
6 to 8 rashers of good streaky bacon, rind removed
1 large onion, finely chopped
285ml tub of double cream
Salt and pepper
Sift the flour, add the salt, chop the butter and dripping into small cubes and combine in a large bowl until you have an even, crumb-like consistency. Start adding the water a tablespoon or so at a time, working with your hands until you have a tactile, springy dough. Wrap it up in clingfilm and stick it in the fridge for at least half an hour until you need it.
Meanwhile hardboil the eggs (8 minutes), cooling them under running water before peeling and roughly slicing. These can be spread over the bottom of a lightly butted pie dish that will fit the fish quite snugly. Season each pocketed mackerel inside and out with salt and pepper and spread about a teaspoon of your chosen mustard around the cavity. Add a sprinkling of the herb mix too and lay the fish out so that their heads overlap the edge of the pie dish. The exact arrangement will depend on the relative size of your fish and dish: smaller fish would work well fanned out from the middle with their heads over the side, in which case it would be best to remove the tails altogether; mine were a bit bigger so I opted to lay them side by side, alternating their direction, and allowing both the heads and the tails to stick out.
Chop the bacon into small strips, fry it off for a minute or two to add a little crunch and colour and sprinkle over the fish, together with any fat from the pan. Sprinkle over the chopped onion and the rest of the herbs, pour over the cream and finish with a little more seasoning.
Roll out the pasty to a shape a little larger than your pie dish and cut away a thin strip all the way round the perimeter. Moisten the rim of your dish with a little water and press the strip in place, reserving any leftover trimmings. Then moisten this strip with an egg-wash made of a beaten egg and a little water and carefully lay the pastry lid over the top. Work your way around the rim, trimming and crimping where you can and carefully work around the fishy protrusions. A few strategic snips in the pastry will help here. Make a generous cross in the middle of the pie and add some decoration made with the leftover pastry if you like. (Thanks must go to Alice, here, for her excellent stars.) Finally brush the whole surface liberally with the egg and water mixture and pop into a 200C oven for 30 to 40 minutes until the pastry looks suitably golden and appetising.
Serve directly from the dish in strategic wedges, as many as possible including a head or a tail. Your guests can toss a coin to see who gets what.