If a roast chicken, golden and glistening with festivity, is a show-stopping stiletto of a dish, the pie that inevitably follows is a comfortable slipper – not as glamorous, perhaps, but infinitely nicer to slip into on a cold January evening.
Though it is an ideal send-off for the remainder of the Sunday roast, chicken pie is a dish delicious enough to sacrifice an entire bird for. For all the wonderful flavour in a roast chicken, the cooking process makes a certain dryness inevitable; instead, following Angela Boggiano in Pie, I'd suggest poaching the bird in an aromatic broth, so you get juicy meat and a well-flavoured stock to make the base of the sauce. If you're using leftovers, any surplus gravy will serve the same purpose, though you may have to set this aside in advance before it disappears on to the roast potatoes.
Brining the bird before cooking, as Heston Blumenthal suggests, just masks the flavour of the meat – definitely not worth the hassle.
Vegetables not only serve to bulk out the dish, but should add a welcome contrast of flavours and texture. Many of the varieties I try meet only one of these criteria: mushrooms, used by Bon Appétit magazine and Rachel Allen, taste good but end up slimy, while Bon Appétit's peas and carrots are mushy and overcooked (although I quite like their idea of adding any more robust leftovers: spuds or parsnips would no doubt work better).
Most popular of all, and for good reason, are leeks, deployed by Jamie Oliver, Blumenthal and Boggiano. As one of the few vegetables that laugh in the face of fashionably al dente, they cook down to a silky richness in the sauce. Softening them in butter or even Blumenthal's chicken fat first is vital. I don't think you need onions as well, unless you've got one that needs using up – I certainly can't detect them in Boggiano's version.
Oliver sticks chestnuts in too, but presumably only because his is a version designed to see off the last of the Christmas turkey – the mealy texture doesn't sit well here.
Ham is popular in poultry pies, adding a savoury note missing from the creamy chicken or turkey. It is something else you might still have in the freezer from the recent festivities, but if not, I advise going for Oliver's bacon instead. It renders more fat into the sauce, which infuses it with porky loveliness – use big, fat chunks (often fancily dubbed lardons) rather than his chopped rashers, which are too weedy for the task.
This is what makes or breaks a chicken pie – and I have to do battle with several claggy, bland pretenders in my quest for perfection. All the sauces I try, with the exception of Bon Appétit's version, are dairy-based. If properly seasoned, they work well with poultry – but I think they need more than Blumenthal and Boggiano's white wine to pep them up. The stock used by Boggiano, Allen and Oliver is a start, but Bon Appétit's gravy yields by far the best flavour. Easy enough if you've had a roast; harder, admittedly, if you're poaching the bird. However, reducing the cooking liquor until it is intensely chickeny, then adding traditional gravy accompaniments such as madeira or a nice round sherry, will do the trick. Dairy-wise, I find Allen and Blumenthal's double cream too rich and thick, and Oliver's creme fraiche aggressively tangy; Boggiano's single cream proves a happy medium.
Oliver and Boggiano thicken their sauces with flour, while Blumenthal goes for the seaweed-based agar agar on the basis that "it ensures a really smooth finish without masking flavour as starch does." To be honest, I don't think the starch does mask the flavour, but I do find all the cream sauces too thick (with the exception of Oliver, who serves his separately to pour over at the table). The fillings are dense and almost solid by the time they get to the table, whereas I'd prefer a gravy consistency, so I'm leaving out the thickener altogether.
Bon Appétit uses thyme and parsley; Oliver parsley and sage; Allen marjoram or tarragon; and Blumenthal and Boggiano tarragon alone. Thyme and sage, those old friends of all things feathered, will do, but I love the sweet, anise flavour of tarragon, especially when paired with Boggiano's lemon zest – both lift the dish without stealing the show, unlike Blumenthal's double mustard combo.
Allen tops her pie with a rich mashed potato, but that feels wrong with chicken. I think it has to be pastry, and puff at that – Boggiano and Bon Appétit's shortcrust is too dry and crumbly for my liking. I won't judge you for buying it, but if you're poaching a chicken, you may as well go the whole hog and make the pastry too: a nice flaky rough puff would be perfect. Special – but not too special for a Monday evening relaxing with the Sunday papers.
The perfect chicken pie
1 small chicken, about 1.4kg, or 550g cooked chicken meat (in which case you'll need 500ml gravy and to start at step 2, missing out step 5, or 500ml stock, starting at step 2)
1 large carrot, washed and quartered but not peeled
1 onion, quartered but not peeled
2 sticks of celery, quartered
1 bay leaf
A few black peppercorns
Bunch of tarragon
Slug of madeira or sweetish sherry
100g bacon chunks or lardons, chopped into cubes
2 leeks, roughly chopped
200ml single cream
Zest of 1 lemon
For the pastry (or use 500g puff pastry)
225g plain flour
225g very cold butter
100ml iced water
1 egg, beaten with a little milk or water
1. Put the chicken, if poaching, in a large pan with the carrot, onion, celery, bay leaf, peppercorns and a few sprigs of tarragon. Cover with cold water, bring to the boil, then skim any scum off the surface. Turn down the heat and simmer gently for about 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through.
2. Meanwhile, start the pastry. Sift the flour and a generous pinch of salt on to a cold surface. Cut the butter into 1cm cubes and stir it in, then gently squidge the two together, so the flour combines with the lumps of butter – the aim is not to mix it completely, so it turns into crumbs, but to have small lumps of butter coated with flour. Like the name, it should look quite rough, even unfinished.
3. Sprinkle a little of the water over the top and stir it in. Add enough water to bring it into a dough (unless your kitchen is very dry, you probably won't need it all), without overworking the mixture, then cover with clingfilm and refrigerate for 20 minutes.
4. Lightly flour a work surface and shape the dough into a rectangle. Roll it out until three times its original length. Fold the top third back into the centre, then bring the bottom third up to meet it, so your dough has three layers. Give the dough a quarter turn and roll out again until three times the length, fold again as before, and chill it for 20 minutes.
5. Remove the bird from the pan and set aside. Turn the heat up and reduce the stock by about three quarters to about 500ml – this should take about 20 minutes. Add a good slug of madeira or sherry, and season to taste. Once the chicken is cool enough, strip off the meat.
6. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark four. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over a medium heat and add the lardons. Cook until golden, then scoop out of the pan and set aside. Add the leeks to the pan and fry for about seven minutes until silky, then turn the heat up and, once the pan is hot, add the stock to the pan; it should sizzle. Allow to bubble for a minute or so, then stir in the cream, lemon zest and the leaves of the remaining tarragon, roughly chopped, plus the bacon. Season to taste, then stir in the chicken.
7. Pour the chicken and sauce into a large pie dish and allow to cool. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured surface to about 5mm thick. Brush the rim of the pie dish with egg wash, then place the pastry on top, pressing down to seal. Crimp the edges if you like, then cut a small hole in the top and brush the whole lot with egg wash.
8. Bake for about 30-40 minutes until the pastry is risen and golden, and allow to cool slightly before serving.
Chicken pie: pastry or mash, cream or gravy – or, indeed, curry sauce? And if not pie, what else do you do with a leftover roast fowl of any stripe?
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