Last week I had an overwhelming, deep down, serious, emotional need for very simple comfort food. Within minutes the general idea was forming. I wanted a beef and potato casserole of some sort. It had to be easy to make and with very few ingredients. I wanted basic goodness, not a symphonic mass of flavors swirling about. This was not a shocking need. It happens to me often when the things outside my kitchen door are hectic. I did take a moment to wonder at how lucky I was that the real heat of the beginning of summer hadn’t yet set in. But, I don’t think heat would have stopped me. Sometimes a person just needs this type of food.
I didn’t have a plan in place, but I thought immediately of several dishes from my family recipe collection. My grandfather’s sister was named Wilma Bain. She was from Madrid, Iowa, as was most of his family. Aunt Wilma passed along a casserole recipe through the family lines that was nothing but hamburger, tater tots, an onion, and mushroom soup. I wanted a beef and potato pie…something in this neighborhood…something with the same really simple components, but perhaps scaled back on the convenience foods. So, I set about creating exactly what I wanted it to be…my version of Wilma’s casserole.
I browned hamburger and onions. I added diced new potatoes. I created a simple sauce using nothing but flour, beef broth, salt and pepper, and I threw my favorite pastry dough on top. After 45 minutes in the oven I was rewarded for my simple approach with a golden crusted cast iron skillet heavy with meat and potatoes. This is simple. This is so very simple. And, my family was crazy about it. We devoured all but a few bites of a cast iron skillet pie. I told my husband, this isn’t anything fancy, but I think this is the kind of food that kids come home from college and request as one of their “coming home” meals.
There is something grounding about food like this. And, this is not a county fair pie. It is not vying for a blue ribbon. Roll that sucker out and toss it on top. Don’t fuss about the edges. This is a weeknight dinner, and you get no extra points for attempting perfection. In fact, perfectionism is not rewarded because the hot skillet immediately starts to soften the dough beyond workability. So take me at my word, roll it out, and toss it on top.
[This strip of photos, which I borrowed from another pie post, shows me making a crust entirely by hand, which you are welcome to do. I use a processor about half the time, depending on how much time I have to enjoy the process and how much I feel like squishing frozen lard cubes, which can be hard on the hands...but very moisturizing...(insert giggle...sort of)].
Don’t be shy about adding salt, either to the filling or the crust. It is just about the only seasoning happening here. And it isn’t optional. The crust recipe makes 2 crusts. So, you may have this 2 nights in a row as I did. Or, you can think up a nice sweet solution, like my one crust chocolate pie.
Choice: You can make this into a ONE dish meal by browning the meat and making the sauce in a cast iron skillet, and allowing it to cool a bit before slapping on the dough. It works great. But you have to be really fast, because the heat from the skillet will cause the dough to soften very quickly, as I said above. You can also start the meat right after you make the dough and let it cool completely in the hour during which the dough chills. If you are going to try to be fancy about your crust, this is a good option. Or, simply brown your meat and make the sauce in one non-stick pan and then transfer the meat mixture to the cool cast iron skillet just before putting on the crust. You will still need to work quickly because the meat will be warm, but not quite as quickly as with the one dish method. I’ve done it all of the ways except the fancy way, because as I said, I’m going for weeknight, school night status for this recipe. Just be happy about the process, toss it on there and GO!
Crust (makes 2 crusts…you will have an extra to play with):
2½ cups all purpose flour
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
8 tablespoons leaf lard
1 tablespoons kosher salt
8 tablespoons cold water
1 egg (for egg wash right before baking)
1 tablespoon oil
1 medium onion, diced (about ¾ cup of diced onion)
1½ pounds lean hamburger meat
3 medium red potatoes, diced into ½ inch cubes
3 tablespoons of flour
¾ cup low sodium beef broth
½ teaspoon kosher salt (and possibly more, to taste)
1. To make the dough, measure the flour and salt into the bowl of a food processor. Add the cubed butter and lard. It is best to have these ingredients as cold as possible. Consider putting the butter and lard in the freezer for an hour before you start. Pulse eight to ten times or until the fats are the size of peas. Add water through the feed tube (or mix it in by hand in a bowl) but just enough that the dough will stay together. My doughs consistently take 8 tablespoons. Yours might take a few less or a few more. Remove the dough to a clean surface and shape it into a ball. Cut the ball in half and shape each half into a disk. Place each disk into plastic wrap and flatten it with your hand. Place the dough in the refrigerator for an hour to chill.
3. To prepare the filling, sauté the onion in a tablespoon of oil for three minutes or until slightly softened. Add the hamburger meat to the onions and cook it until evenly browned. Use your spoon to break up the meat and incorporate it with the onions as it cooks. When the meat is browned, add the cubed potatoes and continue to cook for one minute. Turn off the heat and tip the skillet slightly so that the fat accumulates in the edge of the skillet. Use a paper towel to sop out most (not all) of the fat that accumulates. Discard the paper towel.
4. Return the meat mixture to medium-low heat and sprinkle the flour onto it. Stir in the flour completely. Slowly add the broth to the meat. Allow this to cook for a minute or two more until the sauce thickens. Season it with the salt. Though the potatoes are not cooked at this stage, I recommend tasting the beef and adjusting the salt accordingly. Set aside to cool while you prepare the crust.
5. Prepare an egg wash by adding 2 tablespoons of water to an egg in a small bowl. Whisk it thoroughly, and find a brush. A paper towel will work in a pinch. Set aside.
6. Remove the pastry dough from the refrigerator and roll it out to a diameter that is approximately two inches wider than the top of the skillet. The dough will nestle down on top of the meat and this will give a bit of over-hang. While the dough is still on your board or pastry cloth, cut venting slits into the middle of the dough. Transfer the dough to the top of the meat mixture and gently crimp the edges to adhere to the skillet. Quickly brush the dough with the egg wash and sprinkle the top with a little more kosher salt.
7. Place the cast iron dish in the oven and bake for 45 minutes or until it is golden on top. Remove the skillet from the oven and let it rest for at least 10 minutes before serving.
Measure the top of your cast iron skillet before you even take the dough out of the refrigerator so that you know just how big the crust needs to be. If your dough doesn’t quite reach at one spot…no worries…just call it rustic. It really looks lovely when it comes out of the oven.
I use leaf lard which I get from several outlets by mail order. If you need to, you can make an all butter crust or use shortening instead of lard. I have become truly devoted to using lard in my crusts, though.
For a full and mind bogglingly long post about this crust and exactly how I started using it please read this post about a Quintessential American Apple Pie. It is a story as much as a recipe, but it also has a lot of information about making crusts, as does my Chocolate Pie recipe. One thing I always recommend with this crust is to put some foil on the next rack down to catch any drips. I usually have a little puddle at the end and I’m always happy to not be cleaning it out of the bottom of the oven.