This chicken pie is a guest recipe on two counts: firstly, the recipe originated with my mother-in-law, a genuinely marvellous woman who gives the lie to all those mother-in-law horror stories which you have no doubt heard. It is she, not I, who is the Mammy Lynch of the title. Secondly, though I cooked it many times myself, the dish was perfected by my husband, an exacting experimental physicist with a penchant for chemistry who is constitutionally obliged to test every single variable in a recipe before he finally hits on the perfect, Platonic version. I think we may have reached a dozen iterations of the cheese sauce before he was satisfied: now that, folks, is devotion to your art.
Bear in mind that this is a pie in the loosest sense of the word: there’s no pastry involved, nor even a potato topping. I did ask Stephen why his mum used the tomatoes, and if the pie would be better made in some more conventional format. He was thoroughly horrified at the suggestion, saying that this was the way Mammy always made chicken pie, and this was the way it always would be made, gosh darn it! After a couple of failed experiments, I have to tell you that Mammy was right: the tomatoes, slightly charred from being finished under the grill, are essential as a sharp counterpoint to the rich, creamy sauce. As regards the filling: we’ve made this with both chicken and turkey, and often throw some cooked ham or gammon in as well if the poultry needs to be bulked out. The meat and vegetables listed in the recipe below represent the combination we tend to use, but it’s not a disaster if you depart from this: the pie originated as a way of using up the leftovers from a roast dinner, and, as such, the recipe is rather fluid in this respect. Mind you it’s so tasty that Stephen has been known to foray out in search of a ready-cooked chicken if leftovers are lacking. It’s serious comfort food, and I would highly recommend it as an antidote to the January blues.
Mammy Lynch’s Chicken Pie
To feed four people generously, with some leftovers, you will need:
- Cooked chicken, turkey and/or ham, cut into small chunks. It’s hard to be very specific as to quantities, but you will need enough to half-fill a 25cm/9.5 inch square oven dish. If you are being decadent and buying the chicken for the purpose, a small one (ready roasted) should do.
- For the cheese sauce:
- 3 tablespoons of plain flour
- 2 tbsp butter
- 600ml milk
- One onion
- Half a dozen cloves
- 100g each of grated Parmesan and Gruyère cheese
- One large leek, sliced
- About 300g mushrooms, sliced
- One onion, chopped
- Four or five large tomatoes, sliced into thickish rounds
- Mature cheddar cheese, grated, in sufficient quantity to cover the top of the pie
Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 4.
The first step in this dish is to make your cheese sauce. This is my Achilles’ heel: I am awful at making a white sauce of any kind (mine always taste floury) and I typically resort to buying some sort of a bottled alternative. Stephen is no such wuss, so the sauce directions which follow are his.
Make a roux by melting the butter in a medium-sized saucepan; when it has melted, stir in the flour a little at a time, and, when it is incorporated, cook the resultant paste thoroughly, while ensuring that the flour does not burn. This should take about five minutes. Meanwhile, warm the milk in another saucepan, and add it, little by little, to the roux. Incorporate it thoroughly, preferably by mixing with a magic whisk, until the roux gradually turns from a paste to a porridge to a smooth sauce. Peel the onion, slice it in half and stick each half with three or four cloves. Add it to the white sauce, season and simmer for about 20 minutes.
While the sauce is simmering, grate 100g each of Parmesan and Gruyère. Fry the sliced leek, chopped onion, and sliced mushrooms in a little butter or oil until soft and slightly coloured. Tip the cooked vegetables into your oven dish, add the chopped meat and mix roughly together.
Remove the onion halves from your white sauce, which should be well-flavoured by this point. Add the Parmesan and Gruyère and stir until it is thoroughly incorporated: Stephen still uses the magic whisk at this point, but he concedes that a wooden spoon would probably do just as well. Pour the sauce over the pie filling in the oven dish, and top with a layer of tomato slices, as shown in the not-terribly-wonderful photo at the beginning of the recipe. Sprinkle the pie liberally with grated cheddar, and bake it for about 30 minutes. Finish the pie by flashing it under a hot grill for a few minutes: you want the tomatoes to caramelise slightly and the cheddar to bubble and toast.
Serve with some sort of green vegetable (we went for steamed cabbage), and eschew potatoes: this is a serious pie, and it really doesn’t need the extra carbohydrates. Dig in, and enjoy the culinary equivalent of a great big cwtch.