Phyllo, biscuits and corn bread put a new twist on the classic potpie

Top It Off

February 01, 2006|By ELINOR KLIVANS | ELINOR KLIVANS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Potpies have long been stars of the comfort-food season. With new toppings as an alternative to the traditional flaky crust, you can lighten their toll on both your waistline and your cooking time.

Heaped with moist fillings that bubble under a crisp corn-bread topping or maybe a soft biscuit crust, potpies have a universal appeal. They use readily available ingredients, often make a one-dish meal and can serve a single person or a crowd. Most can be put together at your leisure and baked later in the day, and many can even be frozen, defrosted and popped in the oven to bake.

Potpies came by their name literally - they began as savory pies that cooked in a pot over an open fire. A crust covered the top to seal in juices and keep the potpie moist during cooking.

Now potpies bake evenly and quickly in the oven and can have a variety of toppings and fillings. Biscuits, corn bread or store-bought phyllo pastry all make quick potpie "crusts" that depart in presentation and texture from the traditional.

A hot version of chicken salad, for example, becomes a potpie with a phyllo-pastry topping. Instead of being spread in sheets over the filling, the phyllo is crumpled into loose balls to make an especially crisp and attractive finish.

Corn bread bakes into a crisp, firm topping for a black-bean-chili potpie. And biscuit dough tops a sausage-based potpie that can anchor brunch or Sunday supper.

No matter how you fill your potpies, the ingredients should be bite-size, and any meat or chicken should be cooked thoroughly before being baked with a topping. (The final stint in the oven will bake the topping, but only heat the filling.) Fillings usually include a simple sauce or gravy to flavor the pies and keep them moist.

Baking containers can dress up or dress down a potpie. Just be sure to use one that is ovenproof. White baking dishes make a good general choice and a colorful or rustic container looks nice with the down-to-earth black-bean-chili potpie. Whatever container you choose, it should be large enough to leave 1 to 2 inches between the filling and topping - depending on the type of topping - so that the filling does not bubble up and over the baking dish.

Potpies lend themselves to an informal, help-yourself serving style. Most are served hot. A nice bonus is that the toppings actually insulate the fillings, and a potpie in its baking container often will remain piping hot throughout a meal.

Many potpie fillings can be prepared ahead, covered and refrigerated while they wait overnight to have a topping added. Leftover potpies can be reheated for serving the next day. Cover the potpie tightly with aluminum foil and heat it in a moderate oven. The time depends on the size and type of potpie.

Potpies are ideal for carrying to a potluck dinner or sharing with a friend. It is easiest to bake a potpie at home and warm it, if necessary, after you arrive.

A safe way to transport the potpie is to fit it into a basket or container that will hold it in place during transport. Pack several dish towels around the baking dish to make it fit snugly in the basket.

Elinor Klivans' next book, "Potpies," will be published this fall.

, Hot Chicken-Salad Potpie

Serves 6

FILLING:

2 cups (2 breasts) cooked chicken breast, cut into 1/2 - to 3/4 -inch pieces

2 cups (about 5 stalks) finely chopped celery

1/2 cup (2 ounces) toasted slivered almonds

1 tablespoon grated onion

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1 cup mayonnaise

TOPPING:

6 phyllo pastry sheets (about 17 inches by 13 inches), defrosted if frozen

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a 9-inch-by-2-inch round baking dish or glass pie dish.

In a large bowl and using a large spoon, mix the filling ingredients together just to distribute them evenly and coat the chicken pieces with mayonnaise. Spoon the filling into the baking dish, spreading it evenly.

To make the topping, lay out 6 phyllo pastry sheets in a stack. Immediately cover the cut sheets of phyllo completely with plastic wrap and a damp dish towel. Use plastic wrap to roll up and tightly rewrap any leftover phyllo and refrigerate it for up to 1 week.

Spread 1 sheet of phyllo on the counter and use a pastry brush to brush it lightly with butter, then sprinkle it lightly with salt.

Crumple it up lightly (like a piece of newspaper) into a loose ball and place it on the filling. If any phyllo breaks off, just put it back on the ball of pastry.

Repeat with the remaining 5 sheets of phyllo, arranging them to cover the filling. You will have 6 bundles of phyllo covering the filling.

Bake the potpie just until the phyllo topping is golden and the filling is hot, about 15 minutes. This filling bakes for a short time, so that the celery in the filling remains crisp. Use a spoon to serve the filling with a phyllo bundle for each serving.

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