March 13th, 2017 12:00 PM
Chicken pot pie from Spilt Milk/Photo: David Hammond
One outright lie that has been foisted upon American diners for many years is the fraud of "pot pies" that are not actually pies. In an age of alternative facts, we should feel justified in calling bullshit on such alternative "pies."
I first noticed such fake pastry at Baker's Square (client asked me to lunch; I had to go). I ordered a chicken pot pie and what came to me was a sloppy pile of chicken stew with a pre-fab pastry square on top. Nowhere in the known universe is that a pie.
Then I noticed such ersatz pie everywhere. During Christmastime, even at the Walnut Room, known for Mrs. Hering's 1890 Original Chicken Pot Pie, what you get is a bowl of stew with a crust baked on top. Way better than Baker's Square and probably better than a kick in the teeth.
To me, a pie has a top and bottom crust. Oxford University agrees, defining a pie as "a baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry." Now, my favorite pie is Key lime, which has only a bottom crust, as does pizza pie, and we just had a pretty good shepherd's pie from Allen Brothers that has no crust all (just whipped potatoes on top and ground lamb on the bottom, which is the traditional preparation). So I'm willing to waver a little and won't split hairs about pies and tarts and so on, but let's put it this way: a square of pastry perched atop stew does not a pie make.
Many of us had our first chicken pot pies from Swanson. I liked those pies. I sincerely prefer those pies to any recent ones I've had, and sad to say, they were almost my standard until I walked into Spilt Milk, an Oak Park Bakery open only since late last year. My eye caught a platter of pot pies on the front counter, the upper crusts all bubbly and some volcanically cratered with hot spewing juice. $14 each, which isn't cheap, but for a good pie, fair. I asked if the pie had a top and bottom crust; the nice lady behind the counter assured me it did. I took one home.
20 minutes covered in foil at 350; remove foil for another 20 minutes. Done.
This was a stupendously delicious and meaty pie, packed with poultry and root vegetable. There was between one-third and one-half pound of chicken in there, as well as carrots, turnips, parsley, rutabaga, and celery root, all toothsome, not overcooked. The upper crust was very flaky and crisp, a contrast with the tender chicken, dry and moist, crunchy and soft. The bottom crust was wet with savory juices (reason enough to have a crust down there), and the whole thing was just so fabulous that nothing save spousal affection could stop me from eating the whole damn thing: I saved some to share with Carolyn.
If you plan to eat the chicken pot pie in the well-lit dining area at Spilt Milk, call a half-hour or so ahead and they'll heat it up for you. The need to heat the pie all the way through is no doubt why frozen pot pies – from Marie Callender's and others like them – are able to lay down a bottom crust. In a restaurant, warming a frozen or even a room-temp pie – especially while the customer waits – would be an operational nightmare. So I understand why most restaurants can't serve pot pie with a bottom crust. To understand is to forgive, but still, aside from taxonomic challenges, those top-crust-only versions don't do it for me.
Before leaving with my pie, I bought a chocolate chip cookie. I prefer a crisp cookie, though many poor, benighted souls prefer a softer cookie (De gustibus non est disputandum). The Spilt Milk cookie is likely to please most: crisp outer edges and a soft center. I accept that version of the cookie in the spirit of compromise upon which this great nation was built.
Meg and Molly Svec are owners of Spilt Milk: Meg mostly handles books, and Molly, the pastry chef, has worked at Chicago's legendary Blackbird, as well as the wonderful Hoosier Mama Pie Co., and Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery in New York. So there's an impressive pedigree behind this modest, though very warm and welcoming, bakery shop at 103 S. Oak Park Avenue, which, from a food perspective, is looking better than ever.
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