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A Potted History of Pies (Plus Chicken Macaroni Pie Recipe)

Foodstuff is a freelance food writer and published author from Australia who enjoys exploring various recipes and techniques.

Chicken macaroni pie features flavours from colonial British Malaya.

Chicken macaroni pie features flavours from colonial British Malaya.

"Four and Twenty Blackbirds Baked in a Pie"

Four and twenty blackbirds popping out of a pie, alive and singing, wasn't just a fanciful idea for a nursery rhyme. In medieval England, such "trick" pies containing as many as one hundred small, live singing birds, served with a fanfare of trumpets, were a common feature at aristocratic repasts. These party pies were eventually replaced by a dish comprising only the tongues of singing or talking birds.

Blackbirds in a pie

Blackbirds in a pie

Origins of the Pie

The word "pie" appeared in the English language in the early 14th century and is usually said to have come from the second syllable of "magpie", on the basis that pie contains a hotchpotch of ingredients which parallel the jumble collected by this thieving bird.

However, the dish had been around in various forms well before the word was invented. The first known pie recipe is on a tablet dated around the 17th century BC and is believed to have come from Iraq. The pastry was a type of semolina, probably coarse ground, which had been soaked in milk and then kneaded with a pickle solution of fish, shellfish and grasshoppers, along with samidu (a member of the onion family), crushed leeks, garlic, milk and fat residues. It was filled with a stew of the gizzards and meat of some sort of fowl.

Chilled butter and flour to prepare pie pastry

Chilled butter and flour to prepare pie pastry

Pie Crusts in Antiquity

It is not clear whether the pie crusts of antiquity were consumed. Certainly, in medieval times, the crust served the practical purpose of being a means of cooking, preserving and transporting the filling, but it was rarely eaten. Then the pastry case was referred to as a "coffin", so that pie-making instructions would read along the lines of: "Make goodlie coffyns of pastie and when the mess of stew be cooked place the same therein."

Even in Elizabethan times, rich butter pastry was used only for treats to be enjoyed on their own, not for pie making.

More modern flavours: spinach and cheese pie

More modern flavours: spinach and cheese pie

Pie Fillings of Old

Fish pies, hot or cold, were popular Lenten fare when meatless days were still strictly observed. "Thick almond milk seething hot" combined with "salad oil fried and saffron" would have been substituted for beef or mutton broth for the pastry.

Until the 17th century, pie fillings were heavily spiced and sweetened with dried fruits, with large amounts of butter or other fats added to help preserve them. The pastry lids were also heavily iced—regardless of whether the filling was sweet or savoury.

Mince pies

Mince pies

Mince Pies

During the 18th century, the use of spices and fruits in meat and fish pies went out of fashion. Mince pies, however, developed in the opposite direction. The meat component disappeared, giving us the modern, meatless Christmas mince pie.

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Chicken macaroni pie

Chicken macaroni pie

Chicken Macaroni Pie: Colonial Malayan Recipe

This chicken pie has its roots in the Hainanese cooking of British-ruled Malaya. Hainan is a southern island province of the People's Republic of China. The Hainanese migrants were often cooks for the British and probably thought the British cooking of their colonial masters so bland that they added their own little twists like soya sauce and spices to gravies to lift the flavours. How something as Italian as pasta got into the act is not certain but it was the Dutch-brand "Honig " pasta that was used.

In my childhood, this pie was a regular feature at an old bay-side restaurant in Penang called Garden Hotel which is no more. It was always served with Worcestershire sauce (another very colonial British condiment!) with sliced fresh red chillies.

Use a deep dish for chicken macaroni pie.

Use a deep dish for chicken macaroni pie.

Recipe: Chicken Macaroni Pie

Yield: 6-8 servings


For the filling:

  • 1 to 1.4 kilograms chicken, preferably free-range corn-fed
  • 2 to 3 tbsp oil, for frying
  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 2 to 3 medium carrots, sliced into 25mm thick coins
  • 1 can champignons, drained, rinsed and quartered
  • 200 ml water
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce, or to taste
  • Few shakes of ground white pepper
  • 200 grams macaroni or other small short tubular pasta

Other ingredients:

  • 500 grams puff pastry, preferably homemade with quality butter
  • Egg wash made with 1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tbsp milk
  • Sliced fresh red chillies in Worcestershire sauce, to serve

Step 1: Make the Filling

  1. Chop the chicken into small, casserole-sized pieces. Rinse and dry the pieces with kitchen paper. Heat oil in a large casserole over moderately high heat and fry chicken pieces in two or three batches until lightly browned. Remove the chicken pieces from the casserole and set aside.
  2. Add onions to the casserole and fry until they are soft and just start to colour. Add carrots and fry for a few minutes. Return chicken pieces to the pan, along with champignons. Add water, soy sauce, white pepper and mix well.
  3. Lower heat and simmer gently, covered, for about 30 minutes or until the chicken is tender. Taste and adjust seasonings. Leave to cool to room temperature.

Step 2: Assemble the Pie

  1. Just before you are ready to assemble the pie, cook the pasta in boiling salted water for about 2 minutes short of the recommended cooking time. You want the pasta to be slightly undercooked—it will finish cooking in the gravy when the pie is baking and thus absorb the flavours of the stew without turning soggy.
  2. Mix the cooked pasta with the chicken mixture. Place in a large baking dish (or smaller individual-sized deep dishes) at least 5 cm deep. (This quantity will fill an oval casserole dish about 38 cm long, 24 cm wide and 6 cm deep.)
  3. Roll out the pastry to 2.5mm thick, Cover the filled baking dish with the pastry sheet, trimming the edges with a sharp knife. Seal pie by pressing pastry against the edges of the dish with the tines of a fork. Brush with egg wash; then pierce small, decorative vents into the pastry lid with the tip of a small sharp knife.

Step 3: Cook and Serve

  1. Bake for about 30 minutes in a preheated 220ºC oven or until the pastry is golden brown and puffed and the filling is piping hot.
  2. Serve hot, with sliced fresh chillies in Worcestershire sauce as an accompaniment.

Variations: You can add quartered hard-boiled eggs as well as frozen peas to the stew if you wish. Add these just before you put the pastry lid on.

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