Here are the morals of this story (all good stories have a moral, even if you have to dig a bit to find them):
First: that it is in nobody’s best interests to begin to make a complicated pie at quarter to eleven at night.
Second: that hot pork jelly will (if it can) go everywhere.
Third: that hot pork jelly, a gas hob, two a.m. and an impossible dream of a marvellous pie are a terrible recipe for a happy relationship.
Fourth: that no pie you make will ever live up to the description of the perfect pie you read when you were seven, and it was the start of the summer holidays, and you were upside-down three-quarters of the way up the pear tree in the back field.
Fifth: that the truth of Morals One through Four doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying anyway.
You will remember this fictional pie, I think. You will have thought about it about once a week since you first read it, upside-down, rightside-up, all the ways. This isn’t a pie a person forgets. You will probably remember where you were when you read it. You will remember the illustration, and you will remember, almost-but-not-quite precisely, the description itself.
Here it is:
“I began to unwrap the waxed paper from around the doctor’s present, and when I had finished, I saw before me the most enormous and beautiful pie in the world. It was covered all over, top, sides, and bottom, with rich golden pastry. I took a knife from beside the sink and cut out a wedge. I started to eat it in my fingers, standing up. It was a cold meat pie. The meat was pink and tender with no fat or gristle in it, and there were hard-boiled eggs buried like treasures in several different places. The taste was absolutely fabulous. When I had finished the first slide I cut another and ate that, too. God bless Doctor Spencer, I thought.”
This is the pie from Danny The Champion Of The World. This is the pie that Doctor Spencer gives to Danny the morning after he’s driven to the woods, alone, at night (a little boy!) to rescue his poacher dad from the mantrap dug by the gamekeepers. This is a pie to celebrate an adventure; a pie to celebrate a parent who is- let’s not forget- sparky.
I can’t read that last page without crying. I have a complicated relationship with parents, and with sparky, but I remember so very very vividly the feeling of triumph that this pie tasted of. Danny The Champion Of The World is a triumphant book, above all. It’s a book about things going wrong, and things going right, and clever people and difficult situations, and a book about being vulnerable. The scene (taken almost wholesale, I think, from Boy, and therefore life) where Danny is beaten by his teacher is one of the most hearthurty in the world. It isn’t fair. It isn’t just. Life isn’t, sometimes, but if you’re very lucky you’ll have a Dad who can put things right.
I do, as it happens. I have a Dad who puts things right (I have a Dad who puts things wrong, too, but that’s another story), and when everything is wrong it seemed apt to make a pie about fixing things. A pie to eat the morning after. And, since this pie needs to be left for approximately 12 hours to be at its best, the morning after is the very best time to eat it. Unless of course you make it at two a.m., in which case you will have to wait until lunch time to work out if it’s any good or not.
It almost certainly will be, and if it’s not, you can begin again. You’re a clever person. You’re a sparky person. You can try again, and it will be better, and your relationship will not be ruined by a three a.m. row about pig fat on the gas hob, and in any case, please remember hot pork jelly comes off a gas hob with copious applications of Dettol and elbow grease.
Danny The Champion Of The Pie
1 hr prep.; 3 hrs making; 12 hrs waiting
Adapted, very loosely, from the River Cottage Meat Book.
For the pastry:
90g lard (This is the wrinkle we talked about in the Ophelia Pie recipe, remember? It works for everything pastry-y. I don’t know why.)
550g PLAIN flour (I used wholemeal, because it was what I had. I am not entirely sure I’d recommend it, but it works, and then I can be smug about the evils of white flour.)
Two teaspoons of sea salt
Two large, ordinary eggs.
For the pig bit:
Six beautiful eggs. Mine were Cotswold Legbar blue, because I am a sucker for Clarence Court and their beautiful golden yolks. No other brand of eggs I’ve ever bought in a city has resembled so closely the eggs you get from keeping chickens. I miss my chickens, but I think keeping chickens in the Tiny Flat might be the final straw for Tall Man, so I spend a small fortune on eggs, instead.
Three fat Cumberland sausages, weighing in total about 250g.
250g pancetta (in practice, I used two of the Co-op’s 140g packets.)
One kilo (!!) of pork shoulder. You will need to either go to a butcher’s for this, or have a very sharp knife and lots of patience. I use The Ginger Pig, and they are entirely wonderful, and have an ace Twitter game: get them to dice your pork shoulder into chunks of about 1/4 inch. If you ask nicely, they may give you the fat, too, for extra crackling.
A Quantity of pork jelly, melted into stock; about 250ml should do it. The Ginger Pig will sell you this cheap, if you ask; if not, talk to me, and we’ll talk about making pork jelly from knuckles and trotters.
Sage leaves; thyme leaves; a sprig of rosemary; a bay leaf; two teaspoons of ground mixed peppers.
You will need also a 20cm cake tin (springform is good); a saucepan; a sharp knife; a chopping board; and a bowl.
We’ll begin, at almost eleven o’clock, with the pastry. Weigh out and dice your lard and butter; pour over the water; and heat ve-e-ery slowly. While it’s melting, weigh out your flour, and your salt; make a well in the centre, like you would making pasta, and crack the two large eggs in. Cut in the eggs; that is to say, bring your knife through the eggs, and into the flour. Repeat. Repeat. Add the fat-water, slowly. This goes against everything you know about pastry, but it works here. Don’t ask me how. You may need to add more flour. I did. It’s fine.
A small trick: tip the fat-water into the bowl in which you’re making the dough, and immediately rinse and fill the saucepan with cold water. Return to the heat: this simultaneously prevents the fat coating the pan, and means that your water, when you come to boil your eggs, will be at temperature.
Form the pastry into a solid- if sticky- dough; wrap in clingfilm, and transfer to the fridge to chill.
PREHEAT YOUR OVEN TO 180 DEGREES.
It is, by now, eleven fifteen, and the Tall Man is getting a little tetchy. “What time can we go to bed?” he says, tetchily, and so you hand him a mug full of sage leaves, thyme leaves, a twig of rosemary and a pair of scissors, and tell him to chop his little heart out. You can, of course, chop this yourself, but it’s a good delegating task. Grind the mixed peppercorns (I used white, green, black and pink) in a pestle and mortar, and add them to the Tall Man’s mug. The peppercorns, in fact, are all the Tall Man’s idea, and very good they are too.
While Tall Man is seasoning, tip the diced shoulder and the pancetta into a bowl. Take the fat sausages, and squeeze the insides from their skins: this is bizarrely satisfying. Mix, briefly. Add Tall Man’s seasoning, and stir vigorously.
Take your eggs, one by one, and lower them into the bubbling water. Cover. Leave the heat on high. Set a timer for one minute. This is the Egg Trick, and it’s marvellous. Prevents green yolks entirely. When one minute has passed, turn the heat off completely, and set a second timer for five minutes.
In that five minutes, take your pastry from the fridge. Separate off a third of it, for the lid, and roll the rest out into a 40cm circle, approximately the thickness of a pair of pound coins. Possibly a little thicker. Mine was too thin, which is why (as you will learn later) the pork fat went everywhere. Roll the remaining third into a circle ~25 cm.
Press gently and firmly the pastry into the tin. You want a decent hang over, in order to crimp the lid on.
The eggs will be done by now: take them out, and plunge them happily into iced water. This stops them cooking further in their shells, and allows you to have iced water in the kitchen, like a lord.
Press about 2/5 of the meat mixture into the pastry casing.
Lay a clean sheet of foil, or newspaper, or something out across your table, and peel your hardboiled eggs. If you bought nice blue eggs, this will be an exceptionally beautiful process- but also tricky. Be very careful. The eggs will be flimsy as fuck. This makes them harder to peel, but exponentially more delicious.
Place the eggs, pointy ends in, onto the meat mixture. Carefully spoon over the rest of the meat; press a bayleaf, whole, into the pinky centre; lay over the lid, and crimp shut. I used the sharp end of the knife to get a neat thin crimp, but my grandmother always used her thumbs. Your call.
Poke a substantial hole through the top crust. You could use here a pie funnel, if you have one. I don’t.
Pop into the oven (marvelling a little). You have now ninety minutes to play with. You may not, however, sleep. I suggest having an enormous row with the person you love best about the practicalities of making pie at one in the morning, or reading a good book. Again, your call.
Set a timer for thirty minutes; at that thirty minutes, turn the oven down to 160, and set the timer again for forty five minutes. Continue with row/good book.
At that forty five minutes, take the pie out of the oven, release springform (but don’t remove), and brush the entire thing with beaten egg. Set the timer for fifteen minutes.
You should, by this point, have finished either the row or the good book, leaving you that fifteen minutes to prepare the hot pig jelly. Warm it up a bit. Prepare the syringes. I did not have a syringe. Instead I used a piping bag. This was not a good plan, per se.
Take the pie out of the oven- carefully, carefully with the plates- and set to cool for five minutes. Now is the tricky bit. Inject this pie with pig jelly like you are Doctor House doing one of those horrible biro-to-the-throat manoeuvres. That is how precise and swift you have to be: however, it is worth noting here that I ended up drizzling lukewarm pig fat across myself, the Tiny Flat and the Tall Man, and still ended up with a smart-looking pie and a happy home life.
It is now two a.m. You may well be so exhausted you wish to die, but doesn’t that pie smell glorious?
Set it on a cooling rack; cover with an enormous bowl or something; go to bed. Sleep well. Do not wake up early. Your pie will not be ready before lunchtime in any case.
I tried to eat mine for breakfast, and it was awful. Truly awful. Soggy, unsettling. The Tall Man and I fought long and bitterly over the awfulness of this pie. In truth, it was really a continuation of the “who makes a pie instead of sleeping” fight, but worse, because the pie was a disaster.
Grimly, self-pityingly, post fight, I cut myself a masochistic slice of horrible, humble pie. It was wonderful. Crisp. Pink. Golden. Somewhere in the sun by the window, the pig fat had crisped itself into gorgeously piggy pastry. There is a sixth moral in this somewhere, but I am too busy eating pie to find it. It’s probably something about triumph. Unlikely triumph, like a small boy driving a mile and a half in the dark to haul his Dad out of a mantrap. Unlikely. Glorious. Pie.
More photographs, as ever, over on the Eating With My Fingers Instagram