So why, exactly, do we buy cookbooks?
The simplistic answer, of course, is that we buy them for the recipes, but in reality, it’s almost never that simple.
We may buy a cookbook because we’ve seen the corresponding series on TV. We may have come to like or, even better, to trust the chef-author based on past cookbooks, through a blog or by way of an associated food business. We may want to try our hand at a particular cuisine or we may want to learn the basics. We may be dedicated followers of foodie fashion or we may just like the pictures, and there’s no doubt but that good photography and styling helps to sell.
Increasingly, photography in cookbooks is used, not only to show what the food should, in theory, look like but also to convey a representation of the lifestyle associated with eating that food. Whether we are subsequently disappointed when our dishes (or our lifestyle) do not turn out “like in the pictures” is another matter entirely. And while it can be helpful to see what a dish may look like at the end of our endeavours, some of my most trusted and well-used cookbooks (take a bow, Madhur Jaffrey) have little in the way of glossy pictures and are no less loved by me for that.
In the end, while the pictures are nice, it is the words that count. My favourite cookbooks are the ones that are worth reading not just for the recipes. Give me Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery and an armchair and I will curl up happily. Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater I like as much for their writing as for the style of their recipes. It’s important too, though, that the recipes work.
All of which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to the new Pieminister cookbook. Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t especially familiar with Pieminister, it being a UK-based pie-making enterprise without any permanent outlets here in Ireland. Still, when I was asked if I’d like a review copy of their new book, I took a look at the previews online, decided I liked the look of it (I mean, who doesn’t love pies, eh?), and said yes.
It’s a nicely produced book with (yes) plenty of attractive pictures, cute illustrations and seasonally arranged pie recipes, both savoury and sweet, as well as words to the wise on pie crusts, on tipples to match your pies and other pie lore. What made me smile was the wordplay at work in the recipes, from the fish pie named ‘Pietantic’ and the crumble of mulled wine and plum called ‘Plumble’ to the triangular ‘Chilli Pie-angles’. Puns aside, though, would the recipes work? The proof of the pudding, it seems, would be in the pie.
Potato, Cheese and Mushroom Pie
Having looked through the Pieminister book, it was almost inevitable that I would choose to make their cheese and potato pie. A simple recipe, with lots of sliced potato, flavoursome cheese, mushrooms and cream all under a puff pastry hood. In other words, there was a lot to like, in both potato and pie terms, so I got to it.
Shockingly for me, though, I found that the amount of potato in the original recipe was too much relative to the rest of the ingredients. The mixture lacked moisture and turned out to be quite a dry pie, so in my adaptation below, I have reduced the quantity of potato by a third and added more liquid. And though the original recipe recommended floury potatoes, really, I would suggest that waxy potatoes, which are not as dry and which retain their shape and bite, are better for this.
I have also reduced the amount of pastry, as I only needed around half of the original quantity specified. I added thyme, rosemary and some extra parsley simply because I felt like it, used onion instead of shallots because that’s what I had to hand and used some dried porcini mushrooms because they were lying about in the cupboard. If you don’t have dried mushrooms, you can simply use some extra fresh mushrooms and substitute vegetable stock or water for the mushroom soaking liquid. For the cheese part, there are lots of great Irish cheeses to choose from and I went with a good vintage cheddar for this. I’ve also modified the steps a little to something that made a bit more sense to me having worked through the recipe – one which, truth be told, needed a bit of work to make it work but worked out in the end.
- 250g puff pastry
- 25g dried porcini mushrooms
- 500ml water
- 1kg potatoes, preferably a waxy variety
- 50g butter, divided
- 400g mixed fresh mushrooms (field, oyster, chestnut), halved or quartered if large
- 1 medium onion, about 175g, thinly sliced
- 5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
- 1 tsp finely chopped rosemary needles
- 100ml cream
- 200g cheese (fontina, gruyère, taleggio or vintage cheddar), chopped into approx. 1cm cubes
- 4 tblsp chopped flat leaf parsley
- freshly ground black pepper to taste
- squeeze of lemon juice (optional)
- beaten egg for glazing (optional)
You’ll also need:
- A large frying pan, a large saucepan and an ovenproof dish (mine was about 28cm x 21cm x 5cm deep)
- If you’re using frozen puff pastry, remove it from the freezer in advance, so that it has enough time to defrost properly.
- Soak the porcini mushrooms in about 500ml water and set aside.
- Preheat your oven to 180C.
- Scrub the potatoes and, leaving them unpeeled, cut into slices about 0.5cm thick and rinse well under cold water.
- Bring a pan of about 1.5l water to the boil, add 2 tsp salt and the potato slices. Return to the boil, then simmer gently, covered, for 6-8 minutes or until just fork tender. Drain well and then cover with a tea-towel to absorb excess steam.
- Meanwhile, place a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add about half of the butter and, when melted, add the fresh mushrooms. Fry, without stirring too much, until they have released their juices and have started to brown, 10-12 minutes.
- Remove the mushrooms from the pan, add the other half of the butter and, when melted, add the sliced onion. Fry for around 7 or 8 minutes or until well softened.
- Add the chopped garlic, thyme and rosemary to the onions and stir and fry for another minute or so.
- Add the porcini mushrooms and their soaking liquid to the onions. Allow this to come to the boil and then simmer for about 5 minutes. Add the cream and simmer for a minute more.
- Remove from the heat and add the fried mushrooms, cheese and parsley along with black pepper to taste. Check for salt and add more if it needs it (but remember that the cheese will add some saltiness too). Add a squeeze or two of lemon juice to taste.
- Add the cheese, onion and mushroom mix to the cooked potato slices and stir to combine. Check seasoning again before pouring the contents into your ovenproof dish.
- Top the dish with a sheet of puff pastry and trim to the edges of the dish. Cut a small opening in the centre of the pastry to allow steam to escape. Brush the pastry with beaten egg if you like and place in the oven for around 25-30 minutes, until the pastry is nicely golden. Dish this up along with salads or perhaps as a side-dish to some pork.
- If you wanted to make this even more substantial, you could, say, add some cooked ham to the pie just before baking
- Serves around 4 people