by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
Casseroles don't have to be about canned ingredients and vegetables you normally wouldn't even think of eating alone, much less stuck in between layers of sauce and breadcrumbs. They can vary from everyone's favorite all-time casserole, macaroni and cheese, to the ultimate English casserole, Shepherd's Pie.
— Marcus Samuelsson
My mother used to make a dish that she called Shepherd's Pie. It was a casserole of ground beef, layered with corn, and topped with mashed potatoes. However, when deciding to include this dish and researching the history of it, my path took me to England, France, and eventually to the province of Quebec, Canada … before coming back England.
I say back to England because I found a version of the dish that comes from where my ancestors lived—Cumberland County, England. That's the version I'm including, though I've cheated a little. I've never visited northern England, but I hope to some day. Cumberland Pie is a version of Shepherd's Pie, though it's more closely related to Cottage Pie, which sounds all very confusing thanks to how they evolved.
These types of dishes had their roots in medieval times when they would be made with a variety of beef cuts, mutton, or sometimes wild game. Dried apples with spices sweetened the recipe so it wasn't too sugary. At that time, these were cooked in a pastry crust, which is where it probably became known as a pie. Later, mashed potatoes were substituted for the pastry crust, either out of ease or possibly shortages of flour and lard (or butter) .
The earliest known recipe, called Cottage Pie, comes from England in 1791 when it was simply a meat and potato dish. It was a way to use leftover chunks of meat, of any kind, in an oven-pot lined with mashed potatoes as well as topped with them. The name Cottage Pie was probably used for all pies of this type before the term Shepherd's Pie came into use, whose first recorded mention came in 1854.
The French called the dish Hachis Parmentier, first documented in 1900. It included minced meat, much like ground beef. A hachis is anything that's finely chopped and "Parmentier" refers to Antoine Parmentier. He promoted the use of potatoes in France during the 18th century (read more about him in the recipe for "Potato Soup" ).
The dish has many variations, but the primary ingredients are ground red meat cooked in a gravy or sauce with onions, and topped with a layer of mashed potatoes before it's baked. Sometimes other vegetables are added to the filling, such as sweet corn, celery, peas, or carrots. It can also be topped with cheese. Hachis Parmentier comes closer to an iconic French Canadian dishes called Pâté Chinois, or "Chinese Pie."
How did an English pie turn into Chinese Pie ... and in Canada no less? The most likely explanation is that during the building of railroads in the late 19th century, the dish was made by Chinese cooks for Canadian railway workers. These cooks made it under instruction from British railway bosses, though they used ground beef instead of cut meat and creamed corn as a substitute for gravy. It was an easy and inexpensive way to make a cottage pie.
The French Canadian railway workers became fond of it and brought the recipe back with them to their home communities in Quebec. From there, it was brought by French Canadian immigrants to the textile mill communities of New England during the early 20th century. Eventually it made its way through the United States and into my mother's recipe box.
Today, it seems that Shepherd's Pie tends to be made with mutton, while cottage pie is made with any kind of beef, though that's not a hard rule. Usually anything that adds vegetables and/or a cheese topping is called Hachis Parmentier or Chinese Pie.
So what makes Cumberland Pie different? Like early Cottage Pie, it uses only chunks of beef rather than minced meat (ground beef), but that's not what really sets it apart. Instead of mashed potatoes, it uses slices of cooked potatoes cut into rounds (scalloped) that are laid across the top. A layer of cheese and bread crumbs is sprinkled on top to make it crispy and crunchy. So except for the potatoes and bread crumbs, it's basically a version of cottage pie.
For the most part I prefer my mom's easy way of making it—adding gravy to the beef while using whole-kernel corn as a layer between it and the potatoes—which would come closest to Hachis Parmentier. Still, I also like the crunchy good taste of Cumberland Pie, so I'm encouraging that because it's from my homeland. Using ground beef and mashed potatoes, though, is an easy substitution.
It may not look like it, but it's super-easy to make, though most of the work has to be done ahead of time. It's great for saving in the refrigerator, so children or a spouse can just pop into the oven when you're not there.
2 lb braised beef* cut into 1-inch chunks
2 lbs potatoes
I small onion, diced (optional)
2 cups beef stock
2 cups cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup bread crumbs
2 tbsp melted butter
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tsp tomato pureé
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp thyme
1/4 tsp black pepper
* See "Braising Meats"
Add peeled potatoes to a pan of water. Bring to a simmer and cook for approximately 8-10 minutes until potatoes are three quarters cooked. Drain and allow to cool. Once cooled slice into rounds.
If onions are desired, lightly caramelize in a neutral oil, and then drain. Place beef chunks (or 2 lbs of browned ground beef as a substitute) in bottom of a casserole dish. Combine beef stock and tomato pureé and pour over meat. Add onions, Worcestershire sauce, thyme, salt, and pepper. Mix well.
Lay sliced potatoes on top, overlapping the meat. Brush the potatoes with melted butter. Mix the breadcrumbs and cheese together and sprinkle over the top of the potatoes. At this point, the casserole can be covered and refrigerated for later use, or it can be cooked immediately.
To cook, preheat oven to 350ºF. Place the casserole dish in the oven and cook for approximately 30-40 minutes until the cheese and breadcrumb mixture turn golden brown and the sauce is bubbling.
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