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Savory pies are the culinary equivalent of a down quilt: warm, cushy, uncomplicated -- and precisely what I want to tuck into once winter has settled in and I've found myself safely on the other side of the high-stakes holiday cooking gantlet. ¶ After all, December may be a monthlong orgy of creamy pumpkin and candied pecan, rare roast beef and chestnuts, and Champagne and oysters to toast the new year -- but January and its resolutions seem to demand simplicity and thrift. ¶ Thrifty needn't mean dull or meager, however, and savory pies -- with their combination of tender, salted crust and hearty filling so elementally formal, yet endlessly varied -- fit the bill perfectly. ¶ There is a style to fit every mood and appetite, whether it's the silky steak and kidney of British pubs, the creamy chicken pies of New England, the rustic, fist-sized pasties of Cornwall, the curried beef patties of the Caribbean, the buttery empanadas of Argentina, the flaky, cheesy burek of Turkey, the sweetly meaty tourtière of Quebec or the molten calzoni of Italy.
And there's a reason cooks have been packing odd bits into pastry since before the Romans ruled the world: Once you master one quick, reliable dough (trust me, relax!), they're practically foolproof. When generously seasoned and pleated between two crusts, even the humblest leftovers can be born anew. In fact, the sweet fresh-fruit pies that have become a symbol of American identity are really, like the country itself, a fairly recent invention, their bloodline tracing back no further than the orchards of 16th century Europe. Until then, all pies were savory ones and practical dishes, not delicacies: just hard-shelled, edible vessels for preserving and transporting all manner of meat.
A breakfast pie
Pies needn't be confined to dinner, either. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American essayist and philosopher who was dubbed a "hopelessly confirmed pie-eater" by his biographer, hewed faithfully to a diet of pie for breakfast. Why not take his cue and try a riff on the classic English wake-up: a pie of caramelized, chopped tomatoes, browned mushrooms, thick-cut bacon and hard-cooked eggs? Or maybe a mash-up of spiced pears sautéed with leeks and country sausage?
Perhaps you're facing the remains of last night's roast chicken. Look to generations of Cornish miners. Pick that bird clean, and give its meat a good chop. Toss it into a pot and stir with a big knob of butter, a scattering of peas, a few cubes of ham, an old onion, a small potato or two and maybe, if you're an iconoclast, a splash of cream and a generous grating of sharp cheddar. Pack it into small rounds of dough, folded into half-moons, and bake. You've got a lunch hot and hearty enough to sustain any working stiff. Keep frozen ones on hand in case of last-minute company suppers. Pair one with a crunchy green salad for a stick-to-your-ribs family meal.
Recently, while visiting friends in London, I strolled through Borough Market and swooned over the stalls stacked with doughy pincushions, stuffed with venison and pheasant and wild mushrooms, Stilton and shallots. But here on this side of the Pond, savory pie purveyors have been quietly popping up -- Angelenos can even pick up a classic chicken pot pie or a seductive pulled-pork number from Frankie and Tiny's table at the Eagle Rock and Silver Lake farmers markets.
Still, to truly know the possibilities of the savory pie, there is no substitute for making your own -- and frankly, given the minimal effort required, there's no excuse, either.
In the name of research, over the last few weeks, I've dug through my cookbook library, floured up my rolling pin and turned my little kitchen into a pie laboratory. I've tried cream cheese crusts, butter crusts, lard crusts and hybrids of each; family-sized pies to feed dinner parties and palm-sized pies for afternoon snacking.
I've experimented with all sorts of fillings: a traditional chicken and leek, a modern pork and apple version with a crumbling of Roquefort, a vegetarian mélange of wild mushroom and spinach, and even a curried lamb, tamarind and sweet potato-strewn nod to the subcontinent.
What did I find? Easy as pie is right: There was nary a dud in the bunch.
When it comes to savory pies, if you can make a stew, you can make a filling.
Ultimately, as any cook who's learned her baking catechism has heard, the success of a pie begins and ends with the crust. Is it flaky? Is it tender? Is it rich? Golden? Sturdy enough to hold a sound shape yet yielding enough to shatter on the tongue? Volumes have been written on the subject of pie dough, careers devoted to its study, lifetimes consumed in its pursuit. Scary, right?
It's really not. But perhaps, like babies and small animals, dough can smell fear -- because, after all that experimentation, I did find that the least intimidating recipe also produced the most consistently delicious results.
The go-to crusts
That's not to say there aren't a bewildering array of options available: For a while, I was smitten with a butter dough I discovered in Anna Teresa Callen's 1981 cookbook, "The Wonderful World of Pizzas, Quiches, and Savory Pies," that's made supple and ever-so-slightly tangy by a heaping scoop of cream cheese.
A more complex version that baking maven Rose Levy Beranbaum calls her favorite is a close cousin. Its tart crunch and tender flakiness made a table full of dinner guests moan.
Eventually, though, I kept returning to two classic formulas -- a quintessentially American one from Fannie Farmer and a British update by Nigel Slater -- that manage to achieve a miraculous alchemy with just lard, butter, all-purpose flour, salt and a passing shower of ice water.
Slater scored bonus points by teaching me a handy trick: Freezing your lard and butter ahead of time and using a box grater to shred it into the floured mixing bowl effortlessly ends in the sort of coarse, crumbly, flake-inducing dough that is generally considered the platonic ideal. Just grate, moisten, give a quick stir and a light knead, cover in plastic and chill for 30 minutes.
After that, all you need is a hot oven and a little imagination.