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The savory side of pie

By Robin Watson
Special to The Detroit News

Brian Polcyn gets it.

Two-income households, soccer practice, busy lives ... Convenience gets meals on the table.

Still, the Milford-based chef and cookbook author who’s helmed several successful area restaurants wants to keep the tradition of homemade savory pies going. He’s certain home cooks can do it, too.

Savory pies hot from the oven are just the thing now as bone-chilling weather sharpens our hunger for hearty fare. Something versatile. Nostalgic. Something old school. Very old school.

“Meat pies trace to the Middle Ages,” says culinary historian and cookbook author William Woys Weaver. “They were a key feature in colonial cookery. That tradition continued to evolve.”

Potpies have sustained us through times good and bad. Post-9/11, chicken potpie was ubiquitous on both humble and upper crust menus. Potpie survived the no carb craze and appeased palates during the pandemic. It’s a comfort food that endures.

For the frugal and the sustainably minded, savory pies are a delicious way to stretch expensive proteins and reduce waste. And, for holiday hosts who can’t face the gaping maw of another turkey or who don’t want to launch a Go Fund Me page for a large roast, a sensational savory pie does a star turn at the table.

“Savory pies were originally a form of preservation used by people without a lot of money,” Polcyn says. “Food baked in a crust lasts a little longer. Tradition is part of their enduring popularity, for sure, but everything is predicated on taste, not gimmicks. Flaky crust and savory filling are a killer combination.”

So Polcyn, whose book on savory pies is due out next year, is all about getting home cooks to make their own. Much as he appreciates the need for speed, his recipes are more involved than tossing leftover meat, canned soup and a bag of frozen veggies into a casserole dish and topping them with tinned biscuits or commercial puff pastry. But they’re eminently do-able.

“Everyone used to make their own pies at home,” Polcyn says. “When people say, ‘I don’t have time to make a pie,’ I ask, ‘Did you make a time to take a shower today?’ It’s a matter of time management. If you want to do it, you’ll do it. People are coming back to old-fashioned methods. Because of the farm-to-table movement, they want to know what’s in their food and where ingredients come from.”

And forget that adage about how “some people have the touch, and some just don’t.” Put fear of pie crust aside. The real secret?

“You have to care,” Polcyn says.

That’s a guiding principle for Polcyn, who was trained by European chefs and who instills that ethos in his students at Schoolcraft College’s Culinary Arts program.

“The greatest chefs in the world gravitate to this kind food because it’s wholesome,” says Polcyn, who made his first potpies professionally early in his career at the Golden Mushroom. “For me, it’s just about deliciousness. You take underutilized cuts, wrap them in savory dough, and the food tastes better. It’s magic. Savory pies are magical.”

Do-ahead DIY Pies

Sock away savory pie components ahead of time, and assembly’s a snap.

Freeze dough. “Water expands in the freezer,” Polcyn explains, “so freeze dough in a large mass for a better result. Cut off what you need as you need it. Rest it in the fridge while you’re at work. It’ll be ready when you get home.”

Fillings. Batch-cook and freeze or refrigerate pre-portioned fillings ahead of time.

Many takes on savory bakes

Double crust. Think picnic-perfect fare such as pork pies sturdy enough for eating slices out of hand.

Galettes. Rustic, round, flat pies with a turned-up edge that showcases exposed filling.

Potpie. Traditionally, top crust only (though some versions have two.)

Shepherd’s pie. Typically, leftover stew topped with mashed potatoes.

Slab pie. Baked with a double crust in a rectangular dish or on a sheet pan, slab pies can feed a crowd and are easy to cut and serve. Fancy versions such as a luxe coulibiac feature salmon rolled in puff pastry.

Turnovers. Pasties, hand pies, empanadas, samosas, individual spanakopita, etc.


Quebec’s emblematic and aromatic meat pie is stick-to-the-ribs comfort food from across the border.

For the pie dough

2 cups  unbleached or all purpose flour

7 ounces  cold unsalted butter, cut into 12 even cubes

2 tablespoons cold lard or duck fat

½ teaspoon  salt

½ teaspoon sugar

½ cup   ice water

Place the flour in a food processor. Add the lard or duck fat, salt and butter.

Pulse 6 to 8 times until the mixture becomes sandy and the butter is reduced to the size of peas.

Transfer the mixture to a bowl and pour the ice water over it. Mix rapidly with your fingertips until it turns to a dough. Add more ice water, if necessary, 1 tablespoon at a time.

Divide the dough into 2 pieces. Flatten the dough into round discs, wrap in waxed paper or plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling it out. The dough freezes well and can be prepared several days ahead of time, just thaw when ready to use.

For the filling

1 pound ground beef

1 pound  ground pork

1 pound  ground veal

2  onions, finely chopped

2 tablespoons  tourtiere spices*, ground

1  large russet potato, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes

1 teaspoon salt

To taste   salt

To taste ground black pepper

Rolled-out pie dough

2 tablespoons milk

*Tourtiere spice blend can be ordered from Montreal-based Or make your own by blending white pepper, cinnamon, mace, parsley, allspice, marjoram, clove, celery, sage and bay leaf, to taste.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Heat a large pot on medium-high. Add the meat, onions and tourtiere spices.

Cook, stirring constantly, until the meat falls apart and changes color, about 5 to 10 minutes.

Add the potatoes and 1 teaspoon salt to the meat. Stir, then barely cover with water. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Cover and cook until the potato is tender. Mash the potato to thicken the mixture, then stir to blend well. Taste, and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Remove from the heat and allow the mixture to cool completely.

Line a 10 inch, deep dish pie dish with one of the rolled-out dough portions. Distribute the filling evenly over the crust. Brush the edge of the dough with the milk. Place the second piece of pie dough on top. Crimp the edges of the top and bottom crust together to seal well. Cut off any excess dough and make an incision in the center of the top crust to allow steam to escape.

Place the pie in the oven and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until the crust becomes golden-brown and the filling bubbles gently.

Recipe courtesy of Spice Trekkers.

Chicken Potpie With Biscuit Crust

Chicken Pot Pie With Biscuit Crust

Yield: 6 servings

For the biscuit crust

1½ cups all purpose flour, sifted

1 tablespoon baking powder

3 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes

3 ounces milk

1 to 2 teaspoons  salt

1 to 2 teaspoons ground black pepper

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Place the flour and baking powder in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and press together with your fingers until the mixture resembles cornmeal. Add the milk, salt and pepper. Mix until just combined. Wrap and refrigerate the dough until ready to use.

For the filling

1 cup  heavy whipping cream

1 bunch   fresh thyme

10  black peppercorns

1  bay leaf

2 ounces  unsalted butter

3 ounces   onion, finely diced

3 ounces   celery, finely diced

3 ounces   carrots, finely diced

1 cup sliced mushrooms

2 ounces  all purpose flour

1 cup   warm chicken stock

3 cups cooked white and dark chicken meat, diced

1 cup  frozen peas, thawed

To taste  salt

To taste  ground black pepper

½  lemon, juiced; juice reserved

Combine the cream, thyme, peppercorns and bay leaf in a saucepot and bring to a boil. Shut the heat off and allow everything to steep together while you prepare the rest of the filling.

In a thick bottomed pot over medium heat, melt the butter. Saute the onion, celery and carrots until slightly soft. Add mushrooms and cook until they release their water. Whisk in the flour to make a roux. Cook and stir for 2 minutes without browning. Add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down, strain the cream into the chicken stock mixture and bring to a simmer. Cook slowly for 30 minutes, stirring frequently. Gently fold in the chicken and peas. Season with the salt, pepper and lemon juice. Remove from the heat.

To assemble

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Transfer the dough to a floured work surface. Pat out into a rectangle and fold in half. Give the dough a quarter turn and repeat the process. Do this a total of 8 times. Roll the dough out to a rectangle, 1/3-inch thick. Use a 3-inch biscuit cutter or glass to cut as many circles as you can. Do not twist the cutter as you remove it from the dough.

Place the chicken mixture in a suitable baking dish/casserole dish and top with the biscuits, making sure they are touching and packed in tightly. Fill in any gaps with bits of dough leftover from cutting the biscuits. Brush the biscuits with the melted butter

Bake until the biscuits are browned and the mixture is bubbly, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Recipe from chef Brian Polcyn.

Slab pies make for a dramatic presentation. Bacon, garlic paste and fresh herbs amp up the flavor of chicken in this one. Chicken Sausage Slab Pie (bottom). Pork, Chicken and Wild Mushroom Pie (top).

Chicken-Sausage Slab Pie

Yield: 6 servings

For the shortcrust pastry dough

21 ounces all purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

8 ounces cold unsalted butter, finely diced

¾ cup water

1   large egg

Place the flour and salt in a large bowl and whisk to combine.

Press the butter into the flour and salt with your thumb and forefingers until the mixture is crumbly and resembles cornmeal.

Beat together the water and egg and add them to the flour mixture. Mix everything together into a dough. Dump the dough onto a floured surface and knead with your hands for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth.

Wrap and refrigerate the dough while you make the filling.

For the chicken-sausage filling

14 ounces   boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cubed into ½ inch pieces

6 ounces   slab bacon, cut into ½ inch pieces

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

8 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast cubed into ½ inch pieces

1 cup  sweet onion, finely julienned

¼ cup  dry white wine

¼ cup  flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons   roasted garlic paste

1 tablespoon    fresh thyme leaves

1 tablespoon  kosher salt

1 teaspoon   freshly ground black pepper

Flour for rolling dough

24 ounces  shortcrust pie dough

1 egg

1 tablespoon cold water

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the cubed chicken-thigh meat with the bacon. Season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate.

Heat the vegetable oil in a thick-bottomed saute pan. Brown the outside cubed chicken-breast meat on all sides, leaving the center raw. Drain on paper towels and refrigerate until cool

Turn up the heat and saute the onions until they’re soft with very little color. Deglaze the pan with the wine, reducing it until it’s syrupy. Refrigerate the mixture until it’s chilled. Place the chilled onion mixture, parsley, garlic paste, thyme and chilled chicken thigh meat/bacon mixture in a meat grinder and grind using a 3/8-inch/9-millimeter plate. Transfer to a large bowl and stir by hand or with a wooden spoon until well-blended. Cook off a small piece, taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Fold in the browned chicken breast cubes.

Split the dough into 2 12-ounce pieces. Roll one piece out to a 9-inch x 12-inch rectangle. Place dough on parchment paper, then move it to a sheet pan Spread the sausage filling over it in an even layer, leaving a 1½ inch border all around. Refrigerate.

Roll the second piece of dough to the same size as the first one. Remove the dough bottom from the fridge and moisten the edges with water. Top with the second piece of dough, then roll and crimp the edges all around. Brush the top of the dough with some of the egg wash. Refrigerate for 15 minutes, then brush again with egg wash. Cut 3 2-inch vent holes evenly spaced down the middle.

Bake until the internal temperature of the pie reaches 160 degrees.

Allow to rest for 15 minutes. Bring to the table on a cutting board to make it easy to cut. Serve with a creamy mushroom sauce or a simple natural chicken pan gravy.

Recipe from chef Brian Polcyn.

Galettes are versatile and beautiful free-form pies that can be made round, square or as a rectangle. This one shows off a colorful sweet potato filling.

Sweet Potato Galette

For the pate brisee

Yield: 2½ pounds

1 pound  all purpose flour

1 tablespoon salt

1 pound cold unsalted butter, diced small

1  egg

As needed  cold water

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour and salt. Rub between your thumb and fingers until the mixture is mealy.

Crack the egg into a measuring cup. Add enough cold water to measure 1 cup. Stir until blended. Add to the flour and mix by hand into a dough.

Wrap and refrigerate until ready to use.

For the galette

2½ pounds  sweet potatoes

¾ cup  light brown sugar

½ cup  bourbon

To taste  salt

To taste ground black pepper

12 ounces  pate brisee dough

4 tablespoons  unsalted butter, diced and softened

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Place the sweet potatoes on a parchment-lined baking sheet and roast until their skin is easily pierced with a skewer. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Bring the brown sugar and bourbon to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook until the mixture is thick and syrupy. Remove from the heat, add the salt and pepper and let cool a bit.

Roll the dough out to a circle, 1/8-inch thick.

Slice the sweet potatoes ¼ inch thick. Shingle them in a circle onto the dough, leaving a 1½ inch border all around. Fold the border up all the way around the sweet potatoes, creating an edge. Pour the brown sugar/bourbon mixture over the sweet potatoes and dot with the butter.

Bake until browned, about 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before cutting and serving

Recipe from chef Brian Polcyn.

Delicate in flavor and texture, this savory pie harks back to the days of old Detroit.

Fish Pie

Yield: 6 servings

1 pound   fresh or frozen skinless fish fillets (cod, haddock or

ocean perch)

¼ cup  unsalted butter

5  medium onions, peeled and sliced paper thin

2 cups   cooked rice or cooked, riced cauliflower

2 teaspoons  fresh dill, chopped

To taste  salt

To taste  ground black pepper

Double crust shortcrust pie dough recipe*

3  hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

1   large egg

1 tablespoon   cold water

*Use the shortcrust pastry recipe from the tourtiere or use two pre-made, deep-dish pie shells.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

If using frozen fish, defrost it. Place the fish in a single layer in a large skillet over medium heat. Cover with boiling water. Place a lid on the pan and simmer until the fish flakes easily, about 10 minutes.

Using a fish turner or slotted spatula, remove the fish from the skillet and gently shake off any water. Place in a large mixing bowl. Flake the fish. Reserve ½ cup of the cooking liquid. Saute the onions in the butter until soft and lightly browned and add them, along with the cooked rice or cooked, riced cauliflower, dill, salt and pepper to the bowl with the fish and mix everything together gently.

Fit one of the pie crusts into a 9 inch deep dish pie plate. Set the other crust aside.

Cover the bottom crust with 1/3 of the fish mixture. Top with 1/3 of the chopped hard-boiled eggs. Sprinkle with 2 or 3 tablespoons of the fish-cooking liquid. Repeat the layers twice more to fill the pie shell. Moisten the edges of the bottom crust with water. Place the top crust on the pie and crimp the edges to seal.

Beat the egg and water together to create an egg wash. Brush the egg wash over the top crust. Cut vents so that steam can escape. Bake for about 40 minutes.

Remove from the oven and let rest for 10 minutes before cutting. Serve with cheese sauce and a green salad on the side.

 Mrs. Adams Velvet Cheese Sauce

Yield: Approximately 1¾ cups

½ cup sour cream

¼ cup  mayonnaise

1 cup  cheese of your choice, grated

Dash Worcestershire sauce

Dash Sriracha or hot sauce of your choice

Place all the ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.

Stir to blend and continue stirring until the cheese is melted.

This sauce can be prepared ahead of time and reheated when ready to use.

Adapted from a recipe called “Detroit Fish Pudding,” published in  “French Cooking in Old Detroit Since 1701.”