Petrolhead Pies & the Pienancial Pimes.

Blog Post

June 22, 2023

I used to say - whatever the question, the answer is poetry, but I realise that sometimes that’s just not true. Sometimes the answer is pie. An email out of the blue from a friend I’ve rarely seen (busy lives!) since we were at Chelsea School of Art some time last century, landed in my inbox recently. It made me smile. Would I, she wondered, be up for making a pie with a cut out pastry picture on it of a restaurant waiter bringing a giant bill?

She’d seen the pies I used to make every Sunday evening for my petrolhead learning disabled son, which I’d usually post on Instagram.

Fiat pie with racing flags & leaves

The deal with those pies was that he would choose a car logo & I would cut it out of pastry & lay it on the lid, alongside any extra decor of my own choosing. A Sunday night pie made going to school the next morning a bit more possible, because there was always enough leftover for that daunting transition: a nice custard laced breakfast to move him from weekend to week.

MG pie with portraits of our pets: Yeti (named after a Skoda yeti) Zippy (after a zip van) the cats & Morris (Minor) the dog

The pie that my old pal from art school, Hilary Kirby, was after, was to be for the front of the Financial Times, Life and Arts section, for which she is picture editor. It was to illustrate an article about the spiralling costs of eating out. The pie-ce was by Tim Hayward - food writer and restaurateur.

Monday morning MG pie with custard

Luckily I have a wonderful rolling pin. Made for me by Conrad, the aforementioned son. He has taken great pride in making one for me and one for his sister in his green woodwork class at Ruskin Mill College.

Stage 1 pie drawing - but the readers of the FT are not ANIMALS. Though I do wish my cat would bring me coffee.

I had a couple of days to answer the FT brief. I drew some roughs & did some try outs in sugar paper & then shop bought puff pastry. Hilary gently steered me away from animal characters & other spiky haired characters. She has great vision and diplomacy as an art director. Poetic too, she asked me to make the female diner’s hair more ‘opulent’. Then she came round, as did her colleague, photographer Rick Pushinsky, also a painting graduate as it turned out, to my kitchen on the following Wednesday morning. Us three spent all morning lavishing painterly attention on the pie. We channelled Chardin, it’s not easy to find the timeless silence of a good still life. As soon as Rick had nailed it (blue background, looming shadow of a spoon) we divvied up the pie (apple and apricot, basic recipe below) and fell upon it gnashing like hungry art students, dousing our portions with double cream.

Pie shoot: Rick & Hilary in my kitchen getting the shadows right.
Cutting paper is so different from cutting pastry. Besides - where was the waiter?  
Oh dear, quite a bad rough in factory puff. And anyway I burnt it.

I am grateful that my mother was a good cook. Did you grow up making pastry? For me and my sister making jam tarts was a regular childhood diversion. Rubbing the fat into the flour till it made crumbs had a special word. Mum called it ‘frickling’. When my daughter Rosa was two, I directed her and her friend Toby in a Teletubbies film called Apple Pie. They were so pleased that Lala’s tummy was the one it appeared in. Twice! I loved the argument between the toddlers about the frickling process: (Rosa: “feels like a sandpit”. Toby: “feels like BUTTER!” This may not have made it to the final edit, links below. Credit to Toby’s dad Mickey Whelan, who was a wreck by the end of that all day shoot!

Full episode here:

Or, cut straight to the pie!

Some years later, (friendship lasts longer than pastry,) Toby joined forces with Rosa this spring on her trip taking Conrad on a dream trip to Italy: pasta, ice cream, the Lamborghini factory!

Here’s a recipe - adapt it as as you like. The pie in the article was savoury, but I like a plain sugarless shortcrust anyway - works for any type of pie. If you have a nice rolling pin and a small sharp knife for cutting out the decorations - it feels like a veritable sandpit of fun. Quite cheap too!

Local flour - rolling pin made by Conrad in his green woodwork class.

Recipe: Twice as much flour to fat. Eg 400g flour & 200g butter. I like to use at least 50% fine wholemeal, especially if it’s been ground at my local windmill on Brixton Hill. (Sometimes I put ground almonds in the dough, sometimes a tablespoon of icing sugar, and if it’s for a tart I might add lemon zest.) Frickle the fat into the flour with cold & dainty fingers. Bind it as briefly as poss into a ball with a confident dash of cold water, or if it’s for a tart, a beaten egg or part of one. I wrap the dough in grease proof paper & leave it to rest on the side while I assemble the filling. Often for Conrad’s pies - cooking apples are the favourite. But rhubarb is good at this time of year, or a mix of fruits. (Peel &) chop the fruit into bite size chunks. I add half a jar of good apricot jam & a slug of brandy or calvados. I also mix in about a teacup of sugar & a hefty shake of cinnamon. Or if it’s rhubarb I might mix in some honey and orange zest. Pile the fruit into a pie dish, roll out the pastry, loop it over the rolling pin and back over the dish, crimp the edges, or add a trim round the edges first & crimp into that with the tines of a fork.  Cut out whatever shapes are required from the surplus pastry & arrange them on the surface. If you have some beaten egg you can use it as glue. Then egg wash the whole scene, as varnish. Prick some holes in the top with your fork to let the steam escape. Strew more sugar over if you like. Bake in a preheated moderate to hot oven for about half an hour/40 mins. Serve with cream or custard.

Do read the article here & enjoy the online pie pic

With thanks to all concerned & to you, dear eater, for reading.

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