For most countries, the apex of the holiday season circles around the mid-December timeframe. With “big hitter” holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah (and even those like shab-e-yalda), much of the festive cheer is expended before New Year’s Eve.
The Scots, however, approach things a little differently. Their celebration of Hogmanay trumps everything else, and foods like steak pie are a major part of it.
Steak Pie, Hogmanay, the Vikings and Superstitions
Before diving into the steak pie itself, we’re going to first dive into one of the most intriguing holidays of them all: Hogmanay.
Origins of Hogmanay
Whereas the celebration of the New Year is a fairly new tradition (only since ~400 years ago) for us in the Western world, the Scots have maintained the ancient tradition of Hogmanay for much longer than that.
There’s an ongoing debate as to where the actual name Hogmanay comes from. Some debate that it comes from the Old Anglo-Saxon words Haleg Monath (Holy Month) while others think it derives from the Gaelic Oge Maidne (New Morning). Yet despite the name quibbles, you’re brought nonetheless back to the one overarching theme of Hogmanay: to ring in the New Year on a positive note.
The tradition traces back to between the 8th or 9th century and the arrival of the Vikings. Like we saw with Finnish joulutortut and Norwegian sandkaker, the Norse had already a longstanding pagan tradition Jul honoring the winter solstice. In other Nordic and Northern European nations, Jul gradually evolved into similar forms of Christmas celebration as Christianity spread throughout the continent.
A Different Evolution
There are two reasons for things transpiring differently in Scotland.
First, the Scottish used the Celtic calendar in pre-Christian times. As opposed to the standard 12-month Gregorian calendar that would come later, the Celtic calendar placed special emphasis on mirroring the Earth’s seasonality and, by extension, the “cycle of life.” At each Quarter Day, the Scots held multi-day celebrations to usher good luck into the new turning season. The wintertime festival in the Celtic calendar was called Samhain, and many of its traditions are still alive as transplants in the Hogmanay celebration.
What really drove Hogmanay into its own unique traditions, though, was the Protestant Reformation. While the 16th century Reformation had a massive impact over the entire continent, the rise of Protestantism had an especially powerful effect on the very pious Scottish nation. Triggered by Henry VIII’s conversion – which took the entire English nation along with him – Scotland quickly decried Catholicism and anything that went along with it.
Between this “Scottish Reformation” and as recent as the 1950s, Christmas was deemed an overly Catholic “Popish” celebration and was outlawed accordingly. While the rest of the world paused and celebrated the Christmas holiday, the Scots carried on with business as usual.
In the 400-year absence of Christmas, Hogmanay took on added meaning to Scottish communities. Almost overnight, Hogmanay merged the celebrations of the winter solstice, Christmas and New Year’s all into one.
While Christmas has returned and is now celebrated again in Scotland, it takes a backseat to the real parties of Hogmanay.
Modern Traditions Around Hogmanay
While some older Hogmanay traditions have died out – like dressing in cattle hides and running around town getting hit with sticks – there are still plenty of rituals that go into the celebration.
One of the most important Hogmanay traditions involves a major house cleaning. The act of “redding the house” ensures the household a fresh, clean start in the New Year. Between redding and “saining,” or blessing, anything in sight (even the water), you’re ready for prosperity in the year ahead.
In line with saining, a properly executed first footing will bring your home luck as well. First footing refers to whomever sets the first foot into your house after the stroke of midnight. If the first foot belongs to a dark-haired male, the household gains good fortune. If not, the household is unfortunately stone out of luck. Those entering the house often bring gifts, which can range from lumps of coal (in a good way) to whiskey to shortbread, for their hosts as well.
There’s plenty of partying going on during Hogmanay too. Fire ceremonies for cleansing and purifying the soul – an original remnant from Viking tradition – remain a key component of Hogmanay today. And of course, there’s more common partying adjoining the fiery fun. The evening of Hogmanay offers up some serious partying well into the wee hours of Ne’erday (New Year’s Day).
Alcohol is a key component for these parties, but so is hearty, delicious food like steak pie.
About the Recipe
Especially with the rise of the “gastropub” and a renewed interest in homemade British cooking, there’s a fierce debate on how to properly cook steak pie. On one side, you have the traditional approach of cooking the filling and pastry together as one cohesive steak pie unit. On the other, you’re advised to pre-cook the filling separate from the pastry.
In our case, we’re going to lay out the recipe as you would pre-cook the filling. It offers a more fool-proof way of not burning your pastry, and it gives you a little more control over the general process.
There’s no mistaking it: steak pie does take some time to make. Luckily, most of the time is passive as the pie cooks in the oven.
You’ll start by putting a stockpot or Dutch oven on medium-high heat on your stovetop. The first step to preparing your steak pie filling is to pre-sear and brown your cubed beef pieces. It’s very common to pre-dredge your beef in a seasoned flour before browning, but you’ll see later on why we personally chose not to do that.
Once browned, you’ll remove the meat from the stockpot and proceed with lightly cooking your hearty vegetables like onions, carrots, mushroom, etc. As the vegetables start to soften and sweat, you’ll add in your braising liquids and add back in your meat.
Depending on the recipe you find, you might feature a braising liquid of broth, red wine, beer, or any/all of the above. If you choose to go the beer route, be sure to choose a non-hoppy type of beer. As the braising liquid reduces during cooking, hoppy beers lend an unnecessarily bitter taste to the steak pie filling. It’s better instead to use a beer like a dark ale, a stout or a porter.
With your liquid added, you’ll then submerge some additional aromatics and herbs. Cover your stockpot and place it in the oven for 2.5 hours, and you’re on your way to a delicious steak pie filling.
Putting It Together
As your steak pie filling finishes braising, remove it from the oven and let it cool uncovered for a bit. The key to having a delicious, flaky steak pie is in letting your filling cool. If the filling is still overly hot come assembly time, the puff pastry wilts and becomes soggy from the heat and emanating steam.
While your filling cools, take your puff pastry and roll it down to ~1/4 inch thickness. The goal is to have the entire puff pastry cover your casserole dish and to seal the steak pie filling into the casserole chamber. When your puff pastry is thin enough, set it aside for the time being.
Putting your steak pie together is a real cinch at this stage. Fill your casserole dish with the cooled filling, then drape the puff pastry over top of the entire dish. Cut the excess pastry away from the dish, brush the top of your steak pie with some eggwash, and pop the whole thing in the oven for ~35 minutes.
That’s it! By the time you take the steak pie out of the oven, you’ll have a sumptuous hearty entree perfect for your Hogmanay-inspired feast.
Our Take on the Recipe
Given the diversity of options for steak pie, it was tough to keep ourselves strictly beholden to one recipe’s methods. In making our choice, though, we opted for a recipe derived from Maw Broon’s cookbook to start us on our way.
With this as a base, we did make some substantial changes. For starters, we made the major adjustment of swapping out beef stock for a combination featuring a porter with red wine and vegetable stock. For us, this led to the most flavorful version of steak pie that we preferred most.
In addition to the basic ingredients, we also added a few more aromatic pieces into our steak pie filling. From celery to garlic (of course) to an increased amount of mushrooms, we found that the filling benefitted overall if there were more complimentary flavors to just the steak. A bouquet garni featuring herbs like flat leaf parsley, sage, bay leaves and fresh thyme also worked wonders.
We also made a huge adjustment related to the flour in the recipe. Rather than dredging the meat in a seasoned white flour like the original recipe suggests, we swapped out a healthier, more flavorful chickpea flour. Instead of dredging the chickpea flour around the meat, we created a slurry thickener that went into the filling just before putting it in the oven to braise.
As for the puff pastry, we used a store bought version (though still all natural) to help us cut down the amount of active time put into the recipe. It would have been nice to make the puff pastry from scratch, but there were enough moving parts in the recipe as is. If you feel up to making the puff pastry from scratch for your own steak pie, we send our kudos to you.
It might take a while, but the time spent making a steak pie like this is so well worth it. Take just one bite – maybe even in the midst of a Hogmanay celebration – and you’ll see why.
How do you prepare your steak pie? Comment below!
Helpers for this Recipe
Ale-Braised Scottish Steak Pie
Yield 6 people
- 1 package (400 g or 14 oz) ready-made puff pastry
- 1 egg, beaten for eggwash
Steak Pie Filling
- 1 pound braising steak, cut into 1 inch cubes and seasoned with salt & pepper
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped into large pieces
- 2 medium onions, chopped into large pieces
- 3 garlic cloves, chopped into large pieces
- 2 large carrots, chopped into large pieces
- 3 stalks of celery, chopped into large pieces
- 1/2 cup homemade vegetable stock
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 1 bottle of non-hoppy beer, preferably a dark ale, porter or stout
- 2 tablespoons chickpea flour
Bouquet Garni (Add/Subtract Whatever You Like Here)
- 1 handful fresh flat leaf parsley
- 3 sprigs of fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- Cheesecloth and kitchen string to enclose the bouquet
Stage 1 - Pre-cook Steak Pie Filling
- Start by preheating your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
- In a large Dutch oven or oven-safe stockpot, heat some oil over medium-high heat until it starts to sputter
- With the oil piping hot, carefully place your cubes of beef into the pot. Sear the beef for 3-5 minutes until all sides are lightly brown
- Take your beef pieces out of the stockpot and set aside on a plate or a bowl for the time being
- Back in your stockpot, melt your butter and add your garlic and onions. Mix around for 1-2 minutes as they start to sweat and become translucent
- Next, add in your carrots, celery and mushrooms. Stir around for a bit, then continue to cook for 3-5 minutes
- Add back in your steak pieces and mix everything well together
- Next, pour in your vegetable stock, red wine and beer, and mix everything around to let the liquid reach all corners of the pot
- In a separate bowl, mix your chickpea flour with a little bit of water to create a thick slurry. When it's well mixed together - and you don't see clumps of flour - pour the slurry into your main pot
- Before placing into the oven, submerge your bouqet garni into the pot and cover your stockpot
- Transfer the stockpot from the stove into the oven, and let the filling bake for 2 1/2 hours
Stage 2 - Prepare Steak Pie
- After the steak pie filling has baked for several hours, take it out of the oven and remove the bouquet garni
- Uncover the stockpot and let your filling cool for at least 20 minutes. You don't want it to be too hot before baking, otherwise your puff pastry will sweat and soften
- In the meantime, take your puff pastry and lay it on a well-floured flat surface. Use a rolling pin to get the puff pastry to ~1/4 inch thickness
- Once your pastry is ready and your filling cooled, it's time to put your steak pie together
Stage 3 - Finishing Off the Steak Pie
- Take a 2 quart casserole dish and pour your cooled filling into the dish
- Before adding the puff pastry, carefully brush some eggwash around the edges. This will keep the puff pastry from sticking to the dish
- Next, carefully layer the puff pastry on top, then cut the excess dough from around the edges of your casserole dish
- Brush the top of your puff pastry with some eggwash, then place your steak pie into the oven
- Bake for 35 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and you're done!