Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Deliciously simple Pithiviers pie

For a long time, as a child, I was puzzled by the name of one of my favourite pastries, which appeared quite often on our family dessert table. Never having heard of the town in the Orleans region where this lovely almond pie originated, I misheard 'Pithiviers' as 'petit vieux'--or 'little old man'. What little old men had to do with pies I had no idea, but I didn't ask the obvious question because there are so many other such bizarre names in traditional French cuisine--from the alcoholic 'confiture de vieux garcon', or 'old boy's jam' I wrote about in a previous post to the rather coarser 'pet de nonne' (literally 'nun's fart') which was the popular, traditional name given to the deliciously light and sweet choux pastry known these days, much more discreetly, as a 'religieuse'.

It was only when one day, leafing as a teenager through Dad's Larousse Gastronomique, that I came across the entry for Gateau Pithiviers that the penny finally dropped. As a teenager struggling to appear dignified, I was of course very glad I hadn't asked any silly questions, imagining the mortification and the endless reminders about my ridiculous mistake from my siblings!

Misheard moniker or not, I still love Pithiviers pie every bit as much as I did when I was a kid. And these days not only do I make my own but I've devised my own version of it which is very very easy to make.

Traditionally, Pithiviers pie is made with puff pastry, but my version uses a much quicker and easier rich shortcrust pastry which though it doesn't puff, does flake quite satisfactorily in a similar way to puff pastry, and it's also deliciously moist so stays fresh for longer. Puff pastry is lovely but not only is it time-consuming (if not difficult) to make, it also tends to be at its best on the day it's baked, and that goes for the shop variety too. The pastry I make for my Pithiviers pie can be easily made at home, with flour, butter and either buttermilk(which you can buy in the supermarket in cartons, look in the dairy section) or if you don't have that, a mixture of yoghurt and sour cream. I put no water in it at all. You could use just yoghurt or justsour cream if you want but experiment has proved to me that only using yoghurt makes the pastry too sour while only using sour cream makes it too heavy. Buttermilk is ideal, but the mixture of sour cream and yoghurt also works very well. I also never ever put almond essence in the almond paste which is the filling of the pie, as I loathe the taste of it in sweets(I don't mind it in liqueurs). Instead I use vanilla essence mixed in with the almond meal, sugar, softened butter and egg yolk.

A wonderful alternative to the basic almond filling of Pithiviers pie is substituting the almond meal for hazelnut meal, and the vanilla essence for melted chocolate. Otherwise it's made the same.

Here's the recipe for my Gateau Pithiviers a la mode frangourou: (makes a small pie suitable for four people at one sitting)


150 g plain flour

50 g cold unsalted butter

Buttermilk, or sour cream and yoghurt.


125 g almond meal.

50 g castor sugar.

1 egg yolk.

About 30-40 g softened unsalted butter.

drop vanilla essence

Optional: drop armagnac or cognac

For glaze: 1 egg yolk.

To make pastry, cut the butter into pieces and rub through flour till mixture ressembles fine breadcrumbs. Add enough buttermilk or sour cream/yoghurt to make a soft but not sticky dough. Set aside to rest in a cool place while you make the filling.

Mix almond meal, sugar, egg yolk, softened butter and vanilla essence in a bowl, and brandy too if you wish(I mix the whole thing with my--clean!--hands, it's easier to get a nice consistency than using a spoon.) It needs to be fairly soft but holding together well, a bit softer than bought marzipan.

Divide the pastry in slightly unequal halves(the bit for base and sides needs to be a bit greater than the bit for the top. ) Roll out each part. Lay the base and sides part in a buttered pie dish and then spread the almond mixture over it to cover it to every corner. Place the pie lid on top of that, pinch sides together. Then paint top with egg yolk and score it with a sharp knife taking care not to go right through top(it's just for decoration really.) Bake in a moderate oven for about 40minutes.

It's just as good freshly made as the next day, and as delicious warm as cold.

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