Pie makers cooking up your daily crust
Artisans roll out a new generationof old favourites, writes Elle Kwan
American Hong Kong resident Meg Teckman-Fullard says she has always had a thing about pies. Her family baked them to give away at Christmas, and Teckman-Fullard started doing the same when she moved here in 2008. The positive responses she received prompted her to open Pretty Pies Please, a made-to-order enterprise, in September.
"We have a mixture of customers, from expats to Asians who have been abroad and developed a taste for pies. They'll say, 'I was just thinking about a lemon meringue - you are the answer to my prayers,'" she says.
Why do pies prompt such praise? "I think for a lot of people, myself included, it's about the memory of the good old days - your grandmother baking when you were five, or a visit to the country fair."
Those pies of yesteryear baked from scratch and left to cool on the window sill conjure nostalgic visions of a simple, honest dessert staple. Today's Hong Kong versions have a glossier edge.
"My apple pies put others to shame," says R.J. Asher, the founder of Tai Tai Pie Pies, whose drunken apple crumble contains eight apples of at least four different varieties sautéed with whiskey and topped with a cinnamon pecan crumble. With Thanksgiving upon us, pumpkin and pecan pies are heavily in demand. Asher's team has orders for about 300 Thanksgiving pies. Pumpkin, the best-seller, has the squash flavoured with rum, while four cups of nuts are used in the pecan pie.
The extra work making these from scratch pushes up the price. Teckman-Fullard's nine-inch (23cm) pies are good for about eight portions and cost HK$250.
Rebecca Wong, at fledgling pie-makers Baked, makes a sweet potato pie with cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar that sings of autumn. Wong uses only butter with no other shortening in the crust, and the pies retail for HK$350 each, serving eight people.
Asher's Tai Tai pies feed "12 easily" and start at HK$400. It seems customers don't mind paying a bit more for high-quality pies.
Asher started his company when the cosmetics firm he worked for moved his position back to the US. He was in no mood to leave. "I was doing not much but making pies for my friends. One of my friends told me I should make pies, and call the company Tai Tai Pie Pies."
So he did. Two years later, Asher has a full production bakery in Fo Tan. He supplies hotels and is looking to open shops next year. The time for pies is now, Asher thinks.
Savoury pies are also They, too, are seeing an upmarket revival. At Ali Oli Bakery in Sai Kung, known for its Aussie-style meat pies, owner Hazel Cheung has come up with a winner in a red chicken curry pie.
Bonnie Gokson, the entrepreneur behind Sevva and Mrs B's Cakery, thought pot pies would stand out at her two recently opened C'est la B cafes.
She'd seen the demand for oxtail and wagyu beef pot pies at Sevva, which retail at HK$320, and continued the trend in the newer outlets, where chicken, leeks and spring vegetables in a chardonnay cream sauce and a truffled mac'n'cheese with pancetta pie are among the offerings.
The pot pies are served with a filo pastry topping, with baguettes for sopping up the gravy. These pies are anything but humble.
You can go too far gussying up a pie, says Anthony Fletcher, the British head chef at The Pawn. He saw a pie resurgence while working in London, and thought many were too exotic.
"I think it's a case of chefs indulging their own egos and that can get out of control sometimes. We wanted to avoid unnecessary ingredients like foie gras or truffles," he says of several upmarket pies he introduced to the menu.
Fletcher's aim was to bake pies with simple but high quality ingredients. His chicken and gammon pie served in the bar has a 5cm herbed shortcrust pastry that flakes appealingly to reveal a creamy sauce. It's hearty, addictive, and, says Fletcher, is almost as popular as the bar's signature fish and chips.
Upstairs, in the restaurant proper, he offers an oxtail cottage pie, which uses meat brined on site and braised for 12 hours. It's topped with fluffy, buttery mash and melted Montgomery cheddar. Pies are doing so well that Fletcher is now considering a separate mini pie menu.
What The Pawn is considering, The Globe has already done. Four or five pies are chalked on boards at the gastropub. The seasonal favourite is "Bambi pie", or venison, which is slow cooked in a rich, dark gravy with a thick, flaky pastry. Since each pie is made to order, patrons should allow about 30 minutes for pies to arrive. "Longer if we're busy," says owner Toby Cooper.
"You can't rush pastry," says Patrick Barratt, the pub's British-born head chef. He develops the pub's pie fillings, but has a female assistant who makes the pastry and bakes the pies.
"No disrespect, but I find women make better pastry. They are less brutal," he says.
The secret to great flaky pastry is using cold, unsalted full cream butter, he says, with cold hands on the dough. The butter helps create those light, desirable layers.
The Globe does its briskest pie trade on a Sunday night, when punters come to nurse hangovers and gear up for the week. "Pies have always been great Sunday night comfort food," says Cooper.
The term "humble pie" most likely came from the old English word "umble", meaning offal, which often went into a pie. (The dough casing resembled clay.)
Pies went upmarket in the 16th century and were even used for entertainment. Live birds and other creatures, sometimes even humans, were set inside pies and broke free of their pastry prisons on the feasting table. This is quite likely the origin of the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence, with its lyric, " four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie".
The closest Hong Kong gets to blackbirds in a pie might be Neil Tomes' turducken pie, available for take out at Alfie's by Kee Club. The chef layers US turkey and chicken, local duck and French pigeon with chestnut and foie gras stuffing, into his newest pie.
Tomes was inspired by the Thanksgiving and Christmas marvel, turducken, which sees a turkey stuffed with chicken stuffed with duck. "Turducken is the ultimate holiday meal," says Tomes. "It was only natural to combine it into a pie - another favourite."