Shepherd’s Pie: Winter’s Quintessential Comfort Food

There’s probably no other dish more homey and comforting on a cold winter’s night than a well-made Shepherd’s pie. The origin of this simple and hearty casserole is somewhat obscure, if not downright confusing, with many historians laying its creation to the English. Then there are those who bestow the honor upon the Irish, and even others who say it was the Scots. But on what it seems they all agree: shepherd’s pie came about in the late 1700s as a way for frugal peasant housewives to use their leftover lamb, mutton, and other meats.

The first Shepard’s pies were likely made with pastry crust since the potato, while brought to Europe in the late 16th century, was first looked upon with suspect, charged with everything from leprosy to syphilis, to sterility, and even death. But the potato’s acceptance grew steadily, albeit slowly, and by the early 1800s had become commonplace throughout the continent.

Actually the term Shepherd’s Pie wasn’t coined until the mid-1800s, technically referring to the dish being made with minced lamb or mutton, while a similar dish made with minced beef called Cottage Pie (so named because the peasants who invented it lived in cottages) appeared almost eighty years earlier. Over time however, the distinction between the two was lost and “Shepard’s” pie became synonymous with both, regardless of the protein used in its preparation. This is evidenced by the following recipe from the 5th edition of The Practice of Cookery and Pastry, a book by Mrs. I. Williamson, “teacher of those arts” and “authoress,” printed in Edinburgh, England in 1854.  

“Take cold dressed meat of any kind, roast or boiled, slice it, break the bones, and put them on with a little boiling water, and a little salt, boil them until you have extracted al the strength from them, and reduce ti to very little, and strain it. Season the sliced et with pepper and salt lay it in a baking dish, you in the sauce you strained, and add a little mushroom ketchup. Have some potatoes boiled and nicely mashed, cover the dish with the potatoes, smooth it on the top with a knife, notch it round the edge and mark it on the top the same as paste. Bake it in an oven or before the fire, until the potatoes are a nice brown.”

As the British, Irish, and Scott’s migrated to the United States, they brought with them their love for this dish. In fact, so popular was shepherd’s pie with these early colonists that the recipe was included in one of America’s premier cookbooks: the 1886 edition of Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book (Arnold and Company) written by food writer and America’s first dietitian, Sarah Tyson Rorer.

Here in the States, shepherd’s pie has, for some unexplainable reason other than perhaps Ireland having some claim on its origin, become synonymous with St. Patrick’s Day. in the Jewish community where, in addition to occasionally being served on Shabbat, it has become a favored Passover meal.

Variations of this delicious casserole includes the use of leftover Christmas turkey and ham, making it St. Stephen’s Day Pie. Or if you top the potato crust with breadcrumbs and cheese, it becomes Cumberland Pie. There’s a vegetarian version of this popular dish referred to by many simply as Shepherdess Pie or Gardeners Pie.  Finally, there’s a modern version that calls for a tater-tots topping instead of mashed potatoes, known merely as Tater Tot Casserole

Other cultures have their versions of mashed potato topped casseroles, too. The British mariners have fish pie, made with various kinds of seafood in place of meat. The French-Canadian version, pâté chinois, has a filling made with ground beef and canned corn. Spanish-speaking South American countries call theirs pastel de papa; prepared with layers of chopped hard-boiled eggs, back olives, and raisins. The Indonesians make their version with chicken, called pastel tutup, to name just a few.

So now that you know a little of the history behind Shepherd’s pie, we hope you’ll give our recipe a try. And whether you use beef, lamb, or chicken, top it with mashed potatoes, pastry crust, or tater tots, load your filling with plenty of root vegetables, celery, and peas for a delicious, satisfying one-pot cold weather meal . . . or anytime for that matter.

Sugar’s Fried Pies

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around the daily meals my momma prepared for our family.

apricot fried pie 1Momma (or “Sugar” as everyone called her) was an Oklahoma farm girl and a terrific homemaker and fantastic cook who always seemed to enjoy maintaining a fastidiously clean house and caring for my father, younger sister, and me. This included preparing our favorite treats, usually on a weekly basis. For me this meant her coconut layer cake with crushed pineapple between the layers and creamy white icing, her Thanksgiving sweet potato pies (which for years I thought were pumpkin), and probably my all-time favorite, homemade apricot fried pies.

friedpie2I was about eight or nine years old when I first became interested in how Sugar went about making these delectable hand-held treats, as this was about the time in my life that I had the growing desire to learn to cook. She would start about mid-morning making the filling–dried apricots, sugar, a touch of cinnamon, and water, simmered until the fruit was tender. She then added a lump of butter, mashed the mixture by hand with a potato masher into a sort of lumpy puree and set it aside to cool while she made the crusts.

cutting out the doughEarly on Sugar’s fried pie crust was made from a biscuit-style dough, which as I think back was a bit ironic since she very seldom made biscuits. She would roll out the dough into a large rectangle about an eighth of an inch thick, and then, using a tea saucer as her pattern, cut it into circles about six inches in diameter. Gathering up all of the scrap pieces of dough, she reformed it, rerolled it, and cut more disks, continuing the process until every bit of dough was used.

crimping the doughLater with the advent of canned biscuits, and being the progressive cook she tried to be, Sugar just couldn’t pass up the convenience of popping open one of those cans and rolling each glob of dough into its own circle. But with that exception, the ritual remained the same, filling half of each circle with the cooled apricot filling prepared earlier. She then folded over the other dough half, carefully sealing each pie by crimping them with the tines of a moistened fork, and frying them in a large cast iron skillet of Crisco.

OMG, a snack! Eating one of those treats made me feel as though I had died and gone to heaven.

For those of you who may not be familiar with these little pockets of deliciousness, let me provide a little fried pie history, albeit a rather sketchy one. Research provides very little as to the when, where, and by whom fried pies were first created. Some claim they descended from New Hampshire’s crab lanterns, a fried apple pastry whose name is derived, according to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, from “crab apple” and “lantern,” because of the “ventilating slashes that expose the fruit filling.” And some believe them to simply be a southern version of the turnover, born out of the leftover pie crust from making a traditional pie. In truth, both these and other speculations as to the pastries origin probably have some merit.

empanadaThe fact is, various cultures from around the world have made “hand pies” for centuries. Spain and Portugal have had their empanada, since at least the 1500s, the Indians their meat-filled samosa, the Italians, their cheese filled calzones, the English their savory pasties, and Poland, cheese calzone reducedtheir meat and vegetable pierogi, just to name a few of the more prominent of these portable meals and treats. History also shows that while these are most commonly of a savory nature, they can actually be filled with almost anything including fruits, berries, and jams.

So while we may not be able to pinpoint the exact origin of the fried pie, we can be certain they are an American South tradition with generations of passed down recipes. And although apple and peach are the most common, I can assure you that other popular flavors including cherry, lemon, chocolate, coconut, blueberry, and of course apricot are equally delicious.

friedpie4Fried pies are available at travel stops, convenience stores, BBQ joints, and some fast food restaurants across the southern states from Texas and Oklahoma to the Carolinas. But make sure that what you’re getting is a real fried pie and not one of the commercially branded baked pies, because they are definitely not the same. Better yet, try making your own from Sugar’s recipe which I’ve copied into the GrubAmericana recipe index. I know she’d be honored.

Make Em: Sugar’s Apricot Fried Pies

Try Em: Apple Valley Orchard, Cleveland, Tennessee, Mamaw’s Fried Pies, Whitehouse, Texas, Original Fried Pie Shops, Oklahoma, Texas & Arkansas