Wednesday 21 September 2016

Who Are Hoosier Mama Pie Company?

Hoosier Mama Pie Company - Chicken Pot Pie & Apple Pie Reviews

As part of my Chicago Pie Tour and Pierate's American Pie Season, I paid a visit to Hooiser Mama Pie Company. To start with, I had no idea what Hoosier Mama Pie Company was all about, because I didn't know what the name meant. For a British lad the term 'Hoosier' is a bit of an enigma. My only reference point was the band 'The Hoosiers' with their 'Trick to Life' album. I started wondering if HMPC were trying to say that the 'trick to life' is to eat more pie. After all they do carry the quote "We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the prescence of a pie' on their website (I mantra I try and live by and is indeed hung upon my own wall). Upon meeting one of the proprietors, Craig, he explained that Hoosier is a term for a person from the state of Indiana, where he and his wife Paula were from, then I started to understand who Hoosier Mama Pie Company are. Paula is the eponymous Hoosier Mama, conjuring up visions of traditional and homely pies, just what I was looking for in order to get a real taste of America! 

Paula used to work as a fine-dining pastry chef before noticing an op-pie-tunity to put the filling in a pie shaped hole in the Chicago culinary market. Paula & Craig started selling their pies at farmers markets, with an emphasis on trying to use local produce. The success of this saw them take the leap into opening a permanent shop which seems to have been a real success. HMPC now have a cult following, receiving numerous recommendation as one of the best in America and they now have two shops. Craig suggests that Americans are now getting more in touch with their culinary traditions which has seen a upsurge in pie popularity, similar to what has unfolded in Britain in recent years. The popularity has even led Paula to release a pie recipe book. (Although presumably she has kept some secrets to herself?)

I visited the Chicago store, which is apparently the original, but smaller, of their two pie shops. It felt tiny inside but I liked it. It was unpretentious, with some decorations explaining the virtue of pie and a few mix and match table and chairs. The small size made me suspect a lot of people are ordering their pies whole, to take away and eat at home. Of course, what excited me the most was the small cabinet proudly displaying their selection of pies. I was again, very pleased that there were pies which met our definition our a pie, being that it should be fully encased in pastry (as this was one of my main concerns for the Chicago Pie Tour).  I even more pleased to see that a savoury Chicken Pot Pie was available as I was in the mood for a savoury meal. 

The pies at Hooiser Mama are mainly large pies. These are sold by the slice to customers who are eating in (although presumably you could try and eat the whole pie there and then, although you would need quite a group as the pies are very large). The Chicken Pot Pie looked great on the shelf with a slice yet to be taken from it. The pastry looked flaky and golden. The arrival of the slice of pie was preceded by a beautiful waft of a buttery, chicken aroma. Sadly, the pie hadn't held together all that well on slicing, which detracted from the appearance somewhat. It is difficult to get a slice of a hot, meat pie to come out looking pretty. Taking a bite, I found that the pie really made up for this in the flavour department! It was full of flavours which were different to your typical British pie. The emphasis here was on a buttery taste to both the filling and the pastry. It was well seasoned and contained peas, carrot and potato as well as the chicken. The chicken seemed like real pieces of chicken, not the processed cubes of breast meat which are found in lesser chicken pies. I enjoyed the firmness of the vegetables which added variety to the texture (although the potato was a bit too firm if anything). The pie was so well filled it was almost lacking in pastry (given that it was slice of pie). Fortunately there was a thick roll of pastry at the back. Often this large crust can be a bad thing, but in this case it was not at all dry and helped give the pie the right balance of filling to pastry. For $6.25 this seemed like a decent sized slice of pie. It was enough to prevent me eating another slice of pie straight away at least! I think the rich, buttery flavour would have also put me off from eating a lot of this pie, a slice was a good amount. Overall a very tasty and stand-out pie, the main thing stopping it getting a higher score was a lack of cohesion causing it to fall apart on serving, not quite what I would be looking for in the ultimate pie.

Chicken Pot Pie (Hoosier Mama Pie Company [Chicago])

I also had to try a sweet pie so I picked up a piece of their apple pie to take-away. They were good enough to give me a bit extra too which I contemplated bringing back to the UK for the other Pierateers to try. However, it had already become so smashed to pieces by the time I got back to my hotel that I realised this wouldn't be worthwhile!

A slice of apple pie costs $5.50 which initially seemed like quite a bit for a slice of fruit pie (a bit over £4). However the slice was really big, bigger than many individual pies and had a premium appearance which you would expect to pay more for. It is better value to buy the whole pie but here I was paying more for the individual slice and the option to eat it on the premise with coffee. When it came to the eating I think it lived up to the price tag. They advertise it as 'not too sweet, with more apple than goo, in a delicious buttery crust' and I think this is a better description of this pie than I could ever have come up with. There was a lot of apple chunks which were soft but retained some bite. The pastry lid and crimp was crispy and had a lovely sugar glaze, this was a sweet treat which I would have been happy to eat on it's own. The rest of the pie was surprisingly moist. There was plenty of gooey syrup which had soaked into the bottom crust, leaving it a bit too soggy in my opinion but tasty nevertheless. (This may have been because I had pursued the take-away option causing the syrup to leak out, I am not sure.) There was plenty of flavour to this pie, it was more spiced than I usually find back in Britain and I really liked the cinnamon hit. For my taste it was quite sweet (as opposed to other apple pies back home with slightly sour hint). This was not over the top but enough that I only wanted to eat one slice at a time as more might have become sickly (perhaps it would have gone well with ice cream). Overall I really enjoyed this apple pie, it was certainly the best apple pie I had during my trip to Chicago and the crunchy part of the pastry was probably the best I have ever had with any sweet pie ever! It was close to beating the Morecambe Apple pie (British Pie Awards Supreme Champion 2014) as my favourite ever apple pie (if cost was not a factor).

Apple Pie (Hoosier Mama Pie Company [Chicago])

Both pies deservedly receive 'Pierate Highly Recommended' Awards. I can see why Hooiser Mama have become arguably the biggest name in the Chicago pie scene. The pastry is like no other and it shows that the pies are carefully made on a small scale. Craig explained that were they to produce more pies it would be difficult to maintain oversight of the quality. The small size of the operation was something that I really liked about HMPC and I think the pies would loose something if they were to be produced on a larger scale. Thanks to Paula and Craig for presenting me with my very own Hoosier Mama branded pie slice! Ever time I use it I will remember this true slice of America and I wish them much success in the future.


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Friday 9 September 2016

The Kingmakers

Kings Farm Shop, Wendover, Buckinghamshire - Steak Pie & Chicken Pie Reviews

When you write for the world's most popular pie based, light entertainment website there are many things that can keep you awake at night. Trying to make our reviews consistent and maintain accuracy after 6 years of pie reviewing is one of those things. It's like trying to herd cats (albeit very tasty cats). You look away for one moment and a company will have changed it's range or updated it's flavours. I have nightmares about sending someone to eat a pie which is perhaps not longer as good as it was when we visited. I see their scornful faces asking me how I could have got it so wrong. Worst still, what if one of the pies on our list is no longer in production. I would feel terrible to send someone on a wild goose chase for a pie which doesn't exist. (Note to self, why have I never tried wild goose pie?) Even if the companies themselves have done exceptionally well to maintain a consistent product, after having reviewed over 500 pies we now have quite a lot more pies to compare against than we did to start with. In some cases this probably means we need to revisit some of our early scores to re-benchmark them against the latest competition such as MyPie, our favourites of last year. In all seriousness, we do take our pie reviewing seriously as we know what it can mean to the pie producers to be crowned as a Pierate Highly Recommended pie. We might not quite be the kingmakers but it won't harm a business to have our recommendation.

Unfortunately we just don't have time to go back and review all the pies again and we wouldn't want to, there are so many new pies out there! However there are some cases where it feels particularly important to carry out a repeat review, such as those near the top of our pie rankings. Or in some cases, we regularly eat a particular pie anyway and hence to do a repeat review is that much easier.

One such pie is the Steak pie from Kings Farm Shop, near Wendover in Buckinghamshire, which was previously reviewed in 2010. I have recently eaten a few of these and it seems appropriate now to revisit the review given that it was almost 6 years ago. Back in 2010 I gave it a huge 6.7 out of 7, sending it to number one in our rankings for quite some time. Is it still as good as I remember? I hadn't had one for a couple of years. I was slightly nervous, when expectations are high it is easy to be disappointed.

The display in the shop still warms my heart with the range of simple handmade pies all begging to be taken home and devoured. (And isn't my phone camera now so much better than the crap one on my cheap ZTE Blade from 2010? Although I now have a ZTE Blade S6 with a camera equally as crap compared to the modern competition!)

I am pleased to say that the Steak pie is still very similar to how it always has been and is still an excellent pie! Not a lot has changed really, it still looks very much the same with a rustic, handmade look and a thick crimped, overhanging edge (although if you do a spot the difference, this one doesn't have fork imprints on the crimp). One thing definitely has changed though over the last six years and that is the price! From £5 for a large steak pie to £6.45 seems to be an inflation busting price increase which could affect the score slightly. However, it does still feel good value for money, the pies are still packed with steak chunks and are certainly big enough to feed 4 normal people or 2-3 Pierateers. I still find it difficult to stop at one slice! The rich, meaty, thick sauce is very effective, with ample amounts so that additional gravy would be boarding on foolhardy. The pie is still packed with tender chunks of steak. Having now tried so many other steak pies, I realise how simple this pie is. It doesn't try and do anything unusual, but it does the little things so well.

Something I have found is that the versions which come frozen tend to be the best and their staff seemed to share this opinion. Re-heating the pre-cooked version has a tendency to make some of the pastry quite crunchy, sometimes verging on too much crunch. If I had to be critical, the pastry crimp can be a bit large, which can detract, particularly from the individual sized pies, which are consequently a bit pastry-heavy. Also, perhaps it is a bit too simple compared to some other Steak pies we have tried, such as MyPie and Paul's Pies. Maybe it takes more for a pie to standout having reviewed so many now. But overall it is hard to find much fault and the Steak pie is still deserving of our Pierate Highly Recommended award. 

Steak (Kings Farm Shop, [HP22 6BH])

This time I am also going to review a Chicken Pie from Kings Farm Shop, the first time I have tried this particular pie. At £5.95 it is a bit cheaper, which makes sense given that Chicken is much cheaper than Steak but oddly a price difference between the different flavours of pie is quite rare. Much like the Steak pie, this is simple, wholesome food. It isn't Chicken and Ham, it isn't Chicken & Asparagus, it is certainly not Chicken & Earwig or whatever the next random pie will be that tries to be super weird just to standout. It is just chicken. There in lies it's strength but also unfortunately some weakness. Whilst it is nice that it doesn't over complicate the contents, there perhaps isn't enough in there to give it much flavour in this otherwise excellent pie. The appearance is similar to the steak, if anything slightly too rustic in appearance but charming nevertheless. The chunks of real chicken sit in a thick gelatinous sauce. This doesn't stop it being a delight getting your teeth stuck into this pie, given that the pastry is still delicious and there are so many chunks of meat. But you can't get away from the fact that it lacks the strong meaty flavours and great balance of seasoning that the Steak pie has. Still a pie I would recommend. Not a pie I would often buy given that the Steak pie sits next to it on the shelf.

Chicken (Kings Farm Shop, [HP22 6BH])

P.S. Looking back on the original review from 6 years ago does make me appreciate how time flies. Back then we had reviewed less than 50 pies. I talked about how this was one of the first times I had experienced bad heartburn. Now we are over 500 pies reviewed and heartburn has now become a familiar companion over this epic pastry fuelled journey!

continue reading "The Kingmakers"

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Chicago Get These Royally Good Pies

Pleasant House Pub - Steak & Ale Pie Review

First on my pie-tinerary for the Chicago Pie Tour was Pleasant House Pub, home of the Royal Pies brand. For my first American pie it would have perhaps been typical to go for an Apple Pie or something similar. However, I happened to be quite close to the Pleasant House Pub which was billed as offering a British-inspired menu. Pleasant House had good reviews and I was confident I would be able to get a pie meeting our definition of a 'Proper Pie' so I decided to visit them for our first American pie review. Perhaps going to this pub which promised to be a 'home from home' would also be a way of easing myself in gently to the American pie experience?

Pleasant House Pub

A short cycle from McCormick Place to Pilsen and I arrive at this beautiful cafe/bar/bakery/pie house combination. It really does seem to do it all so is likely to appeal to a broad range of people. One of the many great things about Pleasant House Pub is their long opening hours, 10:00 til 22:00, apparently there aren't many pie requests in the morning but they can do them (Is there a market for breakfast pies perhaps?). It would be good to see more places offering this kind of pie experience in the UK.

Upon stepping inside I am greeted by this chap, Art Jackson (on the left), co-owner of the pub and creator of the Royal Pies. Trained as a classic chef, he has the all important combination of a flair for cooking and a passion for pies. Art's passion for British food was in part inspired by cooking with his Grandmother, his Father having come to the US from Yorkshire. When he was young his Grandmother said he should run a pie shop, something he didn't take seriously until later in life! After working in restaurants, Art and his wife Chelsea dreamed of owning their own restaurant so in 2011 they opened Pleasant House Bakery in nearby Bridgeport. This original incarnation of Pleasant House went down well with the local community. The unusual name comes from the house where Art's Father used to live in the Yorkshire countryside. However, it lacked it's own bar and was not air-conditioned, so, a few weeks before my visit they 'upgraded' to the new Pilsen location and changed the name to Pleasant House Pub with their experienced business partner Kevin Heisner becoming involved. The new venue is simple but appealing. I was particularly pleased to find that there was no kitsch British themed decor! In fact the British inspiration is subtle until you begin to look at the drinks or food on offer at which point the pies and scotch egg give it away.

The pies are unchanged, still being branded as 'Royal Pies'. I grabbed a crisp Aspall's cider to help me cool down as I decided what pie to go for. The standard pies were the classic Steak & Ale and Chicken Balti as well as a Mushroom & Kale. There are also intriguing specials available with Ratatouille being on offer when I visited. I was torn, but decided to go for the Steak & Ale as this seems to be a pie which often scores well on Pierate. It was $8.50 with the option to 'crown' your pie with mash and gravy for another $2.50. I opted for the gravy on the side but couldn't resist crowning the pie with mash. I initially felt this was a bit expensive for a small meal (over £8) but it was table service and a nice restaurant setting so I decided actually the price was quite reasonable even with the crap exchange rate (and I don't want to hold the political whims of the British public against this pie).

Royal Steak Pie at Pleasant House Pub

This is the dish that arrived and I think it looks rather fetching even though the mash does obscure the pie somewhat. I was pleased to see the pie was a quite tall, a decent size and had a nice golden crust. They had even achieved what most pies fail with, in that the sides and base had also been cooked well whereas all too often the sides and base can be soggy.

Slicing the pie open revealed plenty of steak and quite a bit of carrot. The pastry was ideal in that it was crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. The chunks of meat were soft and had a nice flavour. The flavours were familiar but also a bit different and I say that having eaten a lot of Steak & Ale pies in my time. What made this pie stand out was the tangy, almost fruity flavours to the sauce. It reminded me of Worcestershire Sauce and I suspected it may have been flavoured with a similar sauce called 'Henderson's Relish' which Art had noted they imported specially to Pleasant House Pub. Apparently it is a staple in Sheffield and South Yorkshire but those from outside that region are unlikely to have heard of it (like myself). There was also a real meaty flavour to this pie and overall I thought the flavours worked very well. It was nice that it did something a bit different to the standard Steak & Ale. The carrot was soft and added a sweetness to the flavour, I thought it was nice to have some veg but would have chosen it to be less soft personally. The gravy was unnecessary as there was enough sauce with the pie but as is the case back home it is provided regardless. If I had to criticise the pie, some of the pastry was a little too thick in places for me but I think this is difficult to get perfect when you are trying to make a pie which has rigidity like this one did. Whilst the pie was a good size, had I been more hungry I but suspect I might have looked at the plate and thought it could have benefited from more mash or peas on the side.

I had one main regret from my trip to Pleasant House Pub, why on Earth did I only have one pie? I will always wonder what the Chicken Balti would have been like, with Art citing it as his favourite. I should have at least taken a pork pie away with me, but alas, at least Pleasant House Pub left me wanting more. I hope that their new neighbours in Chicago get the British inspired menu which is quite niche in these parts, with Art feeling that British food is unrepresented considering the wealth of other international cuisine available. Many thanks to Art for taking the time to chat to me. Was really great to learn that he was a fan of Pierate and I am pleased to announce that we are now fans of his pies which now carry Pierate Highly Recommended status! A great pie which would go down well in any gourmet pie house back in Britain.

Steak & Ale (Pleasant House Pub/Royal Pies)

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