Ever since I came back from Modena, I’ve been dreaming of this pie. Having grown up in England, I love big, traditional, English pies such as pork pies and the game pies you see in TV costume dramas weighing down many a seventeenth-century table. This is the closest thing I’ve found in Italian cuisine to those pies and is just as delicious as well as being remarkably simple to make.
I’ve done a lot of research into the recipe over the last few weeks and it was with a healthy dose of trepidation that I set about developing this recipe. All the ones I found called for pasta frolla (shortcrust pastry) but the one I had in Modena tasted like sweet hot water crust pastry―the kind used for English pies and which is perfect for avoiding soggy bottoms when making large pies like this one. I therefore decided to make this pie with hot water crust and mamma mia am I glad I did. (Incidentally mia mamma—who you will recall is English—is staying with me at the moment and declared the pie a great success.)
Hot water crust pastry is essentially choux pastry without the eggs. Fat is melted into water which is then brought to the boil, poured over flour and then stirred in a bowl until the sides are clean. You work it while it is still hot and pliable and mould it into the dish you are using rather than rolling it out and lining in the usual way. For this recipe, I rolled it into a circle a little bigger than the bottom of the cake tin I was using and them pressed gently in the centre with my knuckles. The dough then spread out and by gently squeezing my knuckles into the corner of the tin in a circular motion, the dough rose up and up the sides of the tin till it was perfectly lined. I’m going to have to make a video demonstrating but I think you get the idea.
I used fresh tortellini here as well. These don’t require pre-cooking for this pie since steeping them in the hot salsa besciamella and then cooking them in the pie is enough to achieve a perfect al dente consistency when the pie is cooled. If you can’t find them where you are, you can use dried ones but you should cook these in boiling water for 3/4 of the cooking time written on the packet before draining and adding them to the salsa besciamella.
The resulting pie is extraordinary and a surprise for those who are only familiar with ‘international’ Italian food. The combination of pasta and pastry sounds wrong at first hearing but is a marriage made in Modena. Modena is full of little secrets when it comes to food and I learnt an awful lot from my visit. It’s amazing that a smallish town, so close to Bologna, has not been overshadowed by that city’s cuisine but has retained a distinctiveness all of its own.
This pie is served cold and is perfect for picnics, parties, or summer dining where you can serve it with a salad dressed with aceto balsamico di Modena, of course!
For the filling:
100g (3 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter
100g (3 1/2 ounces) plain flour
1 tablespoon salt
1 liter (4 1/2 cups) milk
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
50g (2 ounces) grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
800g (2 pounds) fresh tortellini
For the pastry:
575g (4 3/4 cups) plain flour
200g (7 ounces) butter
220ml (7 1/2 fluid ounces) water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten
1 20 cm (8 inch) wide 10 cm (4 inch) deep loose-bottomed cake tin
Make the filling:
- Make a salsa besciamella: put the butter in a saucepan and melt over a low heat.
- Add the flour all at once, mix and stir with a whisk until the mixture is golden brown.
- Add the salt and then, little-by-little, the milk, whisking all the time to avoid lumps.
- When you have added half the milk add the rest and then continue to cook over a low heat, whisking all the time, until it begins to boil and thicken. Continue to cook for about one minute and then add the nutmeg and parmigiano.
- When the parmigiano has combined remove from the heat and add the tortellini. Allow to cool.
Make the pastry:
- Pre-heat the oven to 180° C (350° F).
- Put the water, butter, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and heat gently until the butter has melted.
- Bring the mixture to the boil and then pour over the flour in another bowl.
- Mix with a wooden spoon until it starts to form a dough. Knead with your hands until the bowl is clean.
- Remove about a quarter of the dough and set to one side. Then roll the rest of the dough flat on a work surface dusted with flour until it is about the size of the bottom of your cake tin.
- Place in the bottom of the tin and then squeeze from the middle using your fists and mould the dough right up the sides of the tin trying to get it an even thickness all over. Work as fast as you can while the dough is still hot as it will be easier to mould.
- Fill with the tortellini until until about half a centimetre (1/4 inch) from the top of the pastry.
- Roll the smaller piece of pastry into a circle to cover the top of the pie.
- Paint the edges of the pie with egg and then cover with the pastry lid. Using your thumb and forefinger, crimp the edges together.
- Make a hole in the centre of the lid with a knife, paint the top with egg and then put in the oven for 30 minutes. Turn the heat down to 160° C (320° F) and continue to cook for a further hour. Allow to cool completely before removing from the tin. Serve cold.
What’s the most unexpected dish you’ve ever discovered from Italian cuisine?