Throughout my cookbook-author travels, I have witnessed doughphobia — the dread and worry over making pie dough that affects what seems to be a significant percentage of home cooks. Here’s my advice: Don’t let it keep you from offering up a crowd-pleasing slab pie at your next get-together.
A slab pie can be made in a rimmed baking sheet with inch-high sides. For the accompanying recipe , I use a 9-by-13-inch baking sheet. This pie is generously topped with a cloud bank of mashed potatoes, like a shepherd’s pie.
That classic dish can be magnificent, but without a bottom crust it is a casserole with a top hat. To qualify as pie, a bottom crust is crucial, as the crust allows the pie to be served by the slice rather than by the spoonful. When it is nuanced and spiced, this crust complements the filling, adding to the overall pie experience.
Doughphobics, meet my olive oil crust. Mixed together with a fork, it is then gathered into a soft dough and — get this — just pressed into place. Yes! The dough is not rolled out, but it does require methodical work: gathering small bits of dough, and pressing them, first along the sides and corners of the pan, and then finishing by firmly forming the thin bottom layer. I have found that working in the typical order of dough assembly (bottom, then sides) consistently results in thin, crumbly sides that fail to reach the top of the pan.
When is a topping of mashed potatoes a bad thing? Never is the right answer. When I serve mashed potatoes that sit aside slices of turkey, I make sure they are creamy and light as air. But for mashed potatoes destined to become pie topping, they need to hold a peak. Resist the urge to add more milk and butter. The more pretty little peaks top the pie, the more crispy browned bits there are on the finished dish.
And when a pie is covered in luscious mashed potatoes, the filling needs to be especially savory or an individual bite might be bland. So I jazzed up the standard “mince” as the Brits would say by turning to the international aisle at the grocery store. Harissa is a chili-delivery system that functions like fiery tomato paste. Each manufacturer’s harissa is different, so taste and adjust my recipe to suit yourself.
I’ve also created an easy spice blend for the ground lamb and carrots that is based on the seasoning used in merguez sausage. Remember, the potatoes can dull the pie’s overall flavor. As a rule, because it is surrounded by both crust and topping, a savory pie filling needs to be just a little more: more salty, more spicy, more assertive. Taste the filling before assembling the pie and make any adjustments necessary.
Each part of this slab pie can be prepared in advance, which makes it a solid, back-pocket recipe for the coming season of entertaining. I like to parbake the crust, several hours or even a day ahead. Having it ready to go means dinner can be ready in a snap. The filling can be frozen and defrosted. The mashed potato topping, which needs last-minute attention to reinstate the fluffiness, can be refrigerated for a day or two.
Now’s the time to work on your doughphobia, as we head into the baking months. This pie’s a fine place to start. Press in a crust and you’ll be on your way.
Barrow is a Washington cookbook author, whose “Pie Squared: Irresistibly Easy Sweet and Savory Slab Pies” is out this month (Grand Central Life and Style). She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
12 to 18 servings (makes one 9-by-13-inch pie)
Harissa, a paste sold in tubes or jars (found in the international foods aisle, or near the ketchup, at many grocery stores) can have widely varying chili heat, so taste it before dolloping it into the sauce.
MAKE AHEAD: The filling and mashed potatoes can be refrigerated a day in advance; re-whip the potatoes before piling them over the pie filling. The dough can be refrigerated several hours in advance. You will have Moroccan spice mix left over, which can be sprinkled into scrambled eggs and on avocado toast. It can be stored at room temperature for up to 6 months.
From Bring It! columnist Cathy Barrow’s “Pie Squared: Irresistibly Easy Sweet and Savory Slab Pies,” (Grand Central Life and Style, 2018).
For the crust
1⅔ cups flour
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
1½ teaspoons sweet Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton)
⅔ cup mild olive oil
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons water
For the filling
2 pounds ground lamb, preferably from the shoulder
2 medium onions, cut into a ½ -inch dice (about 2 cups)
3 cloves garlic, grated
1 teaspoon peeled/grated fresh ginger root
4 teaspoons Moroccan spice mix (see NOTE)
1 pound carrots, trimmed, scrubbed well and cut into 2-by-½ -inch matchsticks
2 tablespoons harissa paste (see headnote)
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
For the topping
2½ pounds russet potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed
½ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
¼ cup whole milk, warmed
For the crust: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Use a fork to stir together the flour, salt and paprika in a mixing bowl. Use the same fork to whisk together the oil and water in a liquid measuring cup.
Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the oil mixture. Use the fork to draw the flour into the oil, turning the bowl at the same time. Be patient; it will come together as a wet dough. Gather the ball of dough with your hands and plop it into a rimmed quarter-baking sheet.
Pinch off pieces of dough to first build up the sides of the crust, about ¼ -inch thick and as high as the sides of the baking sheet. Work all the way around and use the heel of your hand or the flat bottom of a glass to spread the remaining dough along the bottom of the pan. Bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes; there is no need to pierce the dough or use weights on it.
Meanwhile, make the filling: Brown the lamb in a large skillet over medium-high heat, breaking up any clumps. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the meat to a bowl, then pour off all but 3 tablespoons of the fat from the pan. Stir in the onions; cook for about 5 minutes, until softened. Stir in the garlic, ginger and the Moroccan spice mix. Cook for another minute or two, until fragrant.
Stir in the carrots; cook for 2 or 3 minutes, then spoon in the harissa, tomato paste and salt, stirring to distribute evenly. Return the lamb to the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low and let the filling mixture cook for about 10 minutes, so the flavors meld and the carrots soften. Remove from the heat, then stir in the mint. Let cool.
For the topping: Place the potatoes in a medium saucepan and cover with cool water. Add a big pinch of salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Cover and cook for 12 to 15 minutes, until fork-tender. Drain all the water from the pan, leaving the potatoes, cover and let them steam/dry for 5 minutes. Beat the potatoes using a stand mixer fitted with the balloon-whisk attachment (medium speed), a hand mixer or a handheld masher, adding the butter, salt and pepper. Gradually add the warm milk, constantly beating, until the potatoes are velvety smooth and not too stiff.
When ready to assemble, preheat (or increase) the oven temperature to 400 degrees.
Spoon the filling into the baked crust, spreading it to the edges. Dollop the potatoes across the top, then gently spread them to the edges, making sure to completely cover the filling. Use the back of a spoon to make peaks in the topping. Bake (middle rack) for 40 minutes, until the edges of the potatoes are browning and the filling is heated through.
NOTE: To make the Moroccan spice mix, toast 1 tablespoon each of coriander seed, cumin seed and anise or fennel seed in a small, dry skillet over medium heat for several minutes, until fragrant. Let cool, then grind to a coarse powder in a dedicated spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a glass jar, then add 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground cayenne pepper and 2 teaspoons ground turmeric; seal and shake to incorporate. The yield is about 5 tablespoons.
More from Food: