Guest Author: Monda Rosenberg
That’s the perfect description of what was the top-selling chicken pie at Eaton’s elegant Arcadian Court. For decades it was the gold standard home cooks strived to duplicate. When the Oliver-Bonacini restaurant empire took over the Toronto location, they put an updated version on their trendy menu. Theirs, baked in elegant white French soup bowls, has an incredibly rich mushroom-scented cream sauce with a high domed buttery puff pastry lid.
World-renowned Los Angeles chef Wolfgang Puck, who caters the official Oscar parties, is a confessed pot pie aficionado. When he includes tiny chicken pies on his menu, he adds shavings of luxurious black truffles. He always marvels at how happy his guests are to cut through the puff pastry, releasing a wonderfully aromatic steam. But then again, that’s the essence of chicken pot pie—comforting and soul soothing—and that’s what makes it a classic.
Thank goodness there are as many versions of pot pie today as there are pizza toppings. Few include truffles but many are superbly addictive. Announce at a dinner party you’re serving chicken pot pie, and oohs and ahs usually follow.
Even the frozen ones sold today are a far cry from those you used to devour in front of the TV. Then a gluey grayish sauce held uptight chicken pieces, greyish peas and tinny carrot cubes, and the pastry, to the best of my memory, was cardboard-esque. Now supermarkets offer a range of excellent versions, including a butter chicken filling under a crispy crunchy phyllo crust.
Getting that at home doesn’t require culinary skill or a big time commitment. Begin with a jar of butter chicken sauce; add big cubes of chicken from a supermarket rotisserie bird; and throw in frozen peas, carrots and roasted peppers from a jar. Cover it in style with light layers of golden phyllo, each with a melted buttery brushing, and a final layer of scrunchy gossamer-like golden phyllo.
There are no rules to building a perfect pot pie. It totally depends on personal taste and the time you want to spend. My current entertaining favourites are Italian Chicken Pie With Fennel and Lightly-Curried Party Pot Pie. I make the filling ahead, speed tracked with a jar of Alfredo pasta sauce or can of coconut milk. Then, just before the guests arrive, I warm it, blanket with a sheet of pre-rolled frozen puff pastry and bake during the cocktail hour.
On FoodNetwork.com, the most searched ingredient is chicken, and the top pot pies are Ina Garten’s and Sunny Anderson’s. They’re both straightforward, with ingredients like chicken bouillon cubes, chicken broth, frozen peas and frozen pearl onions. The only seasoning for one is salt and pepper—proving you don’t need to be fancy to be popular.
Pointers for the Perfect Pot Pie
- Make a saucy base.
- Add cooked chicken and vegetables.
- Put in a baking dish and add a covering.
Routes to a creamy sauce include making from “scratch” or fast-forwarding the process with a bottled sauce, soup or canned gravy.
Pick the right size of baking dish; you can use any size you want, or individual dishes. Using a measuring cup, count the number of cups needed to fill the dish to the rim with water. This is important: since the pastry is sealed to the sides, if the filling doesn’t come to the top, the pastry will sag and look collapsed.
To serve 4, consider a large deep-dish pie plate that holds 6 cups (1.5 L) or an 11-inch (27.5 cm) oval casserole dish that holds about 8 cups (2 L). For 6 to 8 servings, choose a 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33 cm) rectangular baking dish, which holds 12 cups (3 L). Individual dishes should each hold about 2 cups (500 mL). Small soufflé dishes or onion soup bowls are ideal. My favourites are those adorable, small, white porcelain French bowls with lion’s head handles.
Count on A THIRD of the filling being a sauce. If you need 12 cups (3 L) to fill the dish, you will need 4 cups (1 L) of sauce.
For every cup (250 mL) of sauce needed, start with 2 tbsp (30 mL) butter. Melt in a large saucepan. Sprinkle in an equal amount of flour. Stir constantly over medium heat for 2 minutes. Then gradually stir in the liquid. Use homogenized milk or half-and-half cream, or a combo of milk and cream such as 3 cups (750 mL) 2% milk plus 1 cup (250 mL) whipping cream. Another blend is good-quality chicken broth and cream. While the cream isn’t essential, this is a time when you want rich and decadent. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon; use a whisk to smooth if necessary. If it starts to boil, lower the heat. Stir until sauce thickly coats the spoon, at least 3 minutes. It must be very thick because both chicken and vegetables, even completely cooked ones, will release liquid as they heat in the sauce.
For a homemade sauce using a lacing of white wine, check out Chicken Pot Pie II.
Look for pasta sauces, condensed soups, cooking sauces and gravies. These can work beautifully as an express route to a DIY pot pie. For large pies you may need 2 containers or a combo of one jar or can plus another liquid such as cream. In place of cream in this combo, you can also sub milk with cream cheese, chèvre or mascarpone for thickening.
Check out the selection of creamy pasta sauces on supermarket shelves. Some are stocked in the refrigerated section. Creamy Alfredo pasta sauces come in many flavours, all of them rich and smooth. My picks are Classic Alfredo, Mushroom Alfredo, Roasted Red Pepper Alfredo and Rosé Alfredo Sauce.
Peruse the sauce aisles — most hold an amazing array of bottled ready-to-heat cooking sauces. Many of them can be stretched with broth or cream. Use as a bold-flavoured starter for any pot pie filling. You can choose from Butter Chicken or Thai Yellow Curry, Indian Korma, Madras, Tikka Masala, Coconut Cream or Curry Sweet Pepper and Coconut.
I am not a fan of dried sauce mixes, finding most too salty.
Cans of condensed soups — cream of chicken, mushroom, mushroom with roasted garlic and celery — are an easy-peasy kick-start to a chicken pot pie. Look for them to be sodium-reduced, but not low-fat. Ready-to-serve soups are too thin. Most supermarkets carry two to three brands of chicken gravy, ranging from a highly seasoned version, to a mild creamy number like the one you probably remember smothering over a hot chicken sandwich. Use these full strength.
Consider a good lacing of dry sherry, cognac, vermouth (a herbed liquor made from white wine) or pinches of saffron to the sauce base. If you happen to have a few truffles lying around, add a few shavings.
Highly season the sauce; the chicken and vegetable additions will dilute the potency of the spices. Taste after they are all stirred in, because you may want to add more. If you make the filling ahead and refrigerate before baking, freshen up the taste by adding a good sprinkle of seasonings after reheating.
Classic seasonings: dried poultry seasoning, nutmeg, dried leaf thyme, fresh thyme, dried sage, savory
French flair: tarragon, marjoram, herbes de Provence
Heat it up: ancho chili powder, cayenne, smoky paprika, curry powder, curry paste
Nouvelle mixes: Montreal Chicken Seasoning, zatar (blend of herbs, sesame and salt), lemon pepper and seasoning salt, Cajun seasonings mix
Freshen up: finely-chopped fresh dill, shredded fresh basil, fresh thyme leaves, lemon thyme leaves, finely-chopped fresh sage or savory, thinly-sliced fresh chives
Always cook chicken before stirring it into the sauce. If you choose to cook the chicken in the sauce, it will be thinned as the chicken releases its juices and it has to be stirred almost constantly to prevent burning. Plan 4 cups (1 L) of cut-up chicken for a 9x13-inch (23 x 33 cm), 12 cup (3 L) rectangular baking dish. Either roast a whole bird, buy a deli-roasted one or poach some pieces. Poaching produces the most tender chicken. Simmer whole boneless skinless chicken pieces or bone-in thighs in water for 20 to 25 minutes, or 30 to 35 minutes for bone-in breasts. Cool and cut into pieces about an inch (2.5 cm) wide. Smaller than that and they’ll get lost in the filling.
Sautéed ground chicken may be used, but then you wind up with what I call a shepherd’s pie.
Cut all vegetables into bite-size pieces or smaller, and cook before adding to sauce. Remember, colour is important for eye appeal. Carrots, onions and celery were the “must add” vegetables for decades. Today, just about anything goes. In winter, a roasted root vegetable mix makes sense. Come spring, it’s fun to freshen it up with lightly-cooked asparagus pieces and sautéed leeks.
Boiled vegetables: carrot, celery, celeriac, whole pearl onions, asparagus pieces, sliced snow peas. Cook in boiling salted water or broth. Do separately if they take different cooking times, such as carrots and snow peas.
Roasted vegetables: chunks of sweet potatoes, onions, squash, parsnip, turnip, sweet peppers. Toss with oil and roast at 425°F (210°C).
Sautéed vegetables: sliced leeks, mushrooms, fennel, red and white onions. Cook in butter until almost done, as you like. Mushrooms give off a ton of liquid, so sauté at medium-high until no more liquid is being released.
Frozen vegetables: peas, mix of peas and carrots, carrot slices, French green beans, niblet corn, whole pearl onions. Cook just until hot or just soft enough to eat. Drain well before adding.
Canned and bottled vegetables: marinated artichoke hearts, roasted red pepper strips, sun-dried tomato strips, chopped green chilies
Raw vegetables: sliced chives, halved cherry tomatoes, skinny strips of colourful peppers
Pie pastry: Homemade or store-bought dough work well. Look for frozen packages containing two pre-rolled sheets.
Puff pastry: Sold in a frozen block or packages with two pre-rolled sheets.
Phyllo pastry: Sold in frozen packages.
Thaw any frozen pastry gently in the refrigerator. Then remove dough from its packaging. If you have pre-rolled sheets, simply unroll. If they will not cover the pie, put one sheet or block of pastry on a lightly-floured board and roll or pat out to whatever shape is needed.
- Refrigerated package of unbaked biscuits.
- Refrigerated roll of polenta; sliced into rounds.
- Mashed white or sweet potatoes. Look for refrigerated bags of prepared mashed potatoes, available in most supermarkets. Some taste marvelous.
Pot Pie World Tour
Choose from any of these additions to give your pot pie an international flavour.
French: shallots, vermouth, tarragon, pearl onions, artichoke hearts, crumbles of chèvre. Top pot pie with frozen croissants or puff pastry.
Swiss: mustard in a creamy sauce, fresh dill, smoked salmon
Bayou: Cajun seasonings, andouille sausages, okra
Italian: Italian sausages, roasted red peppers, fresh basil, fennel, grated Parmesan or Asiago
Mexican: can of green chilies or jalapenos, niblet corn, cornmeal in the pastry
Canadian: Oktoberfest sausages or peameal bacon. Top pie with cheddar biscuits or add grated cheddar to the pastry.
English: savoury sausages, leeks, celery, Stilton crumbles. Top with tea biscuits.
When you’re in the mood to make ahead, do pies for the freezer. Individual pies are the easiest to reheat. You can thaw all in the refrigerator or bake from frozen. Our Individual Lemony Pot Pies are made in those little foil pans sold in most dollar stores. When entertaining, you can make the filling a few days ahead, then lay on the pastry before guests arrive and bake during the cocktail hour.
Healthy ways to update this comfort dish: use white chicken meat only, 2% milk for the sauce instead of cream and lots of vegetables, including cooked carrots or sweet potatoes and pepper strips. Top with phyllo brushed with olive oil instead of butter.
Check our healthy choice shepherd’s pie with a mashed celery root and apple topping. Our Chicken, Wild Rice And Mushroom Pot Pie is made with 2% evaporated milk and lots of kale, and the phyllo is brushed with olive oil versus the usual butter. Plus, it’s simple to make: phyllo is layered in the pie plate, then the filling is added and sheets are folded over so it looks gift-wrapped.
Begin by heating condensed cream of chicken or mushroom soup, or a jar of Alfredo pasta sauce. Add cubes of chicken from a supermarket rotisserie bird or a package of chicken strips, plus frozen peas or frozen mixed vegetables and red pepper strips. Jazz it up with poultry seasonings and sliced jalapenos. Top with a sheet of frozen pastry. Check out this Chicken Pot Pie.
Priming for a Party
To fast-track a party pie while keeping it in the “upscale category,” begin with a jar of Alfredo pasta sauce. Add sautéed mushrooms (shiitake kick it up a notch), a bag of frozen pearl onions (lot faster than peeling), roasted red peppers strips (they’re sold in jars; just rinse well) and cooked baby carrots. Consider sautéed asparagus tips, sautéed shallots, drained jar of artichoke hearts and sliced olives. If you use puff pastry, do pastry cut-outs and use to decorate the crust. If you use phyllo, scrunch up the top layer. For a casual get-together, consider our Chicken Tamale Pie spiked with salsa and jalapenos. There is no better way to have a chicken in every pot.