Mushroom Pie: The Sweetest Pie That Isn’t Sweet

It was a ritual we had, my grandfather and I. We’d meet in front of the Metropolitan Opera House decked out in suits and ties, climb the steps to the Dress Circle and take our seats in the front row. We’d snooze through Act II, rouse ourselves for the increasingly grand finales, then walk through the crowd across the street to O’Neal’s where, no matter what else we ate, we always ordered the mushroom pie. Whenever I make it now, this is what I think about.

O’Neal’s knew their mushroom pie: Crunchy puff pastry filled with a glistening mushroom filling that was at the same time creamy, zesty and meaty. I dreamed about that pie for years, tried to whip it up, but it would be nearly a decade before I got it right. Now I have it whenever I want.

Filling Groovy

Puff pastry is easy. I mean, it’s freakin’ hard if you want to really manipulate your own pastry dough, but the good people at Pepperidge Farms are doing a decent job of making the shells you need. As you know by now, I am a fan of “from scratch,” but this is a good place to cut a corner. Buy it, stick the pieces, still frozen, on an ungreased pan for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove and yer done. Then comes the filling.

Oh the filling. Listen, that’s what you’re here for. The secret to eternal happiness lies in wild mushrooms, sauteed in butter, stirred together with herbes de Provence, cupboard-grade sherry and WHAT ELSE??? What is the missing element? I made this dish freestyle probably six or eight times, and every time, I fell short. Mushrooms, even dried ones, simmered in their own re-hydration juices until you have a nice syrup, doesn’t deliver the meatiness required to make a mushroom pie that people will talk about. With other people. You don’t talk about a mushroom appetizer unless it can change your life. So what was that element, the one that changes your life?

Whenever I see a favorite dish from one restaurant on the menu in another place, I order it, but I feel a little like I’m committing some infidelity. Such was the case when, a year after we were married, my wife and I had dinner at the place where we had our wedding, and I spotted mushroom pie on the menu. I ordered it. It was delightful, as reasonably similar to O’Neal’s as I could have hoped. I felt a little dirty, but I ate the whole thing.

Searching for clues to that missing element, I took another look at the menu, and sure enough, right there for all to see, was the phrase “demi-glace.” That must be the missing piece. But what in hell was it?

On Half Ice

So, demi-glace–as I now reasonably well understand it–is brown veal stock used to make a richer brown veal stock, reduced and floured for maximum viscosity, at all times judged in terms of its silkiness. I did make it. Once. At the time, I couldn’t figure out why the author of the classic Gold Cookbook, chef Louis P. DeGouy (say it out loud, just once) wanted me to make a stock using stock. But I did it. And I stirred in a roux at some point, just like DeGouy told me. And you know what, it was glorious. It was something that shined and coated and went down easy. I have no idea what it has to do with ice, but it was definitely as smooth as its mysterious name.

Only I have a secret: After that one demi-glace experience, I have been shit out of demi-glace, and so is everyone I know. I once bought some, under the D’Artagnan brand, at Fairway in New York. Noah, aka Mr. Pushpush, mail-orders his–dehydrated. Yes, even among those in the know, ordering dehydrated demi-glace is often preferable to the painstaking process of making the real deal yourself.

When the clock is ticking and I’m whipping up my mushroom pies, I just reduce some meat stock. What we’re really after is something that tacks a bigger backend onto the mushroom vibe. Close your eyes, think of all that mushrooms can do, and think of the teeny part of the equation they can’t pull off. Then reduce some meat stock, and aim it right at that hole. You’ll be surprised, or not surprised, just happy. And the pie will be retardiculously good.

Brass Tacks

You’ve indulged me this far with my ravings, so I will in turn indulge you: Here’s the run through of the actual mushroom pie recipe:

For the Pastry
Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Shells – Keep ‘em frozen! Stick them in the oven 25 minutes before you’re ready to serve the dish. And no, I am not endorsed by the good people at PF, but damn if I shouldn’t buy stock in them, we eat so many Milanos, Sausalitos and flippin’ Goldfish.

For the Filling
1.5 lb fresh wild mushrooms – You can mix or go straight up on one type, but try to keep it lively. I like chanterelles, hedgehogs and lobster mushrooms, but just look at what’s around. I’d avoid the Asian mushrooms for this dish, though I love ‘em in other stuff.

Quick Tip #1: If you go with dried, soak them for a long while and then preserve the soaking liquid, strained if needed. You can pour it in later and reduce it for gran sabor!

3 Tbs butter
1 large shallot (or two smaller ones)
2 tsp herbes de Provence
1/4 cup sherry
2 Tbs demi glace, or 2 cups meat stock reduced to 2 Tbs in a separate pan
A touch of cream
Salt as needed – Careful not to over salt when working with the demi-glace or reduced stock

• Get your heat up to high, toss in the butter and once it’s melted, throw in the shallots. Cook them until translucent and soft, then add the mushrooms. Add a small pinch of salt, if butter is unsalted. Cook the shroomage down a bit, but be careful not to let them shrink too much. Obviously, this is a bigger problem with fresh mushrooms. (You may actually want to have extra just in case.)

Quick Tip #2: In the past, I have small-diced a potato and stuck it in the pan first, with the butter and shallots, but before the shrooms. This adds some body to the dish, but it’s optional.

• Making sure your heat is up, pour in the sherry, add in the herbes de Provence, and cook until the wine has all but vanished. Add the demi-glace or reduced stock, and stir till evenly mixed in. At this point you should have a nice thick gravy at the bottom. If you don’t, add more meat stock and cook it down, again, taking care to not over-salt.

• Just before you’re ready to serve, stir in the cream. I said a “touch” not just because it’s waiter poetic, but because it’s up to you. I would start with a tablespoon or less, and go from there.

• As long as you’ve begun baking your pastry shells 25 minutes before serving, you’ve pretty much idiot proofed this stuff. Carefully take out the pastry caps, scoop a little extra pastry dough out of the bottom of the cups, and ladle in your shroom goo, taking care to artistically overflow the shell. I have found that the ratio of mushroom to pie should be about 2:1, which can’t happen if you keep it inside.

Serve it up, eat it up, and wish you had more. Seriously, if you like mushrooms, this dish will do great things for you.

In Memoriam

I can’t say my grandfather and I had the perfect relationship, but we were close, and we spent a lot of time together in his last years. I loved him, and it is our mutual enjoyment of our Monday night opera excursions–the secret fact that we probably both attended it more for the post-opera meal than the opera itself–that I will remember with the most uncontaminated fondness. This one’s for him: LDR – 1911-2006.

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