Make savory pies for Christmas: Tourtière and Cottage Pie

By Evan Kleiman

Traditional French-Canadian Tourtière features spiced ground meat in a flaky crust. Photo courtesy of Canva.

For me, the holidays are about making the extra effort to produce a dish that’s truly delicious, but I don’t necessarily want to serve anything too fussy or expensive. I’ve picked three savory pie recipes for you to try that are easier than they seem initially.

Tourtière and Cottage Pie both suit the occasion. Tourtière is a Quebecois savory pie often served on Christmas Eve, and Cottage Pie is the U.K. beef version of Shepherd’s Pie. 

For vegetarians among us or those simply taking a break from meat, here is a Vegetarian Shepherd’s Pie from the New York Times that really should be called Cottage Pie since the word “shepherd” presupposes the use of lamb in the dish.

The meat pies have similar ingredients and techniques that produce distinctly different dishes. They share a homey, comforting filling of lightly spiced and herbed ground meat and the addition of potatoes. In the case of Cottage Pie, the seasoned ground beef layer is tucked underneath a comforter of fluffy mashed potatoes you may infuse with cheddar cheese. The French-Canadian Tourtière uses the potatoes as a binder for the seasoned ground meat filling, which is then neatly tucked into a buttery pie crust. 

Either is easy to make despite the intimidating length of the recipes, especially if you cheat and buy frozen pie dough for the Tourtière crust. I recommend Trader Joe’s pie dough if you can find it. 

There are as many versions for both of these recipes as there are cooks who make them. But one of the terrific elements of all of these savory pies is how easy the recipes are to adjust to your personal taste. Here is a recipe for Tourtière, but there are many more online from which to choose. It seems that ground cloves are a non-negotiable hallmark of the dish. 

I give a recipe for Cottage Pie below, but to really dig deep into the history and controversy of different versions, read this piece from The Guardian. There are many to browse through online. I love perusing the comment sections to see how home cooks added, subtracted or tweaked the ingredients. 

Here are a couple of tips. If you have the time and want to take a bit of extra care, instead of using ground beef from the grocery store, go to a butcher and ask for “chili grind” chuck. It’s a bit coarser than regular ground meat. When these pies were originally “invented,” the British used the term “mince” to mean meat that had been chopped up with a knife, as in minced onions. Later cooks put the meat through a grinder that was clamped to your counter. 

When making either the Cottage Pie or the Tourtiere, always chill your cooked filling first. For the Cottage Pie, you want to do this so the mashed potatoes don’t fall down into the ground beef or vegetable filling. You want nice clean layers. As for the Tourtière, you can’t put hot filling in a cold dough and not have disaster. So make the filling for either pie the day before — it makes the recipes less daunting.

Cottage Pie

If you’ve ever made Bolognese and mashed potatoes, this recipe will be very familiar to you. It’s basically a beefy meat sauce made thicker with the addition of a bit of flour, underneath an extravagant layer of mashed potatoes. The addition of Worcestershire sauce in the filling is traditional and adds that zing of spiced sour, but if that very particular condiment isn’t for you, then leave it out. The technique of scoring the mashed potatoes with the tines of a fork before the dish goes into the oven gives you more surface area for browning.

If you add water to the ground beef before cooking, it helps the meat break apart into a crumbly texture as you cook it.


Cottage Pie has a simple ground beef filling underneath a blizzard of mashed potatoes. Photo courtesy of Canva.

Ingredients

  • Olive oil to film the bottom of the pan
  • 1 onions, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, diced
  • 1 celery stick, minced
  • 1 ½ lbs. ground beef
    ½ cup water
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons tomato paste mixed into ½  cup water or ½ cup tomato sauce
  • 2 cups beef or chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme or three fresh sprigs
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Mashed potatoes ( use your favorite recipe with 2 ½ pounds of russet potatoes)

Instructions

  1. Film the pot or saute pan with olive oil. Add the onion, carrot and celery to the pan and salt lightly. Cook over medium heat until the vegetables soften and just begin to take on color. 
  2. Meanwhile mix the meat together with the water in a bowl. 
  3. When the vegetables are ready, add the meat to the pan, breaking it up and mixing it with the vegetables as it cooks. 
  4. Once the meat browns, add the garlic and let it cook until it gives out its characteristic aroma. 
  5. Sprinkle the flour over the browned meat and stir it in, adding the tomato paste and water mixture or sauce, the broth, Worcestershire sauce and herbs. Add salt and pepper to taste. 
  6. Bring to a lively simmer and cook until the liquid reduces and you have a “gravy” with a good body that coats the meat. You don’t want a watery filling for the pie. This should take about 30 - 45 minutes. Chill the mixture before topping it with the mashed potatoes.

Baking the dish: 

  1. Preheat the oven to 350℉. 
  2. Rub a casserole dish with butter or olive oil, add the chilled, cooked beef mixture and create an even layer.
  3. Take your hot mashed potatoes (it’s difficult to layer cold mash) and layer it over the meat. Use the tines of a fork to make a pleasing design. 
  4. If you wish, you can pour a bit of melted butter over the mash along with a sprinkle of Parmigiano Reggiano or grated sharp cheddar. 
  5. Bake until the filling is piping hot and the mashed potatoes have a bit of browning, approximately 35 to 40 minutes.