In my husband’s family, fish pie is extremely festive. Always always eaten on Christmas Eve, it rings in Christmas. In the words of my lovely father-in-law, ‘Christmas just isn’t Christmas without fish pie’. The family is so large that, even when only half of them are together, you’re still likely to be catering for at least 10 so, apart from being a delicious choice, it’s also an efficient one.
As a result of being exposed to this tradition, I now adore fish pie. I’ve embraced it so wholeheartedly that I even chose to have it the night before our wedding. Not, I hasten to add, because we thought our wedding was on a par with the birth of Jesus or the arrival of a large fat man in a red suit with a slightly questionable interest in young children, depending on where you sit on that one, but simply because I now see it as a celebration dish.
Until recently, I’ve been quite happy for others to make it and me to eat it. All seems like a bit too much faff really. All that mashing and white-sauce palaver. Not difficult, just ‘faffy’. And for an easy dish, also easy to get wrong. I didn’t need to go there.
But then I started making pies and one thing led to another (pie-begets-pie let me tell you). And it became, not about just making a fish pie, but how to make the perfect fish pie. It’s this pie that has seen me lose sleep. Not from worry, but simply fantasising about how to put together the ultimate fish pie. I’ve been talking to fish pie ‘experts’ among friends and family, reading recipe reviews online, reading recipes from my favourite celeb cooks and of course making fish pies.
So, this is not a recipe as I am far from an expert on this, but a fish pie novice noting a few thing’s I’ve learned along the way. I feel like I’m a few steps closer to fish pie nirvana, but if you’ve got anything to add to get me there faster then Molly’s Kitchen would love to hear from you. Please do comment on the post and then I can incorporate your advice next time I make a fish pie.
For me, the perfect fish pie ought to be luxuriously creamy and flavourful. It’s an indulgent dish and each mouthful should feel like it’s going to hit your hips in seconds. And let’s face it, it probably will.
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1. Poaching the fish first in the milk you’ll be using for the white sauce flavours the milk beautifully (thanks Minnie and Nigel). Add a bay leaf and perhaps a clove but make sure you remove them after poaching. My mother in law simply let smoked fish sit in cold milk for a while and that also seemed to do the trick.
2. For the roux you make for the white sauce, cooking the flour in butter for at least a minute before adding the milk will allow the flour to expand and lead to a better consistency roux. I am often guilty of adding milk too soon if I’m being impatient but ultimately it will mean you use less flour to do the same job. (Thanks Lip).
3. For a super silky, creamy white sauce, go full-fat all the way. Full-fat milk, proper butter and a good glug of double cream. And resolve to got a long walk the following day.
3. Cut the fish generously and don’t assume you can scrimp on the quality fish because it’s smothered in white sauce. I made what were going to be ‘Dead Posh Fish Pies’ with scallops, prawns, salmon and white fish. I spent on the scallops and prawns and then bought frozen salmon and white fish. The white fish was chewy and stringy and completely let the pie down. (A hard lesson).
4. For the mash, use hot full-fat milk, lots of butter and of course seasoning. Also, adding a couple of egg yolks gives the mash more depth and also gorgeous colour when it browns in the oven (the egg yolk tip originally came from Amy).
5. Try capers in the mash for extra zing (thank you Burford Garden Centre cafe.)
6. When incorporating eggs, under-cook them in the boil so they’re not too overcooked for the final result.