Suet has rather snuck up on me over the years to become one of my absolute favourite ingredients. It doesn’t sound great on paper- fancy some animal kidney fat? But it’s one of those ingredients that does things that can’t be replicated by anything else and is touched with magical alchemy when added to a multitude of sweet and savoury dishes.
It’s first recorded use in this country is early in the 17th century – in something called an ‘English College Pudding’ which was served to Oxford University students as early as 1617. From what I can work out a ‘College pudding’ is a cousin of our Christmas pudding, crammed as it was with suet, dried fruits and spice.
Suet is absolutely crucial to the success of Great British nursery puddings- jam roly poly, spotted dick, and of course mince pies and Christmas pudding but I love it even more in the depths of winter with meat and rich gravy. Suet is synonymous with ‘rib-sticking’ and it’s such a perfect evocative phrase, suet gives pastry a richness and unctuousness that you will never replicate with other shortening agents. It sticks to the roof of your mouth, coating it with flavour. Ale will help here or a glass of something old and red. I recently had a meal at The Kingham Plough and it was freezing cold, pouring with rain when we arrived like a couple of drowned rats. A roaring fire helped but not as much as seeing steak and kidney pudding on the menu. I could have stayed for a week. I realised then that if ever I see something containing suet on a menu I will order it. If there’s animal kidney fat and ideally animal kidneys on your menu then I’m pretty much a happy man.
Here is a pie recipe that celebrates suet, free-range chicken, bay leaves, onions, British charcuterie and most importantly simplicity. One of the things that I do now when I develop a recipe is literally the opposite of what I did say, 10 years ago. I take things away. I used to add little sausage balls, sage, ham, mushrooms, leeks and any manner of other ingredients when I made a chicken pie. This one has a handful of ingredients but they are all crucial and all hold their own. As an example, so many recipes will say ‘add a bay leaf’ and you’ll reach for the back of your spice cupboard and pull out a desiccated leaf that crumbles to dust immediately. Pointless. I want this pie to taste of bay so I use 6 fresh leaves from a tree in my garden. Bay, chicken, sweet melting onions, British chorizo and rich crisp, soggy suet pastry make for a wonderful pie. The inherent crispness and sogginess is one of the great joys of suet pastry – it’s so full of fat that you can’t fail to have a crispy lid but so unctuous that within it is soft and melting and moist.
Suet crusted chicken, British chorizo and sweet onion pie
Serves 6 hungry people . Cooking/prep time 2 hours
Perceived wisdom states that you should use leftovers to make a chicken pie. Not in this manor- poaching the whole chicken is well worth it here, not least because you flavour your sauce with the reduced stock. Literally every ounce of flavour from that chicken finds its way into your pie. I can never be faffed making a separate roux for this kind of pie- adding butter and flour and cooking through is much easier, makes less watching up and makes no discernible difference!
For the pie filling:
1 1.5kg free range or organic chicken
3 white onions
200g British chorizo, cut into small cubes
6 fresh bay leaves (or dried if you can’t find fresh)
150g plain flour
200 mls double cream
For the pastry:
350g self-raising flour
175g beef suet (shredded)
2 egg yolks to glaze
Pre heat oven to 200 degrees
Place the chicken with 2 bay leaves in a large pan and cover with cold water- about a litre. You can add some aromatics, carrots and onions if you wish. Bring to a simmer and poach gently for 1 hour. Remove and allow to cool and pull the meat from the bones and cut into chunks. Increase the heat and reduce the stock by half. Set aside.
Slice your onions thinly and add to a frying pan with a knob of butter, the chorizo and the bay leaves and cook over a low heat, stirring gently until soft and sweet but not caramelised. At least half an hour.
Now add your chicken to the pan with the rest of the butter and the flour. Coat everything in the flour and cook for 10 minutes, stirring all the time .
Add the reduced stock and the cream and cook for a further 15 minutes. Add some milk, stock or water if too dry.
Place the filling in a pie dish to cool.
For the pastry:
Mix together the dry ingredients with your fingers. Add very cold water slowly until you form a dough. It should not be too wet. Roll out and place over the pie. Crimp the edges with a fork and glaze with the egg yolks.
Put into preheated oven at 200 degrees for 35 minutes until golden, burnished brown.