Picnic pies

Picnic pies


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The weather in the UK is a capricious beast at the best of times, but the last couple of weeks have seen the sky bare her teeth with monsoon downpours, only to about turn and surprise us with a sunshine smile, and all within the space of fifteen minutes. Who knows what will happen next, but as an incurable optimist, I live in hope.

When I was a student at Leeds University, my housemate and I would celebrate our birthdays every year with a joint picnic in Roundhay Park, and no adverse weather conditions could put us off. These picnics became such a diary event of the year that I even bought a half priced croquet set from Past Times to add to the glamour. More often than not, the croquet would be abandoned after the first hour, and instead we’d spend the afternoon rolling down hills to see who could get to the bottom without spilling their beer.

We had all the usual stuff – salads, cheese, cold meats and Scotch eggs, washed down with several boxes of wine and a bucket of Pimms (did I mention we were students?). This was followed by pudding in the shape of a tin overflowing with “gaudy cakes”. It became a competition between my housemate and I to see who could create the most lurid coloured icing and fit the most jelly tots on top of our fairy cakes. I shan’t offend your taste buds with a recipe here, but needless to say, they injected a crazed, hyperactive mania to the afternoon and no one went home without a blue tongue.

Although those Leeds picnics helped to shape my love of al fresco eating, packing up afterwards was always an unwelcome effort. These days, I try to keep containers to a minimum to avoid carting all that tupperware back and forth. Tin foil parcels can be made in minutes and crushed down to almost nothing, so taking them home for the recycling bin won’t leave you breaking a sweat.

Some picnic irritations can’t be avoided, however hard you try. You can’t always be protected from the odd spell of rain or the discovery at 4:05pm that the park keeper locked the loos at 4, but that’s all part of the British picnic experience, isn’t it? They might lose a little of their charm if everything ran completely to plan, but I try to keep any mishaps firmly outside the picnic hamper.

Hand pies are perfect, as no plates or cutlery are necessary and you’ve still got a free hand for effusive gesticulation or for holding a G&T. You can be as experimental as you like with the fillings, just try to steer clear of anything too saucy. You don’t want to bite into a pie only to lose the contents down your shirt.

I’ve also experimented with a gluten-free sliced picnic pie, inspired by a similar gluten-filled version in Angela Boggiano’s excellent book, Pie. Everyone loves pie after all, so it’s not fair to leave the gluten dodgers out in the cold. These delicious squares can be cooked, pre-sliced and carried in a disposable tin foil tray and hold their shape perfectly for a no plates spread. One thing’s for certain, even if you do get soaked in the summer rain, at least you won’t go home hungry with these.

I filled mine with pork sausage meat layered with a prune and apple stuffing and topped with a generous blob of piccalilli, because I adore prunes and like the idea of my pie being self-relishing. You can swap the prunes for apricots and the rosemary for thyme or sage, or you can leave the stuffing out altogether and instead burrow a boiled egg into the meat for a speedy take on a gala pie.

This is enough for 4 medium or 8 mini pies. The recipe for the hot water crust pastry is from Victoria's blog, where she uses it to make delicious Ham hock and horseradish pies.

For the hot water crust pastry, combine the flour, salt and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Create a dip in the middle, add the egg to it and sprinkle a decent quantity of flour over the top
Add the water, lard and butter to a pan and gradually bring to the boil over a medium heat. When the mixture is boiling, mix the liquid into the flour, using a knife to stir. Knead the dough until smooth and consistent in colour
Use straight away without resting, or it will become very hard and difficult to work with
Now make the pastry cases - these will make smaller, mini pies, but if you like you can use bigger glasses to create 4 larger pies. Split the pastry in half and wrap one half in cling film - keep this in the fridge for later, as it will form the lids for the pastry cases
Grease 8 small, straight-sided glasses or jars with a little oil. Divide the pastry into 8 and roll out each piece to 1/4 inch thickness
Place the pastry sheets over the top of each glass and smooth down until it reaches 2 1/2 inches down the sides of the glasses. Cut out 8 strips of parchment and wrap around each pastry case, securing in place with string. Place in the fridge to firm for approximately half an hour
To make the stuffing, simply soften the onion, apple and garlic in a generous knob of butter until translucent, then bung in the prunes, rosemary and seasoning and stir for a couple of minutes. Chuck in the brandy and let the alcohol burn off before adding the breadcrumbs
Stir it through so the breadcrumbs start to swell, taste for seasoning and decant into a cold bowl to cool
Preheat oven to 180°C/gas mark 4
Simply squidge all the pie filling ingredients together. Slide your pie cases off their glasses and pop them on a baking tray. Fill your cases up to a third full with sausage meat – really squish it down to compress it. Then add a layer of stuffing, followed by another layer of sausage meat
Press your finger into the top layer to make a shallow well and add a small spoonful of picallilli to each pie
Remove the remaining pastry from the cling film and roll out to the same thickness as the cases. Cut out 8 rounds for the lids
Lightly wet the edges of the pies, and place a lid on top of each pie, crimping to seal the edges with your fingers. Brush some egg yolk over each pie to glaze and make a small cut in the middle of each pie to let the steam escape
Bake for 40 minutes until golden and cooked through, then allow to cool before eating
Bake for 40 minutes until golden
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