Chicken pot pie was THE comfort food of my mid-century American childhood.
More than hamburgers, macaroni cheese, or even marshmallows melted on sticks over an open fire. (But maybe not more than peanut butter and banana sandwiches.)
Growing up in New York the great treat was a visit to The Automat on the corner of East 42nd Street and Third Avenue. It was magic - push coins in the slot and a little glass door opens to a freshly baked golden pastry filled with squares of chicken, carrots and peas in a creamy sauce. Push in more coins for the lemon meringue pie. Or maybe the rice pudding. Yum. Now long gone, the last (the one on 42nd street) of a once 30 strong chain in the city closed in 1991, a treasured part of Vanished New York.
My mother never made a pot pie – she was not into pastry nor baking of any kind – but the freezer chests at any supermarket were always well supplied. Even better, family supper recipes like pot pies were the focus of magazines like Ladies Home Journal and Women’s Day and anything which made good use of leftovers was always popular. I became a pie baker.
It helped that chicken pot pie is incredibly flexible. Instead of shortcrust or puff (or even filo) pastry, pop baking powder biscuits on top. Or cornbread batter (reputably Oprah’s favourite), Or dumplings. Use cooked turkey instead of chicken. And any and as many vegetables you like (freshly cooked or canned). Try gravy from a roast chicken (or turkey) instead of bechamel sauce or cream. And wine (white, or dry sherry or dry vermouth).
Popular history has it that the chicken pot pie was brought to America by English colonists (like my pioneering paternal ancestors, who arrived in the wilds of what came to be North Carolina in the 17th century) but in the many years I have lived here in the UK, I have never been offered one (fish pie, shepherd’s pie, cottage pie, pork pie, frequently).
Nigel Slater discovered a delicious “American Pie” at a grand San Francisco hotel. Delia offers her own version, as does Diana Henry in The Telegraph. Felicity Cloake’s “How to make the best” series in The Guardian gives a thoroughly researched and undoubtedly excellent variation. The simplest recipe, just leeks, onions and stock embracing the gently cooked chicken, is found in Jane Grigson’s “chicken and leek pie from Wales” in her beautiful classic “English Food”.
For a basic chicken pot pie, the recipe I most frequently refer to is James Beard’s "Old-Fashioned Rich Chicken Pie" in "American Cookery” a lengthy process which starts with poaching a whole bird - perfect when you have the time and are feeding a half dozen or more..
But generally I just make a simple variation of chicken in gravy with whatever vegetables are to hand and top it with bought pastry. Easy for a week night. Cream, dry vermouth, mushrooms and tarragon lift it to delirious heights.
Tarragon & Mushroom Chicken Pot Pie for two
2 boneless medium sized chicken breasts (about 350 gr or 12 ounces)
2 tablespoons olive oil
100 gr button mushrooms, sliced thin
2 tablespoons finely chopped onion or shallot
1 tablespoon finely chopped tarragon
3 tablespoons dry vermouth (or dry sherry or white wine)
1 cup (150ml) creme fraisch (or single cream)
ready made shortcrust pastry
1 egg, beaten
In a small pan, fry chopped onion and mushrooms in olive oil over low heat until softened. Put aside until needed.
Cut chicken breasts into bite sized pieces and place in a small, shallow pan with the vermouth (or sherry). Cover and poach very gently over low heat until cooked.
Add sautéed onions, mushrooms and chopped tarragon to the chicken and season with salt and pepper. Add creme fraisch (or cream) and mix.
Roll pastry to fit a 26cm x 9cm oval oven dish. Place chicken mixture in the dish and cover with pastry. Use a small knife to prick air holes near the centre and brush with beaten egg.
Bake in a preheated 200C/400F oven until bubbling and golden brown - about 30-40 minutes.