It was sometime in October 2015 and I was sitting at Lefty’s Bar in Cape Town waiting for this girl I had met on Tinder. Forty-five minutes later, she still hadn’t pitched.
Turns out she was stuck at work late due to her draconian boss. So there I sat, downing Jack Daniels neat. Eventually, in a moment not even bourbon can dilute, in she walked. Long dark hair, black leather jacket and tough boots.
I was speechless. Over some delicious ramen I found out that her grandmother and mother had taught her more things about French cooking than can be communicated in words. Food was her language of love.
I Ubered her home, completely in love, and she went home unsure if she even liked me or not. So we dated for a while and as we spent more time together, I knew I had to find a way, in a language beyond words, to show her that I was in fact infatuated.
The difficult part was finding something easy enough for me to make that would still impress her. So I decided, after much research, to make a chicken pie. All from scratch, from pastry to filling. I’d cook away in her flat and lay out a romantic dinner, so that when she came home from work the entire place would smell like love.
So here’s what I did:
1. Make the pastry first and relax
Making a shortcrust pastry is actually really easy. The basic concept is half as much fat as flour, with a tiny amount of water. Jamie Oliver’s recipe was the first one I tried and I’ve freeballed it since then. You can always go buy some store-bought pastry as your last resort. To be honest, taking my time with it, grating the cheese and rubbing it in with the butter with my hands was a labour of love. Try: Food24’s shortcrust pastry recipe.
2. Once the pastry is done, it needs to chill and so do you
You’re about to see someone that gives you butterflies and make a filling on which everything depends. So take a second and breathe. Pour yourself some wine (you’ll need some later on for the recipe anyway). Slowly dice two onions, a carrot and celery then put those aside. Clean your mushrooms, taking care to remove all the dirt on each one with a paper towel. Every step counts, not just if you’re making it for a foodie, but because this is a dish you don’t have to make in a hurry on a weeknight – it’s one you prepare when you have the time and desire to show someone that you love them.
3. Seasoning and spice make everything nice
While those veggies are important, one thing I figured out – through the help of Samin Nosrat’s book Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat – is that all four need to make each other work. Carrots are sweet and onions can be too, so make sure you salt and pepper your chicken just right. I like to throw in some nutmeg, paprika and a tiny hint of chilli powder to bring out the other flavours and so that everything balances. If that doesn’t work for you, leave it out. English mustard is also good here.
4. Take it in stages
In a large pot, on a medium heat, after the onions have gone translucent in some fat, add the celery, carrot and mushrooms. Then add the chicken, and after a few minutes, pour some white wine into the pan and stir, making sure to scrape the bottom to get maximum flavour into the sauce. Then you add the stock, about a spoonful of flour and a spoon of thick cream. Let it come to a simmer and give it a taste after about 20 minutes. Add any seasoning you think it needs.
5. Time for some more chilling
Before you cover it with your pastry, let the tasty filling chill. Give it about thirty minutes – it needs to get below room temperature, so stick it in the fridge once it’s cooled down enough. While that’s happening, roll out your pastry. Flour your surface then, applying even pressure, roll out a layer wide enough to cover the width and breadth of your pie dish. Spoon your filling into an oven-safe dish then carefully lay the pastry on top. Take a second to crimp the edges with your hands for an impressive finish. (If I can do it, anyone can.)
6. Let it cook for about 40 minutes at 200°C until golden brown and then let it rest for about 15 to 20 minutes so that you or your date doesn’t burn your mouth when you dig in. Skip the side salad and rather get chocolates for afterwards. It’s a better mood-setter.
P.S. Four years later, my foodie girlfriend is in love with me and I would say all of this was worth it – especially since I fell in love, too: with cooking for my loved ones.
Click here for the full recipe.