"'TO EAT!' Pasha exclaimed. 'That's why anyone skates, so you can stop and have a meat pie . . . pass around vodka or brandy.' "
Behold the meat pie! An ancient favorite of cooks and storytellers alike, this pastry has played a role in the most diverse cultures and literature. Here it has a bite-sized part in Martin Cruz Smith's best seller "Gorky Park" when the protagonist, Chief Investigator Arkady Renko, and his sidekicks mention it as they reconstruct a scenario involving the murders of three people in Moscow's Gorky Park.
So, does the meat pie solve the big caper? Certainly not. But its mention gives this scene an unmistakable Russian flavor and adds a nice touch of "local color" -- pirozhki (Russian meat pies) are as prevalent in Russia as empanadas are in Latin America or Cornish pasties in England.
As a member of the meat pie family, pirozhki play another important part in the Epicurean past. Historically, meat pies have endured centuries of appetites to remind us that food was influenced by necessity first, then climate, class structure and regional habits. Although ethnic edibles like pirozhki, empanadas and pasties have become popular party fare, they were originally created as a workingman's meal since they could easily be held in one hand and eaten hot or cold.
These small meat pies are prepared by enclosing ingredients in a pastry crust turnover-fashion and baking without a dish. In a more aristocratic vein, English steak-and-kidney pies and Viennese veal-and-ham pies are baked in casseroles that conceal the meats, vegetables and sauces in delicate sheets of pastry.
No matter the manner of pie, meat pastries offer more than the textural tastes of combined meat and pastry; the hand-held varieties are a welcome treat in school lunch boxes and the casseroles become the main focus of any dinner when the top crusts are decorated with bits of extra pastry, brushed with an egg wash and presented golden, crisp, and steaming hot.
Equally enticing, meat pies are chock full of folklore and apocryphal tales. In fact, so much of the actual nature of the countries of origin is reflected in these stories that it is worth the telling of just one.
A few years ago, friends living in Cambridge, England swore that they read an article printed in a London paper concerning the integrity of Cornish pasties. A customer feasting upon a pasty provided by a local pub accused the pub owner of serving substandard pies, and, convinced of this, took the owner to court. Before rendering a verdict, the presiding judge requested documented information on the evolution of Cornish pasties to determine the criteria by which to judge a pie. The earliest recorded findings determined that the pies were designed for medieval tin miners and that one characteristic feature was the pasty's ability to withstand a tumble down a mining shaft. The judge ordered the pub's pies tested, and the pasties were thrown down a shaft and deemed edible. Case dismissed. And the evidence? Presumably eaten for lunch.
Although the variety of meat pies ranges from the resilient to the sublime, the following recipes are guaranteed to be tender yet hearty examples of pies fit to be set before a king. GRANDMA RAE'S ROSTOV ON THE DON PIROZHKI (Makes 20-25)
Rostov on the Don is situated in the southern part of the Ukraine. These pirozhki have a delicate, almost brittle pastry shell surrounding a robust, dill-flecked filling. Pastry: 2 cups flour 1/2 pound (1 cup) chilled butter, cut into bits 6 to 8 tablespoons cold water Filling: 3 to 4 tablespoons rendered chicken fat 1 1/2 cups onions, finely chopped 1 1/4 pounds calf's liver, minced 1 1/4 pounds extra lean ground beef 1 to 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper 6 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped 1 teaspoon fresh parsley 1 egg, beaten 1/2 cup water Melted butter for brushing pastry
To make the pastry rub the flour and butter together in a deep bowl using your fingers. When the mixture begins to resemble flakes of coarse meal, pour in 6 tablespoons cold water all at once and gather the dough into a ball. If the flakes do not adhere, add more cold water, a tablespoon at a time. Chill the dough, covered, for several hours or overnight.
Roll the dough out on a lightly floured board until it is 1-inch thick. As you roll the dough lift it up and sprinkle the board with flour to prevent it from sticking. Fold the dough into a 3-inch-thick strip by folding one end over the other to make a 3-layer packet. Turn the pastry around and roll it into a 1-inch-thick strip. Repeat this entire process twice more and refrigerate the dough for at least an hour.
In a large skillet, cook the onions in the rendered chicken fat until they are clear. Stir in the calf's liver and ground beef, separating the meat as it cooks to break up any large chunks. When the meat is browned, add the salt, pepper, dill, parsley and beaten egg. Have the heat high enough to scramble the egg in the mixture. When the ingredients are thoroughly combined, add the water and cook for 5 minutes. Set aside and allow to cool completely, before placing the filling in the pastry.
To assemble, roll the dough out on a lightly floured board, until it is about 1/8-inch thick. With a 3 1/2 to 4-inch cookie cutter, or using the rim of a glass, cut out as many circles as possible. Gather the scraps into a ball, roll out again and continue cutting circles until the dough is used up. Drop 1 to 2 tablespoons of filling in the center of each circle (or enough to fill center). Lightly flatten the filling with the bottom of the spoon making a rectangle shape -- this will be the shape of the finished pirozhki. Fold one long edge up over the filling almost covering it. Fold in the two short ends of the dough about 1/2-inch, then fold over the remaining long side of the dough, like an egg roll. Place the pirozhki 1 inch apart seam side down on a buttered baking sheet and brush their tops with melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees for about 35 minutes or until they are golden brown. Serve with a light soup and salad. SOPHIA'S PIROZHKI (Makes 25)
This is an old family recipe from Leningrad, once known as St. Petersburg. These pirozhki have a very rich pastry shell and contain a light, crumbly filling. Pastry: 3 cups flour 12 tablespoons butter, cut into bits 3/4 cup sour cream 2 egg yolks Filling: 2 tablespoons butter 2 large onions, finely chopped 3/4 pound mushrooms, sliced 2 1/2 pounds ground beef 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons dry dill 1 to 2 teaspoons salt 2 to 3 tablespoons port (substitute worcestershire sauce or sherry) 3 to 4 hard-cooked eggs 8 tablespoons chilled butter, cut into bits 1 whole egg, beaten Melted butter
Using your fingers rub the flour and butter together in a deep bowl until the mixture resembles coarse meal. In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks into the sour cream until the mixture is smooth and add it gradually to the flour. Slowly knead the dough into a ball. Refrigerate, covered, for 1/2 hour.
To make the filling, saute' the onions and mushrooms in the butter and set aside. Brown the meat, using a fork to separate any large chunks. When the meat is cooked, drain excess fat and add the onions, mushrooms, pepper, dill, salt and port and cook 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the mixture from the skillet to a bowl with a slotted spoon. Mash the hard-cooked eggs and combine them with the meat mixture. Refrigerate the filling until it is very cold and toss in the chilled butter bits.
To assemble, roll the dough out on a lightly floured board until it is about 1/4 inch thick. With a 2 1/2-inch cookie cutter, or using the rim of a glass, cut out as many circles as possible. Gather the scraps into a ball, roll out again and continue cutting circles until the dough is used up. Drop 1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons (or enough to fill) of filling into the center of each circle and flatten the filling with the bottom of the spoon, making a rectangle shape. Fold one long side of the dough up over the filling, almost covering it. Fold the two short ends of the dough in toward the center about 1/4 inch and fold over the remaining long end of dough. Place the pirozhki side by side and seam side down on a buttered baking sheet and brush their tops with the beaten egg and lots of melted butter. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden brown. Serve with a light soup and salad. EMPANADAS LA PLATA (Makes 10 to 12)
These flaky empanadas come from Eduardo Frapiccini and Joseph Myles, the chefs at La Plata restaurant in Silver Spring. Pastry: 4 cups flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon sugar 20 tablespoons (2 1/2 sticks) chilled butter 1 cup water Filling: 1 tablespoon cooking oil 1 cup onions, finely chopped 2 1/2 pounds lean ground beef 1/2 tablespoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 bay leaf 1/2 teaspoon pepper 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped 1 teaspoon ground cumin seeds 1/2 teaspoon oregano leaves 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/2 teaspoon powdered oregano 4 tablespoons raisins 2 hard-cooked eggs, chopped 1 egg, beaten
In a deep bowl, combine the flour, salt, sugar and butter. Using your fingers, rub the flour and butter together until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Pour the water over the mixture all at once, work through and gather the dough into a compact ball. Refrigerate the dough, covered, for several hours or overnight if possible.
In a large skillet, cook the onions in the cooking oil until they are clear. Stir in the ground beef, separating the meat as it cooks to break up any large chunks. When the meat is browned drain off fat and add the sugar, salt, bay leaf, pepper, garlic, cumin, oregano leaves, paprika, powdered oregano and raisins. Allow to cook for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the bay leaf and toss in the chopped hard-cooked eggs. Refrigerate the filling for several hours, until it is completely chilled.
To assemble roll out the dough on a lightly floured board until it is 1/4 to 1/8 inch thick. To prevent sticking, lift up the dough from time to time and sprinkle the board with flour. Using the rim of a large empty coffee can (about 5 inches in diameter) cut circles. Gather the scraps of dough together into a ball and repeat the process. Place a handful (about 2 to 3 tablespoons, or enough to fill) of the filling in the center of each circle, leaving at least 1 inch of dough exposed around it. Moisten the exposed dough with a finger dipped in water and fold the empanada in half to form a crescent. Place the rim of the coffee can over the excess edges of the pie and move the rim in about 1/4-inch from the edge. Gently press the rim down to seal the edges together, but do not press too hard, or you will cut the edges off. Pick up the can and place the rim about 1/4 inch behind the first indentation and gently press again. Arrange the empanadas on an ungreased baking sheet, brush their tops with the beaten egg and bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until they are golden. These are large enough to make a complete meal when served with a salad. HANNAH'S FAVORITE LAMB AND SAUSAGE PIE (Makes 4 to 6 servings) Pastry: 2 cups flour 12 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into bits 6 to 8 tablespoons cold water Filling: 4 tablespoons olive oil or butter 4 tablespoons minced shallots 1 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced 2 pounds ground pork sausage 2 pounds ground lamb 1/2 pound pearl onions 4 carrots, peeled and diced 3 large potatoes, peeled and diced 1 teaspoon tarragon 1 teaspoon marjoram 2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 3 tablespoons soy sauce 4 tablespoons flour 1 cup water 1 egg yolk 3 tablespoons worcestershire sauce (substitute sherry or port) 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon cream or water
Using your fingers rub the flour and butter together in a deep bowl. When the mixture resembles coarse meal, pour in 6 tablespoons of cold water all at once and gather the dough into a ball. If the flakes of dough do not adhere, add more cold water, a tablespoon at a time. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured board and gently knead into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and refrigerate for at least 3 hours.
In a large skillet, saute' the shallots and mushrooms in the butter or olive oil. Remove the shallots and mushrooms from the skillet and set aside. Brown the sausage and lamb together, separating the meat with a fork as it cooks, to break up any large chunks. Drain off 1/2 of the fat that accumulates and add the mushrooms, shallots, pearl onions, carrots, potatoes, tarragon, marjoram, parsley, pepper and soy sauce. Fold these ingredients together and cook until the carrots are almost tender, about 2/3 cooked (about 20 minutes). Whisk the flour, water and egg yolk together and gradually fold into the filling. If the filling becomes too dense add more water until the gravy that is produced is smooth, yet thick, and the ingredients hold together. Remove from the heat and fold in the worcestershire sauce. Refrigerate, covered, until cold.
To assemble roll out 2/3 of the dough (for the bottom layer of the pie) on a lightly floured board. Return remaining 1/3 dough to refrigerator. Roll out from the center of the dough to conform to the shape of your baking dish, allowing at least 1 3/4 inches overlap. To prevent sticking and assure an even thickness, occasionally lift and turn the dough, while sprinkling flour beneath it. When the pastry is very thin, about 1/8-inch, rub your hands with flour and carefully fold the dough in half, lift it and center it into the baking dish. Maneuvering one side at a time, gently pat and press the dough in place (do not allow folds along the sides of the dish.) Trim the edges of the dough, leaving about 3/4 inch extending beyond the rim of the baking dish. Gather the scraps into a ball and refrigerate the dough.
Spoon the cold filling into the baking dish. Roll out the top crust in the same manner as the bottom. Fold it in half, gently lift it and center it on top of the filling, allowing 3/4-inch to hang over the rim of the baking dish. Tuck edges under and crimp decoratively using your fingers or a floured fork to seal. Use the egg wash to attach decorations made from the scraps of dough that you refrigerated. Brush the entire top crust with the egg wash and prick the pastry shell with a fork in several places before baking. To maintain its decorative shape, the assembled pie should be refrigerated for at least 1/2 hour before baking. Place the pie in an unheated oven at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours or until the top crust is golden and the juices are bubbling through the holes. STEAK AND KIDNEY PIE WITH HERB CRUST (Makes 4 to 6 servings) Pastry: 1 1/4 cups flour 8 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits 3 tablespoons cream cheese, cut into bits and softened 1 teaspoon chopped chives Filling: 3 tablespoons flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 2 pounds steak (any cut is fine), cut into 1/2 inch cubes 1/2 pound veal or lamb kidneys, skin and fat removed, and sliced 6 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon garlic, crushed 1 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced 4 leeks, thoroughly washed and thinly sliced 3 cups potatoes, peeled and diced 1/2 teaspoon ground sage 1/2 teaspoon thyme 3/4 teaspoon paprika 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped 1 cup water or beef broth (more for saucier pie) 1 cup frozen peas 1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon cream or water
Using your fingers rub the flour, butter and cream cheese together. Add the chives and gather the mixture into a ball by kneading it together. Refrigerate, covered, for at least 1 hour.
To make the filling mix the salt and pepper with 3 tablespoons flour. Toss the steak and kidney pieces in the flour. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter in a skillet, add meat and garlic and cook over medium heat until meat is browned. In another pan, saute' the mushrooms and leeks in 2 tablespoons butter and add to the meats. Stir in the potatoes, sage, thyme, paprika, parsley and water, cover and cook until the meat is nearly cooked, probably no more than 45 minutes. Allow mixture to cool completely. Fold in the frozen peas when you assemble the pie.
To assemble, pour the meat mixture into a 4-quart baking dish. Roll out pastry on a lightly floured board (rub your hands with vegetable oil to assure easy handling of the dough). The dough can be as much as 1 inch thick or as little as 1/4 inch thick, however, cooking time will be longer for a thicker crust. The crust should be rolled out allowing at least a 1-inch overhang. Fold it in half, gently lift the dough and center it on top of the filling. Tuck edges under and press lightly into the rim of the baking dish. Crimp or flute the edges or use a floured fork to seal the pie. Use egg wash to attach decorations made from scraps of dough. Brush the entire top crust with the egg wash and prick the pastry shell before baking. Bake the pie with 1-inch-thick crust at 400 degrees for 45 minutes or until the crust is golden and juices are bubbling through the vent marks.