What could be more Christmas than pie? In this edition of #1000Kitchens, Christine Barretto cooks us her mum's Christmas pie.
When we meet Christine Barretto, she's wearing an orange apron and her long dreads are piled on top of her head, wrapped in a scarf. She's bursting with an energy found most often in people who love what they do, and are good at it. At 24, she's heading up Breads & Pastries at the Smoke Co., a restaurant that, in many ways, is the first of its kind in the country. The contemporary smoke house has been making headlines for its sensuous serving of bone marrow plated elegantly in a long femur bone sliced in two, introducing the city to a cuisine that pairs the ancient European technique of curing and ageing meats, with southern American comfort food.
The first time we met her, a few months ago, she was doing her first round of trials with GK and PK (as she fondly refers to the two partners behind Smoke Co.), and brought out warm, buttery corn bread, an apple pie that would soon become her signature dish, and a decadently adult mac and cheese. Today, she’s the first one in at the restaurant, moving like a blur around the massive kitchen. Evidently, she passed the test.
Against the whirring of the refrigerators, Christine explains her mise en place: small bowls of garlic, shallots, chilli flakes, cinnamon, clove, bay leaves, parsley, celery, and carrot. She’s cooking us a pork pie in time for Christmas. At the other corner of the kitchen, meats are being loaded into the smoker, and the heat is intense. Christine pulls out a disc of short crust pastry that has been cooling in the refrigerator, unwrapping the cling film on a shiny steel counter top, where a large rolling pin sits at the ready. Going through the motions like a seasoned pastry chef, she rolls out the dough, smoothens it, then folds it on itself, and repeats. Between dusting out curtains of flour, she points out yellow splodges of still-frozen butter in the dough. “I like to keep the butter spots really big so the crust has a nice marbling when it bakes.”
"There's a certain satisfaction that comes from rubbing fat into flour. You know when you put it into your mouth later, it’s going to melt, and be completely delicious.” Christine is young, but she's hardly a novice in the kitchen. A self-taught bread baker, now proficient in baguettes, sourdoughs, poee and brioche, she started her career as a waitress at a restaurant in Kodaikanal. “I’m from Muscat originally. I went to Kodi on a holiday, and ended up staying three years,” she laughs.
She moved to flipping burgers for a while, got bored by the repetitiveness of the work, and opened a restaurant with friends. This was to become hugely popular – a space where she was able to expand her repertoire as well as learn to have fun at work, as friends from out of town drove up to sample her steaks, sandwiches, roast pork and roast beef. Eventually, she opened and ran her own bakery, The Misfit Baker, in Vattakanal, a bustling touristy part of Kodaikanal, before moving to Bangalore and joining the Smoke Co.. “Landing this gig with GK and PK was a dream,” she says. “I wake up an hour before my alarm most days because I still can't believe it's real!”
But her journey had its share of heartache. “Learning to bake bread on your own can be frustrating and lonely,” she explains. Her resources were mostly Youtube tutorials and the Internet’s bottomless rabbit-hole of information. “It’s an art that takes time to understand. I failed ten or fifteen times before getting it right, and figuring out the science behind it. I didn’t have anyone to ask, so sometimes I’d just sit down and cry, thinking Are you serious, this is just not working out! But doing it on your own also means that you notice the small nuances, and tiny changes each time you try.” The first time she nailed a baguette was a moment of pure joy – baguettes need time, patience and a really good oven – which the Smoke Co. gave her. “You're looking for a hard crust, a crackling sound as it bakes in the oven, and a hollow knock when you tap on it.”
The Christmas pie Christine is cooking for us today, though, is a recipe she inherited from her Anglo-Indian mother. “She was always cooking; she introduced us to foods none of the other kids at school were eating. I don’t know how she did it, raising the four of us, and still always baking cakes and cookies and pie on her huge 5-burner stove oven.” With pork mince, for her Goan father, infused with spices, and topped with potato, this pie would typically be made at Christmastime. “I switch the potato topping with short crust pastry, and add my own twist – red wine!” she winks. “Cooking this is like being close to my ma again.”
She sets a heavy-bottomed pot on the stove and stirs in the aromatics. Next to it, another pot gently simmers on the fire – boiling water at the ready to make stock, or blanche tomatoes, or whatever else might be needed in a restaurant kitchen. She spoons the mince, that has been soaking in a marinade of balsamic vinegar and sauvignon blanc, into the pot. Warm, mellow aromas fill the room.
Does the kitchen ever turn into a high-pressure situation? “It’s pretty relaxed here, actually. Everyone has their own section and does their own thing. It’s a lot of fun during service – there's no yelling unless you mess up really bad. Even then, you typically hide behind the oven until the chef is done being mad at you.” She laughs again, and pulls out a meat thermometer from her sleeve pocket to check the temperature, then pauses to taste.
The kitchen slowly starts to fill with staff coming in on the morning shift. The oven dings. The pastry is ready.
Recipe: Christine Barretto's Christmas Pie
400g butter, cubed
Cold water, to bind
Place the flour and butter in a large bowl.
Use your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour until you have a pebbly mixture.
Use a little cold water to bind the dough, not more than 1/2 cup. Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for an hour.
Remove disc and while cold, roll out to thickess of about a centimetre. Fold the sheet onto itself and roll out flat again. Repeat 8-10 times.
Line a pie tin, and bake at 180 for 20 min.
Once cooked, brush the pie crust with egg wash.
1 kilo pork, minced
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
4 tbsp olive oil
4 cubes butter
2 bay leaves
3 pinches of cinnamon powder
3 pinches of clove powder
1 and 1/3 cup of tomato puree
2 tsp chilli flakes
200 ml sauvignon blanc
1/2 cup water
3 tbsp fresh cream
Parsley to garnish
Salt to taste
Marinate the pork in the Worcestershire sauce and balsamic vinegar.
Heat a large, heavy bottomed pot on the stove. Pour in the olive oil and 1 cube of butter.
Add the bay leaves and shallots. Fry till lightly brown.
Add in the celery, garlic, cinnamon and clove. Fry gently till aromatic.
Spoon in the meat and cook till it browns.
Add in the tomato puree and let it cook down to a nice brown.
Add in the chilli flakes, and salt to taste.
Add the carrots and let it cook for a minute or two.
Add in the wine and a bit of water if the meat is drying out.
Add the 3 remaining cubes of butter, stir well.
Add the fresh cream, stir well and take turn off the heat.
Garnish with parsley.
Allow to cool.
Spoon into the baked pie crust and flatten till even.
Place another layer of shortcrust pie dough on top of the mince filling, and gently pinch off the edges. Use a fork to seal.
Brush on egg wash and bake for another 20 min at 180C.
Words by Anisha Rachel Oommen and photos by Aysha Tanya.
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