Autumn is officially here, though the weather may be lagging behind a bit. I saw my first lovely russet-hued oak leaf blowing across the patio the other day. And I am ready. I am ready for soups and stews, winter squash, apples, pears and maple syrup. I am ready to get the soft blanket out of the linen closet, to curl up on the sofa with a warm mug of something steamy. I know that, theoretically, here in Memphis sweater weather is a while away, and the coat will probably stay in the closet until Christmas. But I can capture to the feeling of fall in the kitchen. And fall means comforting, classic cooking.
Creamy pot pies are a perfect homey comfort food. But I worry that the concept has been tainted by years of bad, processed, pre-packaged and even fast food versions. And recipes that call for condensed soups and canned chicken. None of that sounds the least bit appealing to me. Now when you mention pot pie, many people get that glazed over look, imagining the foil pan of gloopy, doughy, microwaveable mess. For some people I know, pot pie is no longer a dish they make with pride, but a guilty secret from a box they only eat when no one can see them. What a shame.
Ah, but freshly made pot pie, with quality ingredients and a homemade crust will warm your heart and your tummy. I created this version to showcase the flavors of autumn, with a unique sweet potato crust that is both delicious and beautiful. I streamlined the filling so the unique crust shines and each of the carefully selected ingredients meld together for a perfect fall flavor. Tender chicken, sweet caramelized onions, salty bacon and woodsy sage, the herb that speaks to me so strongly of fall.
Chicken and Bacon Pot Pie with Sweet Potato Crust
Serves 6 – 8
For the Filling:
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
10 strips of bacon
1 medium yellow onion (to make about 2 cups diced)
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1-1/2 cups chicken broth, at room temperature
1-1/2 cups whole milk, at room temperature
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper
For the crust:
2 sweet potatoes (about 11 ounces each)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup butter
1 – 2 tablespoons buttermilk or milk
For the Filling:
Drizzle a little oil in a baking dish and place the chicken breasts on top. Rub a little oil on top of the chicken and season with salt and pepper. Cover the dish tightly with foil and bake until the chicken reaches 165 degrees F., internal temperature, about 25 minutes. Remove the chicken to a plate to cool completely. When the chicken is cool, cut it into bite-sized chunks.
Dice the bacon into small pieces (I find scissors a great tool for this) and sauté in a large skillet until crispy. Remove the bacon to a paper towel-lined plate with a slotted spoon. Let the bacon grease cool a little, then carefully pour it into a measuring cup and set it aside. Let the skillet cool until it is safe to touch, then wipe out any burned bits or dark brown spots. Return the skillet to medium high heat and pour in two tablespoons bacon grease. Add the diced onion and sauté, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft and translucent, being careful not to burn or brown the onions. Pour in one cup of water, cover the skillet and cook the onions until they are soft and begin to turn a golden color, about 20 minutes. Stir occasionally and add a splash more water to prevent sticking as needed. Remove the lid and cook until all moisture is evaporated and the onions are lightly caramelized.
Add 1 tablespoon of bacon grease and the butter to the onions. Stir well, and when the butter is melted, sprinkle over the flour. Stir everything together until there is no trace of flour visible. Slowly whisk in the milk and chicken broth (measure them together in a four cup measuring jug), scraping the flour from the bottom of the pan. Add the chopped sage, nutmeg, a generous pinch of salt and lots of ground black pepper. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce is thick and coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes.
Stir in the chicken and bacon pieces, making sure everything is well coated with sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed. Scrape the chicken filling into a two-and-a-half quart baking dish and smooth the top. Cool completely. The filling can be made up to one day ahead, covered and refrigerated.
For the Crust:
While the chicken is cooking, prick the sweet potatoes with a sharp knife a few times and microwave until soft, about 10 – 12 minutes. Hold the potatoes with an oven mitt or tea towel, then cut them in half and scoop the flesh into a small bowl. Mash the flesh with a fork until you have a smooth puree. You need 1 cup of mashed potatoes. Leave to cool completely. (Alternatively, you can bake the potatoes in the oven until soft, about 1 hour).
Mix the flour, baking powder and salt in a large mixing bowl with a fork. Cut the butter into small cubes and drop it in the flour. Toss the butter in the flour to coat, and then using a pastry blender, two forks or your clean hands, rub the flour and the butter together until it is blended with a few pieces of pea-sized butter visible. Add the sweet potatoes and the egg and, using a fork, blend together. Get in there with your hands and knead the dough together into a cohesive ball. Dump the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, pat it into a rectangle, wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Roll the pastry out into a sheet that will fit over the top of the filling. Drape the pastry over the top and tuck the sides around the filling. Cut a few slashes across the top to let steam escape.* Brush the top with a thin coat of buttermilk and sprinkle with kosher salt.
Bake the pie for 40 – 45 minutes until the crust is golden, the filling is hot through and bubbling. Serve immediately.
*I usually serve this in a rectangular baking dish, but you may use a deep round or square dish if you prefer. The easiest way to use the crust is to simply roll it out and drape it over the filling, but if you want to get creative, use a cookie cutter to cut the vents on top of the crust, or cut our shapes and layer them on the top, touching each other. I used a nice fall-themed leaf-shaped cutter for the picture above.