Everything’s better with ice cream
Britain and America: two countries divided by a common language, as the saying goes. Very rarely is this more apparent than in the slight variations in the two nations’ food terminology. You know how it is: you say “to-may-to” and I say “to-mar-to”, you say “po-tay-to” and I, as it transpires, also say “po-tay-to”, because who the hell says “po-tar-to”?
“Pie” is one of those terms that may seem quite simple to understand, but turns out to mean something different on different sides of the pond. You say “pie” to the average Brit and there are visions of mashed potato (not mashed po-tar-to, though, that’s not a thing) and mushy peas – wholesome, hearty and, most importantly, meaty. It’s not that we don’t eat sweet pies over here, it’s just that a savoury meat pie is more the typical usage of “pie”. Across the Atlantic, they also have a very clear idea of what a pie should be and that is: full of fruit. Cherry, peach, pear, lime, it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s sweet. Hell, there’s even an expression “as American as apple pie”, they literally view a fruit pie as part of what defines them.
Unlikely to be served with a healthy dollop of gravy (which, to be honest, also has a slightly different meaning to American cooks than it does to us), pies in the US have more of a tendency to come with a scoop of ice cream, or “a la mode” as they like to call it.
I have often been fascinated by unusual ice cream flavours, as you may remember from my attempt to make 18th century parmesan ice cream with dry ice. While that cheese ice cream was a sweet dish made with a sugar syrup, modern equivalents are actually often savoury. The possibilities of savoury ice creams are intriguing and I have previously tried a savoury “Bloody Mary” style tomato and Tabasco ice cream with cheese biscuits. It should come as no surprise given my choice of nom de plume that, on seeing a recipe for mustard ice cream in Heston Blumenthal at Home, I was keen to give it a try. Blumenthal’s recipe is intended to accompany a rather excellent ice cold peppery red cabbage gazpacho that is a brilliant purple colour, but he also suggests it as: “a garnish for cured fish, tea-smoked salmon and pickles or potted meat”.
This got me thinking. Potted meats are really not all that different from the filling of my favourite savoury pie: the classic English pork pie. Mustard itself is a fairly classic accompaniment to a pork pie, which, unlike many meat pies, is supposed to be served cold. So, why couldn’t the mustard ice cream work with it instead? Could you actually serve a British Meat Pie a la Mode?
Starting with the ice cream, then, Blumenthal’s recipe has unrefined sugar and milk powder dissolved in a mix of milk and whipping cream. Once this is cooled, a mix of wholegrain mustard with just a touch of smoother English mustard is whisked into the sugary cream and churned through the ice cream maker. Despite the success of the freezing and stirring method during my parmesan experiment, I’m still keen on the actual ice cream maker as the preferable approach when it comes to making ice cream. What came out of the ice cream maker at the end certainly looked appealingly mustard-y thanks to the seeds in the wholegrain. It was just a case of waiting to see whether it would work a la mode with a pork pie.
“À la mode” means fashionable in French, “of the moment” if you will, so how exactly does a slice of pie and a scoop of ice cream (a fairly obvious, typical combination) constitute something modern and trendy?
The first thing that’s worth noting, when it comes to a la mode meaning “with ice cream”, is that the French don’t really know what it means, it’s a purely American coinage. In France the main food to be referred to as “à la mode” is beef marinated in red wine and braised with onions and cabbage, a term that dates to the 18th century. Some sources date the use of “Pie a la Mode” as recently as the 1920s, while the OED dates the term to 1903.
The popular story for how pie and ice cream, traditionally apple pie and a scoop of vanilla, got this trendy name, though, dates to the 1890s. As the story goes, “pie a la mode” was invented, if such a thing as pie and ice cream can be “invented”, by music teacher Professor Charles Watson Townsend while dining at the Cambridge Hotel in New York State. When Townsend’s dining companion Mrs. Berry Hall saw him order pie and ice cream she asked its name, when he didn’t have one she suggested “pie a la mode”. Later, when in New York City, at Delmonico’s Restaurant, the Professor decided to order pie a la mode. When the waiter told him that he’d never heard of such a thing, Townsend reportedly replied: “Do you mean to tell me that so famous an eating place as Delmonico’s has never heard of pie a la mode, when the Hotel Cambridge, up in the village of Cambridge, NY serves it every day? Call the manager at once, I demand as good service here as I get in Cambridge”. Not wanting to be showed up, Delmonico’s added pie a la mode to the menu and soon it was eaten throughout the country.
This story is probably apocryphal, though, and wikipedia suggests that the term Pie a la Mode was around as early as 1885. Nevertheless, the story remains well known and the Cambridge Hotel continues to lay claim to having invented the whole Pie a la Mode concept, something that came up during their recent appearance on Gordon Ramsay’s Hotel Hell. On the show, Ramsay, in typical sweary mode, told the hotel’s current owner: “There are so many basics wrong, I could fucking cry. I could seriously cry. And look at the apples: The apples are raw; they aren’t even baked. I could scream when I see that. And this was invented here. Thousands of restaurants across the globe that have copied what you originated — have you any idea how lucky you are? And it resolves to that: soggy, undercooked, soaking wet, fucking pie”. Apparently it’s gone really downhill since the days when the hotel was owned by the Gann family (no relation).
Anyway, now that I had some ice cream, I needed some pie for it to be fashionable with. I’ve made quite a few pies in the past using pie dishes and tins, but a pork pie is traditionally hand raised, which meant a new approach that I was much less familiar with.
Pork pies require a different kind of pastry to an apple pie, a heavier less crumbly affair made with a hot lard dough rather than a delicate short crust. To make a pastry like this, I needed to melt a big lump of greasy lard in milk and mix it with the flour. While the smell of melting lard is never the most appealing, working with my hands to mix the warm dough was a rather pleasant experience. Unlike short crust, a hot water crust dough like this isn’t so easy to overwork so can be handled quite a bit.
After putting the pastry aside for a while to rest, I needed to shape and raise it for my pie. Traditionally hand raised pies have been made using a pie dolly, a round wooden mould around which the pastry can be shaped. This seems like an excessively specific piece of equipment for something I’m not necessarily likely to keep doing with any regularity. Instead a jam jar can work just as well. Wrapping the jar in cling film so the pastry case could easily slip off, I shaped the pastry around a large kilner jar and put it in the fridge for around half an hour. After getting it out, I was able to take a fully shaped pastry crust from the jar. One advantage that the jar method has, on top of not requiring the purchase of a specialist dolly, is that filling the jar with hot water allows the pastry case to slide right off.
The pastry prepared, there are then two other elements to the pork pie: the filling and the jelly. For the filling I mixed pork mince and finely chopped bacon and added a seasoning of salt, pepper, nutmeg, allspice and cayenne and then filled my empty pastry case with it before using the remaining pastry to cover the pie, before brushing it all over with egg and putting it into the oven to bake for an hour.
The final element is the jelly that fits between the pork filling and the pastry. For this I needed a pork stock and for that I bought some pig’s trotters. Adding these to carrots and onions, thyme, rosemary and a bay leaf, I slowly simmered the trotters in water for the hours that the ice cream was churning and freezing and the pie was baking. Eventually I had a thick, fatty liquid to add to my pie. To do this, you have to make holes in the top of your baked pie crust and pour the jelly in through a funnel until it overflows. This I did and then put the pie in the fridge for the jelly to set.
Hours later, I had a cold pie and set ice cream and a chance to try whether Pork Pie a la Mode was really going to be a good idea.
The pie itself came out looking pretty good, but when I cut into it some of the jelly leaked out. Obviously it would have been better to leave it overnight. I’ll do that next time. Otherwise, the pastry was a little thick in places, a result of my inexperience in hand raising pies, but otherwise the pie was a good consistency and the filling and jelly both tastily flavoursome. And how about the ice cream? It’s unusual, but a spicy mustard ice cream is definitely original and appealing.
The real question, at the end of the day, is do they work together? Is savoury Pie a la Mode going to take off the way Apple Pie a la Mode did over in New York just over a hundred years ago? I kind of liked it. The ice cream was maybe a little cold to work as well with the pork pie as a chutney would, but the flavours definitely work together.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I think I prefer the mustard ice-cream with the gazpacho; it was a little too creamy with a meat pie. I’d like to try it with the bloody mary ice-cream we’ve done in the past; I think it’d contrast better with the buttery pastry and rich meat. But the pie was absolutely gorgeous, and is going to make some great lunches.