Have you gone to the trouble of trying to make your Christmas or Christmas pudding, but you realise that it’s simply not going to work out? Have no fear, there is still pie-making all year round. I’m talking about gratin, pie, flan, savoury pie, anything that can be whipped up and served, in its most basic form, as an accompaniment to other pleasures.
What makes a good crisp, clean custard pie? What’s my secret? I like French custard, but American is fine. I do check the humidity before starting to make the custard; if the humidity is high enough, then the sauce will be flakier. The skin of the custard pears is a crucial aspect of the puff pastry recipe. A well-baked pie is not something to be taken lightly: you want to crisp it, then get the pie underdone. Good crisp pie is really the best texture pie is supposed to have.
I served mine with almonds, with plenty of cream, with a dash of cognac. A well-made pie should not have too much of anything.
Cook your custard pie slightly underdone, so you can take the cream, the wine, the nuts and the cognac, without it falling over. You can lower the pastry significantly in weight, but it needs to be pretty skinny. If I am unsure, I don’t use pastry – a flaky dough or a puff pastry pie only gets you this good of a pie. You can cook the custard on the hob, so the juices seep through the pastry and the custard cooks. If you are serving a big pie and not a small one, bake the small pie first, to do the fat from the bigger one and catch the juices, then cut the pie into small pieces and finish the puds at the same time, so you have a bigger serving of warm, crisp pie.
The apples vary from year to year, and are sometimes a mixed variety of apples, often a different kind of Golden Delicious as well as Granny Smith and other varieties, some of which are harder to get than others.
I have never set any kitchen tasks above a minimum of effort. If I have to get it wrong, I will be honest about it, as long as I know I got it done.
If I am doubt-ing a recipe, then I start to cut it into small pieces, cut the pastry into coins, and use a knife to move the pieces along, for a cleaner, more cohesive piece of pie. I try to make pie the simplest thing you can do, by using the minimum of ingredients and filling it up with sufficient flavour. We make the crust with sifted flour and butter, as I prefer the breadcrumbs used in rustic pies. Tart leaves, edible flowers and vanilla seeds can also be used, but I recommend herbs and chives, as they have a crispness. You can put any of the herbs with the pastry into it. Pecorino has a nice tanginess that I like for a savoury pie.
A deliciously crusty pie in less than 20 minutes. Photograph: Elena Heatherwick/Photopress
If you put a shallot in the sauce, you add a subtle sweetness to the pie. Maybe a little more or less than you want. My love of anchovies is made up of years of trying to get a taste that didn’t come. I had never tried them before I had joined Michelin restaurant. When I put the anchovies in the top of the pie, and let them steam – they made very little paste and tasted delicious – I was convinced I was not going to find them there any more. But they are out there: perhaps only someone who cooks a tarte tatin can make these in preparation, but the dish must be started and finished using an onion fondant.
This way, everything is jelled and all of the liquid created when the anchovies slowly steam, by adding less to the sauce as it rises. The swirls of the tart sauce and the crisp crust fit together beautifully. The piece of sweet pastry is delicate and flaky.
• This recipe is taken from Fresh Cooking: A Simple, Delicious Guide to Cooking for Everyone by Mark McEwan, published by Headline at £20. To order a copy for £15 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&