Phyllo, biscuits and corn bread put a new twist on the classic potpie

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Potpies have long been stars of the comfort-food season. With new toppings as an alternative to the traditional flaky crust, you can lighten their toll on both your waistline and your cooking time.

Heaped with moist fillings that bubble under a crisp corn-bread topping or maybe a soft biscuit crust, potpies have a universal appeal. They use readily available ingredients, often make a one-dish meal and can serve a single person or a crowd. Most can be put together at your leisure and baked later in the day, and many can even be frozen, defrosted and popped in the oven to bake.

Potpies came by their name literally - they began as savory pies that cooked in a pot over an open fire. A crust covered the top to seal in juices and keep the potpie moist during cooking.

Now potpies bake evenly and quickly in the oven and can have a variety of toppings and fillings. Biscuits, corn bread or store-bought phyllo pastry all make quick potpie "crusts" that depart in presentation and texture from the traditional.

A hot version of chicken salad, for example, becomes a potpie with a phyllo-pastry topping. Instead of being spread in sheets over the filling, the phyllo is crumpled into loose balls to make an especially crisp and attractive finish.

Corn bread bakes into a crisp, firm topping for a black-bean-chili potpie. And biscuit dough tops a sausage-based potpie that can anchor brunch or Sunday supper.

No matter how you fill your potpies, the ingredients should be bite-size, and any meat or chicken should be cooked thoroughly before being baked with a topping. (The final stint in the oven will bake the topping, but only heat the filling.) Fillings usually include a simple sauce or gravy to flavor the pies and keep them moist.

Baking containers can dress up or dress down a potpie. Just be sure to use one that is ovenproof. White baking dishes make a good general choice and a colorful or rustic container looks nice with the down-to-earth black-bean-chili potpie. Whatever container you choose, it should be large enough to leave 1 to 2 inches between the filling and topping - depending on the type of topping - so that the filling does not bubble up and over the baking dish.

Potpies lend themselves to an informal, help-yourself serving style. Most are served hot. A nice bonus is that the toppings actually insulate the fillings, and a potpie in its baking container often will remain piping hot throughout a meal.

Many potpie fillings can be prepared ahead, covered and refrigerated while they wait overnight to have a topping added. Leftover potpies can be reheated for serving the next day. Cover the potpie tightly with aluminum foil and heat it in a moderate oven. The time depends on the size and type of potpie.

Potpies are ideal for carrying to a potluck dinner or sharing with a friend. It is easiest to bake a potpie at home and warm it, if necessary, after you arrive.

A safe way to transport the potpie is to fit it into a basket or container that will hold it in place during transport. Pack several dish towels around the baking dish to make it fit snugly in the basket.

Elinor Klivans' next book, "Potpies," will be published this fall.

, Hot Chicken-Salad Potpie

Serves 6

FILLING:

2 cups (2 breasts) cooked chicken breast, cut into 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch pieces

2 cups (about 5 stalks) finely chopped celery

1/2 cup (2 ounces) toasted slivered almonds

1 tablespoon grated onion

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 cup mayonnaise

TOPPING:

6 phyllo pastry sheets (about 17 inches by 13 inches), defrosted if frozen

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a 9-inch-by-2-inch round baking dish or glass pie dish.

In a large bowl and using a large spoon, mix the filling ingredients together just to distribute them evenly and coat the chicken pieces with mayonnaise. Spoon the filling into the baking dish, spreading it evenly.

To make the topping, lay out 6 phyllo pastry sheets in a stack. Immediately cover the cut sheets of phyllo completely with plastic wrap and a damp dish towel. Use plastic wrap to roll up and tightly rewrap any leftover phyllo and refrigerate it for up to 1 week.

Spread 1 sheet of phyllo on the counter and use a pastry brush to brush it lightly with butter, then sprinkle it lightly with salt.

Crumple it up lightly (like a piece of newspaper) into a loose ball and place it on the filling. If any phyllo breaks off, just put it back on the ball of pastry.

Repeat with the remaining 5 sheets of phyllo, arranging them to cover the filling. You will have 6 bundles of phyllo covering the filling.

Bake the potpie just until the phyllo topping is golden and the filling is hot, about 15 minutes. This filling bakes for a short time, so that the celery in the filling remains crisp. Use a spoon to serve the filling with a phyllo bundle for each serving.

Per serving: 506 calories; 17 grams protein; 42 grams fat; 9 grams saturated fat; 14 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 64 milligrams cholesterol; 548 milligrams sodium

Sausage-and-Biscuit Potpie

Serves 8

1 1/2 pounds ground fresh pork sausage

2 cups finely chopped onions (2 medium onions)

1 green pepper, seeded and finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

one 14 1/2 -ounce can tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

BISCUIT CRUST:

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/2 cup buttermilk (nonfat is fine)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Have ready a 9-inch-by-2-inch round baking dish or 9-inch glass pie dish.

In a large bowl and using a large spoon, mix the sausage, onions, green pepper, parsley and garlic to combine them. Spread the filling evenly in the baking dish, but do not pack it down. Bake for 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the oven and carefully pour off any liquid or fat and discard it. Spoon the tomatoes evenly over the top. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper.

Return the pan to the oven for 15 more minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let cool for at least 15 minutes while you prepare the topping.

In a large bowl, stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. Add the butter pieces. Using a pastry blender or your fingertips, mix the ingredients together until coarse crumbs form, about 1/2 inch to 3/4 inch in size.

Add the buttermilk and stir until a soft dough forms. Gather the dough into a ball. Lightly flour the rolling surface and rolling pin and roll the dough into a 9-inch circle (about 3/4 inch thick) that fits snugly into the baking dish. Transfer the dough to the baking dish.

Bake until the top is evenly golden, about 17 minutes. Cut into wedges and serve.

Per serving: 307 calories; 11 grams protein; 18 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 25 grams carbohydrate; 2 grams fiber; 40 milligrams cholesterol; 836 milligrams sodium

Black-Bean-Chili Potpie With Onion-and-Pepper Corn-Bread Topping

Serves 8

FILLING:

three 16-ounce cans black beans, drained and rinsed

1 bay leaf

1 1/2 teaspoons dried oregano leaves (divided use)

2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon chile powder (divided use)

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

1 dried ancho chile

one 14 1/2 -ounce can tomatoes

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups (3 medium) onions, coarsely chopped

1 large green pepper, seeded, deveined and finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, finely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

TOPPING:

1/2 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

2/3 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

2/3 cup buttermilk

1 large egg

1 tablespoon corn oil

1/2 cup cooked onion-and-green-pepper mixture from chili-vegetable mixture

Put the beans in a large saucepan and add the bay leaf, 1 teaspoon of the oregano, 2 teaspoons of the chile powder, cumin, ancho chile, tomatoes with their juice and 1/2 cup water. Cover loosely and cook 30 minutes. Remove the ancho chile and bay leaf and discard them.

Meanwhile, cook the vegetables for the chili and corn bread. In a medium frying pan, heat the oil and cook the onions over medium heat until softened, stirring often, about 5 minutes.

Add the green pepper and garlic and continue cooking until the pepper softens, about 8 minutes. Remove 1/2 cup of the vegetables and set them aside to add later to the corn-bread topping. Stir in the remaining 1 tablespoon chile powder and 1/2 teaspoon oregano, then stir the vegetables into the bean mixture.

Remove 1 cup of the black-bean mixture, process it in a food processor to a puree, and stir it into the rest of the black-bean mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the chili into the baking dish and set aside.

Position an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Into a large bowl, sift the flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a medium bowl, stir the buttermilk, egg, oil and reserved vegetables together to combine them.

Stir the liquids into the dry ingredients. Spoon the corn-bread batter over the chili in the baking dish.

Bake until the corn-bread topping looks golden brown, feels firm and a toothpick inserted in the topping comes out dry, about 35 minutes. Use a large spoon to spoon out servings of topping and filling.

Per serving: 285 calories; 12 grams protein; 8 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 56 grams carbohydrate; 13 grams fiber; 27 milligrams cholesterol; 1,238 milligrams sodium

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