The first thing you need to decide when making a pie is what type of pastry you will be using. Puff pastry or short crust pastry are the choices here. Both can now readily be bought fresh or frozen (and even ready rolled) for extra convenience, but if you have the time making your own isn't too much of a hassle.
With puff pastry, the general idea is to create many layers of dough and butter by folding and turning the two together. It is not like shortcrust pastry where the butter is fully incorporated into the dough- instead it is folded into layers which is what allows it to puff up when it is cooked. You need to work as quickly as possible (particulary in the warmer months) when making puff pastry and on as cold surface as possible since it is very important that the butter does not melt.
Whether you are making puff or shortcrust pastry the fat used should be at room temperature rather than straight from the fridge where it can hard and so break through the dough. If the fat is too soft it will not keep the pastry layers apart, making the rolling sticky and hard to manage. If your dough becomes sticky, put it in a plastic bag in the fridge until it firms up again.
With puff pastry there is the traditional puff pastry or rough puff pastry. Each pastry forms thin layers of fat between very thin layers of dough to produce a pastry that rises well. With puff pastry there are equal quantities of fat to flour and some of the fat is rubbed into the flour but then the rest is added in a single piece and distributed through the dough by a lengthy process of rolling and folding, building up layers and the therefore a very light pastry.
With rough puff pastry, the butter is incorporated in pieces rather than a compact slab the folding process is shortened, the result is a flaky pastry, which does not rise quite as effectively as puff pastry. This is an easier pastry to make since the small pieces of fat are added all at once to the flour. Rough puff pastry also needs less rolling and folding.
A simple rough puff pastry recipe is as follows:
250g strong plain flour
1 tsp salt
250g butter , at room temperature, but not soft
About 150ml cold water
2 tsps lemon juice
Sift the flour and salt into a large bowl. Break the butter into small chunks, add them to the bowl and rub them in loosely- you should still be able to see bits of butter. Make a well in the bowl and pour in around two-thirds of the cold water and lemon juice, mixing until you have a firm rough dough. Add extra water if needed. Cover with cling film and leave to rest for 20 mins in the fridge.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and knead gently and form into a smooth rectangle. Roll the dough in one direction only, until 3 times the width, (around 20 x 50cm). You mustn't overwork the pastry- you should be left with a marbled effect. Since you want an evenly layered pastry, it is important that you always roll it to the same thickness and that the edges be very straight and even.
Fold the top third to the centre, then the bottom third up and over that. Give the dough a quarter turn (to the left or right) and roll out again to three times the length. Fold again as before and then cover the finished pastry with cling film and chill for at least 20-30 mins before rolling to use. When cooking puff pastry you can place a baking tray half filled with water at the bottom of the oven. The resulting steam will help the pastry layers to cook and rise evenly.
I have nothing against ready made pastry if you do not have the time or inclination to make your own. Due to the way it is commercially made it will not taste as buttery as homemade since it will not be made with equal measures of butter and flour (it is also unlikely to be made with butter) If you want to make some shop-bought pastry taste richer you can add extra butter. Roll out 250g of pastry into a rectangle three times its width (again around 20 x 50cm). Mark it into three equal parts. Cover the top two-thirds with 25g butter cut into small chunks. Then repeat the rolling as above for the homemade pastry and again chill for 20-30 mins before use.
Shortcrust pastry does not puff up during the cooking process since it does not have a leavening agent. It is based on the "half-fat-to-flour" ratio. An easy recipe for shortcrust pastry is as follows:
225g plain flour
100g butter at room temperature (you can adjust this to your taste with either lard or margarine to be used instead or as part of the 100g)
Pinch of salt
2 tbps water
The easiest way to make this is put everything in a food processor and whizz it together until the butter is all incorporated. Watch how much water you add so you get a good consistency- don't add too much water or the pastry will become hard. Add a bit at a time (add in a little more if needed). Don't overmix the dough since this stretches the gluten strands making a pastry that is tough, rather than light and crumbly or flaky.
If you are being healthy conscious the "healthiest" pastry is one using oil as the fat. It will not be as short as the above pastry and will be harder.
Sift 225g plain flour into a bowl with a pinch of salt and make a well in the centre. Whisk 5 tbsp of light olive oil or vegetable oil and 4.5 tbsps water in another bowl until blended. Try to handle the dough as little as possible. Roll out and use for your pie case lining and crust. Brush with beaten egg to give a glossy crust. If the pastry starts to crack while it is being cooked, brush it with some more egg and return to the oven to dry it out and seal the crack.
The following recipe is done with shortcrust pastry but you can adapt it to your taste.
First make a shortcrust pastry as above using 500g flour and 250g butter. Divide it into two pieces (one piece slightly bigger than the other).
The smaller piece is the lid and should be wrapped and returned to the fridge. Roll out the other piece on a floured surface to at least 28cm in diameter (this is to line a 3cm deep 20cm pie tin). Drape the pastry over the tin and ease it in leaving the excess hanging over the edge. This can then be trimmed with a knife to leave a clean edge. Press the pastry firmly into the edges of the tin.
Always prick the pastry base gently with a fork to stop air bubbles forming.
Chill for 15 mins then line with some baking paper and half fill with baking beans.
Bake for 15 mins at 180 degrees C and then remove the beans and paper and bake for a further 5 mins to dry it out. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
Meanwhile make your filling. Pour 275ml cider into a saucepan together with 2 peeled and chopped carrots, 2 sliced leeks, a bay leaf, a spring of thyme and some seasoning.
Simmer for 5 minutes then add 400g diced chicken breast and continue simmering for 10 mins.
Meanwhile make the white sauce. Put 275ml milk, 2 tbsp plain flour and 2 tbsp butter in a pan and whisk over a gentle heat bringing it to a simmer. Continue simmering and whisking for about 5 mins until you have a thick glossy sauce. Remove the vegetables and chicken from the cider stock (you can throw the bay leaf and thyme at this point). Boil the stock to slightly reduce and then whisk this into the white sauce. Add the vegetables and chicken to the sauce and then give the whole thing a good season.
Pour into the pastry-lined dish.
Now roll our the remaining part of the pastry into a circle about 5mm thick slightly bigger than the pie dish. Part roll the pastry over the rolling pin and use this to move the lid to the top of the dish.
Pinch all round the edges to seal the filling in the pastry and decorate with any remaining pastry (I've made leaves this time) then make a cross in the middle of the pie to allow steam to escape so the pie cooks evenly.
Brush with generous amounts of egg and grate some parmesan over the top.
Bake at 180 degrees C for about 30 mins until the pie is golden and the filling bubbling.
Allow to stand for 5 mins and serve with your preferred side dishes- lashings of mashed potato, seasonal vegetables, a crunchy salad- the choice is yours.
You can adapt this recipe to suit- if you prefer puff pastry or want a quick recipe simply top with a puff pastry crust without lining the dish with pastry first. You can add cubed fried pancetta, mushrooms, double cream etc. Adapt the fillings to your heart's content (but if making your own pastry you must stick to the recipe!)