You might not like this, but the finest, flakiest pastry dough is traditionally made with suet or lard, which is the rendered fat of one of our four-legged friends. The finest grade of lard is leaf lard, the fat from around the pig’s kidneys. You can find leaf lard at a butcher (sometimes) or a farmers market (sometimes). Don’t buy hydrogenated lard at the supermarket, it’s full of trans fats and it’s not good for you. Go with clarified butter instead.
And yes, the right kind of fats are good for you – that’s basically any form of fat that wasn’t invented in a twentieth century food scientist’s lab. If you are worried about eating animal fat, just skip your next white chocolate hazelnut breve and we’ll call it even. If you still doubt me, read In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan and you will never look at the Western diet the same way again.
If you are lucky enough to find a good chunk of leaf lard, here is how you render it: dice the lard into ¼” cubes. In a saucepan (I use a thick bottomed one to prevent burning) add about ¼” of water, add the lard, and set heat to low. Stir it frequently and do not leave it unattended – for SEVERAL HOURS, depending on how much lard you are rendering (hey, no pain, no gain). As it renders the cracklings will float to the surface. When they sink to the bottom, that’s it – the lard is done. Strain off the cracklings through cheesecloth, pour the lard into a jar, and chill it quickly (the quicker the chill, the finer-grained the lard). The end result is a beautiful white silky fat with almost no smell and slightly less firmness than butter – it’s hard in the fridge, but take a piece out and it will melt in your fingers. Don’t throw away the cracklings, by the way – they are a delightful addition when you fry just about anything.
This is a recipe for Bastela, pigeon pie. The recipe is originally Moroccan, but since I have substituted chicken for pigeon and added pig fat, that more or less mitigates the heritage, so now it is simply chicken pie (Moroccan style).
Pidgin Pigeon Pie
1 ½ lb chicken thighs, meat separated from the bones as much as possible and cut into chunks (I favor thighs for all pies and stews where I can pick out the bones, because they are so deeply tasty compared to the blander cuts of chicken)
1 ½ cups chopped onion
1 cup chopped parsley
1 tsp black pepper
1 tsp fresh ginger, chopped fine
1 tsp nutmeg
1 cinnamon stick
1 tsp turmeric
1 tsp salt
1 Tb butter
½ cup olive oil (it seems like a lot, but that’s Moroccan cookery for you)
Put all the filling ingredients into a saucepan over high heat, including the thigh bones. I use a tagine with a cast iron base, made by Le Creuset (more on tagines later!), but any good saucepan will do. After about ten minutes, when the chicken is browning and has absorbed the spices, add two cups of hot water.
Cover and cook on low heat until the chicken is done, which means at least half an hour. Take out the meat and debone it. Ditch the bones. Raise the temperature on the stock and let all of the water boil off – all you want left is the slushy, oily mixture of onion and spices.
You can of course use puff pastry from the supermarket freezer, and, depending on your pastry skills, your pie might turn out better. But if you’re going to do it properly and get with the full lard experience, here’s the drill:
2 cups flour
½ tsp fine sea salt
1 tsp baking powder
Combine these dry ingredients. Sift the flour if you are feeling extra meticulous. Add:
¾ cup cold rendered leaf lard
I am told if you have a food processor you can pulse this all together until the lard is in pea-sized pieces. I have no room in my kitchen for a food processor, so I rub the lard gently into the flour for the same result. You have to keep everything as cool and concise as possible for good pastry – the idea is that when the moment of baking comes around there are still chunks of unmelted lard in the pastry, which is what gives the pastry its fine flaky qualities.
Add about 1/3 cup of ice water (see above for remarks on the importance of coolness) until the mixture can be squished together to form a solid mass. You want to add minimum possible water and still produce a rollable mass – this is another of the golden rules of pastry. Adding water causes the flour to develop gluten, which is what makes bread elastic – but you don’t want pastry to be elastic. So – minimum water, ice cold, until you can form the dough into one squishable mass. At this point, divide it into two, form it into disks, wrap it in plastic wrap, and put it in the refrigerator for half an hour.
Preheat your oven to 450 F (230 C).
Roll out the pie base on a lightly floured counter, rolling always from the center of the dough (it works a hell of a lot better that way). Grease your pie pan with butter (or more lard, if you’re going to be hardcore) and put the dough in. Dump in all the picked meat on top.
Crack three eggs into a cup. Using a pastry brush (you have a pastry brush, right?), brush egg white on the edge of the pie where the top crust will adhere. Then dump the rest of the eggs into your simmering chickeny-oniony-oily base. Stir it all up until the whites begin to cook. Pour the slurry into your pie.
Roll out the pie top. Top the pie. Crimp the edges or something fancy like that. Paint the top of the crust with egg white (this is supposed to add golden appeal, but I find it also useful for telling when the pie is done).
Bake it for 10 minutes at 450 F, then lower the temperature to 350 F (175 C) and cook until the pastry is starting to get golden – about 30 minutes, but go by your nose.
Cool the pie on a windowsill for reasons of cliché.