Much and varied has been said about this humble and traditional dish called Cottage Pie, a dish of quintessential British and Irish flavours. Basically, this was, and still is, a type of savory pie, which was made —originally by peasant housewives— of a first layer of minced beef with gravy (usually from leftover Sunday beef roast) and topped with a mashed potato crust. The term “cottage pie” it is known to have been in use since 1791, when the potato was being introduced to England. Truth be told, potatoes, a New World food, were first introduced to Europe in 1520 by the Spanish, although they did not appeal to the British palate until de 18th century.
In present day English, cottage pie is often confused with shepherd’s pie (traditionally cooked with lamb). But in fact, the former has a somewhat longer history than the latter, which does not crop up until the 1870s. On numerous occasions, both terms are often used interchangeably.
The important thing about cottage pie is to realise that although it is “by its nature an improvised dish, nevertheless it is one to approach with a certain amount of care and respect – because when you make a good one it’s one of the most delicious things on the planet”, as observed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, British celebrity chef, journalist and food writer, known for his back-to-basics philosophy.
Nowadays, the use of minced meat is very widespread. However, the old-fashioned coarsely chopped beef instead “makes the finished pie robust and satisfying” in Fearnley-Whittingstall words. In the British cookery writer Jane Grigson’s opinion, the invention of the mincing machine was “the beginning of the end” for the cottage pie. In fact, “to mince,” means “to cut or chop (food) into very small pieces”, without necessarily entering into details.
So then there lies the question of using industrially minced meat or chopping it at home instead. I’ve tried both versions and, although in the first case we can still enjoy a truly delicious dish, and the latter may mean a less agreeable task, I can only support Fearnley-Whittingstall’s and Grigson’s opinions, as the outcome is considerably remarkable.
And you, have you had yours yet? Or perhaps you’re more of a shepherd’s pie person yourself?
Mini Cocottes by Le Creuset used in this recipe from Claudia & Julia
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, peeled and finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 carrots, peeled and finely sliced or grated
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1½ pounds (680 g) minced beef (chuck or shin)
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch (cornflour UK)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 cup (240 ml) beef stock
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- ½ cup (120 ml) red wine (optional)
- 2 teaspoons freshly chopped rosemary leaves
- ½ cup (65 g) fresh or frozen (and thawed) peas
- 1¾ pounds (790 g) russet potatoes (or any other "floury" type)
- ½ cup (120 ml) whole milk
- ¼ cup / ½ stick (60 g) unsalted butter
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 tablespoons (30 g) unsalted butter, cold and cut into small cubes (optional)
- Place the olive oil into a wide sauté pan and set over medium high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and salt and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon.
- Add the celery and carrots and sauté just until they begin to take on color, approximately 3 to 4 minutes.
- Add the garlic, stir to combine and cook for a pair of minutes more.
- Add the meat and black pepper and cook until browned and cooked through, approximately 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add half the stock. Whisk the other half with the cornstarch (cornflour), and then stir into the meat mixture.
- Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, wine (if using), and rosemary, and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer slowly 10 to 12 minutes or until the sauce is thickened slightly.
- Finally, add the peas and stir to combine, bring to a boil once and remove from heat.
- Now divide and spoon the meat mixture evenly into 6-8 individual ramekins (or a single baking dish). Fill them about ¾ full, making sure to fill every corner and that there are no air pockets in the mixture. Smooth the surface and set aside.
- Preheat the oven (electric) to 400 degrees F (200ºC) with top and bottom heating.
- Meanwhile, wash the potatoes, place in a wide saucepan without peeling and cover with cold water. Set over high heat, cover and bring to a boil.
- Once boiling, decrease the heat to maintain a simmer and cook potatoes uncovered until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, place milk and butter in a small saucepan (or even into a microwave), set over low heat until butter melts, stirring occasionally. Set aside, cover and keep warm.
- Once done, drain the potatoes and peel off the cooked skin with your fingers while they are still hot. Be careful not to burn yourself; you can peel the potatoes under cold running tap water.
- Place the potatoes in a wide bowl and mash until a few lumps remain.
- Then add the milk and butter mixture (still hot) gradually while stirring until desired consistency (you may not need to use the whole milk and butter mixture).
- Add salt, pepper and nutmeg and continue to mash until smooth (take no notice of a few lingering lumps; that extra "homely" touch will make a more genuine cottage pie). Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
- Stir in the yolk until well combined.
- Top the beef mixture with the mashed potatoes, starting around the edges to create a seal to prevent the mixture from bubbling up and smooth the surface with a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon. Do not overfill, or the mashed potatoes may overflow as they puff up a little during baking.
- If desired, dot with some extra butter for flavour and tenderness.
- Place on a parchment lined baking sheet on the middle position of the oven, bake for 25 minutes, change oven’s heat to broil and cook for 2-3 minutes more just until the potatoes begin to brown.
- Remove from the oven and place on a cooling rack for at least 15 minutes before serving.
Store refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 2-3 days. Do not freeze, mashed potatoes particularly.
- It's very common, although a relatively recent twist on this traditional dish, to sprinkle mashed potatoes with some grated cheddar or Parmesan cheese for a deeper flavour and colour. But then, it's your call 😉
Sources: The Guardian, Food Timeline et al.