Shortcrust, cheesy or plain pastry, crumbly or creamy cheese, how do you cook the onions – and does it need spuds and sauce?
Cheese and onion, like Morecambe and Wise or gin and tonic, is one of those combination that just works. It is far and away the best flavour of crisp (though one to be avoided on a first date), and it is also one of the finest sandwich fillings known to man. But in a pie – well, that’s two Great British traditions rolled into one crumbly pastry case.
Sources suggest it is a north-western tradition, and indeed, the best I’ve had to date was purchased in a huge slab at a Women’s Institute fair in a church hall near Blackpool. But for those of us not lucky enough to have regular access to such palaces of pleasure, what’s the best way to make it at home?
Frankly, the most important aspect of any pie. Shortcrust is the obvious choice for a fully enclosed pie, though Andy Bates goes for a sturdy hot water crust instead, using butter rather than the lard more often found in pork pies. Simon Hopkinson uses a combination of lard and butter in the shortcrust for his mother’s cheese and onion pie, the Hairy Bikers and Lancashire chef Nigel Haworth add egg yolks, and Angela Boggiano uses butter alone in her book Pie.
Lard makes Hopkinson’s pastry light and crumbly, but I find all the shortcrusts a little rich. To my surprise, Bates’s plainer, chewier hot water variety makes for a more interesting contrast with the cheesy filling. It’s also very, very easy to work with, without having to hand-raise the thing. The Bikers add parmesan to their pastry and Boggiano red leicester, but I’d prefer to keep mine simple, so it doesn’t compete with the delights inside. The Bikers are also the only ones to blind-bake their base. Here I go back on my bold assertion that soggy bottoms are for perverts to allow that, in this case, with a relatively dry filling, a softer base is actually rather pleasant. I admit, you live and learn.
In my experience, cheese and onion pie is generally made with the crumbly lactic cheeses particular to the north-west – such as Hopkinson and Haworth’s lancashire or Boggiano’s cheshire. The Bikers and Bates parachute in a mature cheddar instead – a choice that has its supporters, who admire its aggressively cheesy flavour (Bates’s version uses 800g of the stuff). But I’m sold on the subtle sharpness and creamy texture of the lancashire, in particular (the milder cheshire and the fresh curd Haworth also sticks in have more difficulty standing up to the onion).
This should be the straightforward bit – but actually, almost all the recipes I try treat the onions differently. Simplest of all is the Hairy Bikers and Haworth method, which simmers them in water until soft. Hopkinson fries them in butter before simmering, and Bates just fries them full stop. Boggiano, meanwhile, uses spring onions and chives, which go in raw.
I like the richness of the buttered onions, but they do need to be thoroughly softened before they go into the pie. It’s easiest to do this with a little water, which also keeps them nice and juicy – a bonus with a drier cheese like lancashire. Spring onions and chives each contribute their own sharper, greener onion flavour, which, though not traditional, I rather like, though I suspect such additions would be frowned upon up in Poulton-le-Fylde.
Sauces and spuds
Hopkinson and Haworth’s pies have a very northern plainness about them – they are, in fact, no more than they claim to be: just cheese and onion, enclosed in pastry. The Bikers, however, who are only half north-western, make a white sauce with flour, milk and cream; Manchester girl Boggiano mixes her cheese with creme fraiche; and Kentish lad Bates goes for a kind of rich, cheesy quiche made from eggs and double cream, which I enjoy inordinately – but it works better as a cold, hand-held pie than the warm dinner I’m hoping for. (It does get an excited thumbs up from a ravenous Guardian office, however, so I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a more portable pie.)
Boggiano and the Bikers both stick potatoes in too, which, though it bulks them out, distracts from the heavenly combination of cheese and onion. (Boggiano’s is, in fact, more properly a potato pie with added cheese – though none the less delicious for it.) As with the sauce, I’m going to keep it simple.
Seasoning and serving
Hopkinson puts white pepper in his pie; I prefer the black variety. The Bikers add cayenne and mustard – I find the tangy heat of the mustard works particularly well with the cheese, without overwhelming it, but in the absence of a sauce I decide to add it to the pastry instead of the filling. Both Bates and Hopkinson suggest you leave the pie to cool slightly or to room temperature rather than serving it “piping hot”. This is almost always a good idea with dairy products, which can be bland if served too warm, although I’ll be impressed if you can manage to resist the temptation to tuck in for too long.
For the filling:
4 onions, fairly finely sliced
Salt and pepper
Small bunch of chives, finely chopped
5 spring onions, roughly chopped
500g lancashire cheese, crumbled
For the pastry:
400g plain flour
½ tsp salt
1½ tbsp mustard powder
1 egg, beaten with a little milk or water, to glaze
Melt the butter for the filling in a frying pan over a medium-low heat and cook the onions, with a little salt, until soft but not browned – about 10-15 minutes. Season well, pour in 100ml water and bubble until they are nearly dry. Stir in the mustard and spread out to cool. Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
To make the pastry, put the butter in a small pan with the water and heat until melted. Bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, put the flour in a mixing bowl with the salt and mustard powder and whisk together well. Pour in the boiling butter and water mixture and stir until it comes together into a dough.
Grease a medium pie dish (I used one about 20-26cm) and line with a single sheet of greaseproof paper to help you get the pie out (unless it’s loose-bottomed). Set a third of the pastry aside and roll out the rest to about double the size of the dish, then carefully lift it into place, pressing it into the corners. It’s easy to mend if you get any tears, so don’t worry too much if it proves fragile.
Mix together the crumbled cheese with the chives and spring onions. Spread half the cooled onions over the pastry base. Top with half the crumbled cheese mixture, then repeat.
Roll out the rest of the pastry to the size of the dish, moisten the top edges of the base, then lift on top and crimp together the edges to seal. Brush with the egg wash, poke a couple of holes in the top for the steam to escape then bake for about 45 minutes until golden. Allow to cool a little before serving.
Cheese and onion pie: is it actually a north-western speciality, or do they just shout loudest about it? And which other dishes show off this sublime flavour combination (recipes for that strangely delicious gloopy cheese and onion sandwich filling particularly welcome)?
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